Fifth Nuclear Test: Renewed North Korean Aggression

By Oliver Ward on September 27, 2016
Thumb punggye ri satellite image
Satellite image of the fifth nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, North Korea. (image: Google Maps)

On September 9th, North Korea launched its fifth underground nuclear test. Questions have arisen as to how the reclusive state was able to carry out such a test, their largest yet, despite the strict UN sanctions imposed on the nation. Policy makers have been left scrambling for a solution to discontinue North Korean’s nuclear ambitions.

The Songun, or “military first” strategy adopted by the DPRK leadership in the 1960s, has led to the development of an expansive nuclear and ballistic missile program. Since the initial nuclear test in 2006, Pyongyang has successfully completed four more: one in 2009, one in 2013 and two in 2016. The fifth and latest came sooner than expected, and was far more potent than anticipated. With an explosive yield of approximately twice the previous one, this 10-kiloton blast caused a 5.3 magnitude tremor according to South Korean intelligence.

Punggye-ri Test Site
Punggye-ri Test Site, North Korea. Image credits: Google Maps

On each occasion, the UN has responded with heightened political and economic sanctions. The most recent were imposed in March and were specifically designed to prevent the procurement of ballistic material through tight economic constraints and trade restrictions.

With the scheduled installation of the anti-ballistic missile defense system, THAAD, on the Korean peninsula, something of an arms race has developed in the region. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system is being marketed as a mechanism to intercept and destroy high altitude missiles fired from North Korea. However, both the DPRK and China have accused the U.S. of using THAAD as a method of surveillance which has led to heightened sensitivity in the region. In fact, China views THAAD as a move to increase U.S.-Japan-ROK military cooperation with the broader goal of containing China by creating a defense system that runs from Japan to Taiwan and even India. Once finished, THAAD would use an x-band radar with a circumference of around 1,200km allowing it to not only monitor ballistic testing in North Korea, but also the neighboring Chinese and Russian territories.

Kim Jung Un’s revived nuclear ambitions can thus be viewed both as a direct response to the American collaboration over THAAD with South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, as well as an opportunity for increased collaboration with its neighbor, China.

The two tests this year have followed an indiscreet increase in American dollars funding anti-DPRK policy on the peninsula. Huge South Korean-U.S. military exercises take place each year, which simulate preemptive attacks on DPRK territory. The sanctions put in place in March included funding for loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda over the DMZ (North-South Korean border). With American help, South Korea has managed to procure weapons to destroy underground bunkers, equipment to clear minefields and has publicly drawn up plans to “annihilate the North Korean capital of Pyongyang” in the event of all-out nuclear conflict.

The hastened pace at which Kim Jung Un has pursued his nuclear development indicates that the sanctions in place are having a limited effect. They were devised to block the importation of goods which could aid the nuclear and missile programs, although new studies have demonstrated that the regime's extensive network of front companies have been able to bypass the sanctions using Chinese middlemen. Instead of disrupting the procurement of ballistic material, Park and Walsh at MIT discovered that the increased sanctions actually attracted more skillful Chinese brokers, who could charge more for their trade in the wake of UN sanctions to reflect the increased risk involved.

The sanctions are not being implemented with enough scrutiny on Chinese soil. China are North Korea's largest trading partner and while there was evidence to show declining trade after the fourth nuclear test in March, China's trade with the DPRK swelled in August and was actually up 30% on the previous year. In April, China banned the importation of 20 items from North Korea including iron ore, but importation of iron ore for July was up 81.4% compared to 2015. Minerals exported to China make up more than half of North Korean exports to China and while this avenue for profit remains open, the proceeds can be funneled into weapons production.

It is clear that China is loosening its trade restrictions with the North Korean regime and this has coincided with a cooling of relations between Beijing and Seoul. While China disapproves of the North Korean pursuit of nuclear weapons, Beijing is also wary of the American military presence on the peninsula and the implications of a THAAD system. Chinese state media have accused the U.S. of using THAAD as an excuse to neutralize a non-existent Chinese threat. This squabble has brought China closer to the North while widening the divide with the South.

Beijing has another concern: food shortages and political instability in North Korea would create chaos along the North Korean border and would lead to an influx of refugees flooding across the Yalu into China, creating a humanitarian nightmare for China's President, Xi Jinping. It is in the interests of Beijing to support the Kim regime as the North's collapse would shatter their totalitarian buffer between the U.S. allied South and bring the U.S. military to their doorstep.

Jon Wolfsthal of the U.S. national security council appealed to China on Wednesday and reinforced the U.S. belief that everything North Korea does is linked to their weapons of mass destruction program and urged them to tighten the implementation of UN sanctions.

Regardless of the motives for Chinese non-compliance, the most recent UN sanctions on the peninsula show a failure to deter North Korean nuclear activities. The increased frequency of these tests should be of concern. Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker says that at the current rate, Pyongyang might be capable of firing nuclear warheads on American soil within five to ten years. Without open discourse between the reclusive Kim regime and the other players in the region, it is unlikely that the DPRK will freeze its nuclear expansion, and while THAAD continues to polarize East Asia, Kim Jung Un knows that he can use his nuclear ambitions to manipulate Chinese-American relations. While this strategy continues to pay dividends, North Korean nuclear ambitions will show no sign of being curbed.