North Korea’s Non-Test: Lessons from a Non-Event

May 5, 2014

Last week, pundits buzzed with anticipation of North Korea’s fourth nuclear weapons test, which some expected while President Barack Obama was in Seoul. But the dog did not bark. Despite talk of a test, and telltale signs that Pyongyang was nearly ready to conduct one, nothing happened.

Had the North detonated another device, analysts would have debated what it meant for regional security, nonproliferation, and the future of arms control. While another test would have been an unfortunate reminder of Pyongyang’s continuing nuclear intransigence, the after-action analysis that would have followed may have produced productive debates over a persistent policy quandary. Strategists and policymakers often draw lessons from problematic events that take place, but fail to conduct analysis around non-events. The fact that a test did not occur during the President’s visit does not mean we should not analyze this episode, however. Indeed, there are several reasons why a non-test may be as much of an opportunity as a test to analyze North Korea’s nuclear capability and the policy problems that it poses.

At the outset, it is important to note that we do not know why the North did not test last week. Perhaps, perennial bluster aside, it was not technically ready to do so, or it was dissuaded by the threat of further sanctions. After President Obama departed the region, Pyongyang reminded the world that there was “no statute of limitations” on its test, and that we might still see one in the near future. The suspense over whether the North would test while Obama was in Asia, however, was a reminder that Pyongyang’s nuclear capability continues to cast a long shadow.

The Obama administration has been determined not to slip into the long-running pattern of fits-and-starts diplomacy with the North. Rather than continue to “buy the same horse twice” as former Secretary of Defense Gates artfully phrased it, the administration has opted for a policy of “strategic patience.” Nonetheless, as Pyongyang made preparations around its Punggye-ri test site and the President’s trip approached, leaders in the US and ROK were forced to acknowledge the stubborn nuclear specter north of the DMZ. The South Korean Defense Minister announced that the ROK had increased its readiness levels and was monitoring the test site closely. President Obama promised that if the North tested, it should expect a “firm response”. This high-level attention reminds us that a small nuclear arsenal is still a menacing sabre to rattle, even if the North is not presently using it to extract material concessions at the negotiating table.

Even if North Korea had tested while Obama was in Asia, there is a good chance that the test would tell us little more about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities or intentions than we already know. On March 30, Pyongyang declared that it would carry out a “new form” of test to achieve “more diversified nuclear deterrence.”  This could imply several different things: the testing of a uranium weapon, multiple simultaneous tests, a move towards a thermonuclear device, or warhead miniaturization. But had the fourth test occurred last week, its novelty may well have remained a mystery. We tend to assume that nuclear testing implies technical progress and productivity, but it need not.  If a fourth test gave the international community seismic but no conclusive radionuclide data, we likely would not know whether a uranium or plutonium device had been tested. We also might not be able to confirm from seismic data whether one or multiple devices had been detonated. Pakistan, for example, claims to have detonated five weapons in its first test in 1998, but that number cannot be confirmed and could have been inflated to compete with India. Chances are decent that despite the symbolism that nuclear tests carry, we would not have learned all that much about the North’s latest device itself. A fourth nuclear test is not an analytic game changer when it comes to thinking about Pyongyang’s atomic trajectory.

If the North had tested, however, analysts would have revised a number of important policy questions about the future of the United States’ and the international community’s approach towards Pyongyang. But a test need not occur for us to contemplate some of these vexing problems, many of which have been manifest for years.  One obvious set of questions is whether the United States and the other members of the Six Party talks should consider re-starting negotiations, and if they do, how diplomacy might proceed differently than it has in the past. Arms control and North Korea experts acknowledge that previous negotiations have suffered from profound sequencing problems: the United States and its allies would like Pyongyang to declare a willingness to denuclearize as a first step, because it has made this promise and reneged on it several times before. The North, however, would like to start by formally ending the Korean War and obtaining security assurances, with disarmament as a final move. Any resumed negotiation will have to address this sequencing problem and posit a viable route for surmounting it.

A second important set of questions is whether and when the international community should contemplate negotiating with North Korea for something short of complete, irreversible, and verifiable disarmament. If diplomacy with the North is frozen indefinitely, its nuclear program and pernicious reach will continue to grow unchecked. Arms control experts have suggested that interested powers may need to entertain an interim agreement with Pyongyang that stops it from producing new nuclear weapons and novel types of weapons, and prevents nuclear-related exports. When and if this should occur is no small question: Until now, arms control between nuclear weapons-possessing states, as opposed to aspiring proliferants, has really only occurred between the United States and Russia/the former Soviet Union. Engaging North Korea in this manner is politically unsavory, and the United States and its partners have no reason to formally acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state.   Avoiding present-tense negotiations with a recalcitrant pariah, however, may come at the expense of influence over future nuclear perils.  A fourth test is not a necessary catalyst for strategists to debate energetically whether the diplomatic sequencing problem can be overcome, or whether and when a deal short of full disarmament may be desirable. And these are just some of the debates over North Korea’s nuclear future that will need to occur if the United States and other interested parties are to renew their efforts.

The fact that President Obama completed his trip to Asia without a fourth North Korean nuclear test hardly suggests that the danger of that event has passed. Indeed, work at the test site continues and there is still a good chance that Pyongyang will test again in the future, albeit with slightly less political cache than it might have garnered last week.  With the President back in Washington, however, the question is whether we will backburner our efforts to devise new and creative approaches to this longstanding nuclear quandary. Will we wait until Pyongyang’s atomic activities force us to react, or will we approach these thorny but familiar questions of our own prerogative? It may have been a non-event, but a non-test does not excuse us from learning.


Mira Rapp-Hooper is Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.  Her work focuses on extended deterrence and alliance politics. Mira can be found on Twitter at @MiraRappHooper.


Photo credit: Podknox