Expert Interview – Niklas Swanström on North Korea’s Nuclear Test

On January 6, North Korea announced that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb. If confirmed, it would be the country’s fourth nuclear test since 2006. ISDP’s Director, Niklas Swanström, gives his take on the test and its implications.

Has North Korea really detonated a hydrogen bomb?

While it would appear that North Korea has indeed detonated a nuclear device, it remains unclear if the detonation was a more powerful hydrogen (fusion) bomb as the North Korean government claims, or if it was a fission bomb similar to previous tests. It may take weeks before we have a clearer picture.

If successful in exploding a hydrogen bomb, this would represent a significant step forward in the country’s nuclear program. It is nevertheless likely that this detonation was a combination of both fission and fusion, or a fission bomb as in prior tests. Regardless, the reactions from the international community have been strongly critical with serious implications both regionally and internationally. By carrying out the test, North Korea has made clear its intention and willingness to continue its nuclear program and expand it (if confirmed) into developing hydrogen bombs.

Why has the North Korean government decided to do this now?

There are many reasons for this but it is important to realize that a nuclear test was not unexpected. Both officially and off the record, North Korea has been very clear that it intended to conduct a fourth nuclear test (the previous one was in February 2013). Neither the timing nor the attempt to develop hydrogen bombs should therefore come as a surprise. While there had been some hope among some parts of the international community that North Korea would refrain from further tests, it is clear that Pyongyang is resolved to continue with its nuclear weapons program.

From a North Korean perspective, the latest test is partly an attempt to strengthen its own national security. In North Korea, there is the perception of a constant security threat from the international community, especially the United States, and that nuclear deterrence is necessary to prevent a U.S. attack. Pyongyang consistently refers to the latter’s “hostile” policy toward it as justifying its nuclear program. While this may underpin the rationale, the reality is that its program has arguably generated greater insecurity for North Korea.

Whereas North Korea has proposed that a peace treaty be signed between it and the United States, this is something that Washington deems to be realistic only after North Korea’s denuclearization. Nevertheless, the calculus in Pyongyang may be that it is still possible to “strong arm” the United States back to the negotiation table to obtain concessions, even if Washington has been clear that North Korea must demonstrate “good behavior,” that is show commitment towards denuclearization, if negotiations are to resume. However, this nuclear test has only made it more difficult for the United States to resume negotiations without commitment to a denuclearization process from North Korea.

There are also internal considerations which are probably even more important than the above two factors. In early May, North Korea will hold its 7th Party Congress. Held infrequently (the last one was in October 1980), the Congress will be crucial for Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power. While Kim Jong-un has so far put emphasis on economic development, the recent test signals a “show of strength” intended to shore up domestic opinion in a situation where economic reforms have yielded little success, as well as restores the primacy of the military.

If confirmed, what will be the likely implications of the test?

The test will have serious economic implications for North Korea with punitive sanctions likely to be reaffirmed and/or increased and the prospect of broadened trade ties, even with China, now seemingly unrealistic. Furthermore, Special Economic Zones (which North Korea had hoped would bolster its economy) will have enormous difficulties finding investors in a highly uncertain political and security environment. It also signals a retreat from moves toward the partial liberalization of the economy: instead, reprioritizing the traditional military first policy.

In addition, it is likely we will see tougher political relations with North Korea. The small progress seen (for example, between the two Koreas with the holding of family reunions) will be impossible to continue and any constructive government-to-government dialogue is now effectively dead for the coming months. Needless to say, dialogue with North Korea has to continue but politically it will be difficult to move forward, with the U.S. and others unwilling to reward what they see as Pyongyang’s “provocative” behavior. As such, unofficial channels will be increasingly important to relay intentions, defuse tensions, and potentially find common ground to restart a process of dialogue – even if this seems a distant prospect in the current context.

Militarily there will also be severe implications. Even if we can’t definitively confirm that North Korea was successful in detonating a hydrogen bomb, all military planners will have to assume that this is the case or could be the case in the future. If North Korea indeed displays a more potent nuclear capability, this will ask questions of the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea, and add weight to the argument for strengthened missile defense. Such a development would negatively impact regional security, likely further fueling alliance-building and militarization in Northeast Asia.

Niklas Swanström is Director of ISDP.