What is the right response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test?

Negotiations between members of the United Nations Command and North Korean counterparts in 2013. defenseimagery.mil/Wikimedia

The emerging consensus among technical experts is that North Korea did not conduct a successful hydrogen bomb test last week. The seismic activity that international monitoring stations detected on Jan. 5 was too small to have been produced by a successful hydrogen bomb detonation.

But although the event may have been a failed hydrogen bomb test, it is proving to be a success for North Korea’s byungjin policy – the parallel development of a nuclear arsenal and improvement of the national economy.

The benefits for North Korea’s regime of announcing that it has the capacity to produce a hydrogen bomb – a step that has been achieved so far only by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – are mainly domestic, not international. In the lead-up to the 7th Party Congress in May, this purported achievement will vastly overshadow the regime’s anemic record with respect to the other part of byungjin – the economy.

Claiming membership in the elite H-bomb club bolsters the image of a capable young leader who has exceeded the nuclear achievements of his father. But make no mistake, this atomic test has broad international implications and marks a new political test for regional countries and global powers, notably the U.S. and China.

Overlooking rising dangers

The United States' diagnosis of the situation on the Korean Peninsula is becoming outdated. North Korea’s fourth nuclear test has significantly increased the risk of a conventional military escalation. By focusing almost solely on whether North Korea’s claim is true, the international community is overlooking two rising dangers.

First, security conditions are deteriorating on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s claim is distracting attention from the fact that it has carried out a series of bold conventional attacks on South Korea in the past five years. The attacks include the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and a deadly artillery exchange. There is a danger that perception is becoming reality for the North Korean regime. Because Pyongyang views itself as a nuclear weapons state, the government appears to believe that non-nuclear South Korea will not dare to retaliate in response to North Korean provocations.

South Korea recently began implementing robust defense measures. If North Korea carried out another conventional military provocation, South Korea would retaliate immediately and massively.

Republic of Korea Army troops cross a river during military exercises in 2014. Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Second, the international community is overlooking an important fact. Even if the test was only a boosted fission weapon, it shows that North Korea is making progress. Indeed, it is moving closer to miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and putting it on top of a missile.

Up until now, progress on miniaturizing an atomic warhead and developing ballistic missile capability has largely occurred in a parallel manner in North Korea. If what it carried out last week was a successful fourth atomic test, those parallel tracks may have started to converge. If and when they intersect, North Korea would be able to mate miniaturized atomic warheads to reliable ballistic missiles. At that point, Pyongyang would have an operational nuclear weapons arsenal. For now, it appears that the North has made progress in developing key components of an operational atomic missile.

What is the right response?

North Korea’s fourth test has created a moment of common interest for the United States, China, South Korea and Japan. All four countries are angry over this destabilizing act.

Even though North Korea is subject to increasing international sanctions, there is the growing puzzle of an advancing nuclear program. Without abandoning sanctions, now is an opportune time to explore another path: encouraging and coordinating with China in scrutinizing its trade with North Korea to halt Pyongyang’s acquisition of critical components for its weapons of mass destruction.

China has been keen to stabilize its fragile neighbor in the hope that it can convince North Korea to focus on developing its anemic economy rather than on producing nuclear weapons. To that end, Beijing has provided North Korean regime elites open access to its domestic markets to encourage economic development. Such access also provides the North Korean regime pathways to procure banned luxury items and dual use components.

To slow the growth of North Korea’s nuclear programs, U.S. leaders should explore discreet cooperation with Beijing to share sensitive commercial information and training. Doing so could increase the effectiveness of screenings at key Chinese ports and border areas. This, in turn, can improve China’s capability to prevent North Korea from acquiring sensitive components through the two countries' bilateral trade. (The United States and China already are working together in a joint law enforcement program aimed at halting the flow of narcotics on China’s border with Afghanistan.)

In 2013 China released a 236-page technical report on prohibited dual-use components exported by private Chinese companies to North Korea. This was a missed opportunity for the United States to cooperate with China on curbing sensitive technology exports to North Korea.

In the wake of last week’s nuclear test, U.S. leaders, along with friends and allies, should build on this nascent foundation instead of letting a good crisis go to waste.