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‘Now is the time to … make clear the determination of the international community to address the pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities by [North Korea]’, asserted the US State Department in reaction to North Korea’s satellite launch on 7 February. The satellite launch, which tested ballistic-missile technology in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, comes one month after North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb.
With a rare session of North Korea’s Worker’s Party Congress due to take place in the coming months, and with the country’s adversaries rushing to agree new multilateral sanctions on North Korea, it is clear that these latest provocations will be highly significant domestically and internationally and will test both North Korea’s adversaries as well as its closest ally, China.
The Nuclear Test
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on 6 January 2016 at its Punggye-ri site. Its national news agency published photos of Kim Jong-un’s handwritten authorisation of the test, reporting that the weapon was different to those previously tested and was in fact a more sophisticated ‘hydrogen bomb’.
Despite the fact that the test was allegedly of a more advanced design, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation noted that it had very similar waveform signatures to the previous nuclear test in 2013. This casts doubts on North Korea’s claim to have successfully developed a new weapon, and instead led many experts to speculate that North Korea may have merely tested some components relevant to a hydrogen bomb.
Regardless of the type of nuclear weapon, North Korea’s fourth test will have given the country’s scientists the opportunity to collect more data, refine their designs, and ultimately advance North Korea’s deterrent capability.
In reaction to the January nuclear test, South Korea and the United States have moved to capitalise on frustrations with the seemingly unimpeded advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, and push for stronger sanctions at the UN level. In particular, they appear interested in enacting new restrictions on general trade and finance with North Korea, rather than the additional but narrower sanctions on proscribed activity (such as proliferation) which have so far characterised the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Strong differences of opinion between Security Council delegations – particularly the US and China – over the desirability of this broadening have stalled agreement on any new sanctions resolution.
The Satellite Launch
The country’s satellite launch followed closely on the heels of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Pyongyang notified the International Telecommunications Union of the planned launch window on the same day that Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, arrived in Pyongyang – a move which will have severely irritated Beijing.
The launch was carried out at the Sohae space launch facility in the early hours of Sunday, 7 February. It appeared to use a space-launch vehicle similar to the one used in February 2012, which also managed to put a satellite into orbit (though that satellite became non-operational not long afterwards). This event would therefore represent the North’s second successful placement of a satellite into orbit using long-range ballistic missile technology, enhancing the country’s confidence in the technology’s reliability.
As with the fourth nuclear test, North Korea’s central news agency published photographs of Kim Jong-un authorising the launch.
Kim Jong-un’s Achievements
The two provocations, closely aligned in time, represent the start of the period preparing for the 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea. This is the first Congress held in the country since 1980, when Kim Jong-un’s father was being introduced to a public leadership role. Seen in this light, Kim Jong-un will be expected to articulate his own major new policies and ideas at the Congress in order to further cement his unique leadership brand.
A successful nuclear test and satellite launch will inevitably play a role in this effort. Indeed, this partially explains the interest in publicising photos of Kim Jong-un’s authorisation of the two events; they are being characterised as ones brought to fruition under the direction of Kim Jong-un.
The International Reaction
North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch have already had reverberations in the region and internationally. South Korea has stepped up its rhetoric surrounding the possible deployment of US-integrated ballistic-missile defence (BMD) assets to US Forces Korea. Officials in Seoul have traditionally been careful to publicly support only the domestic deployment of indigenous BMD architecture, rather than the US-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been trying to cultivate closer political and military relations with China, which has a strong distaste for US-allied BMD deployments in the region and has vocally objected to the prospect of South Korean participation in them.
In spite of these objections, following North Korea’s nuclear test, South Korea’s defence minister stated that Seoul needed to ‘seriously consider’ the deployment of THAAD. In response to Pyongyang’s subsequent satellite launch, South Korea immediately issued notice that it would begin formal negotiations with the US over the system.
This notification has two primary objectives: firstly, to demonstrate to the South Korean people that developments north of the 38th parallel are being taken seriously and efforts to mitigate any resulting insecurity are concrete; and secondly, to put pressure on Beijing by clearly outlining how its inaction towards North Korea will directly affect China’s own national security.
All eyes will therefore be on China as the UN Security Council convenes emergency meetings to discuss North Korea’s latest provocations. Concessions by China on at least some of the US demands, if they are enough to result in broader agreement on a new resolution, may also be enough to stave off South Korea’s return to defence policies less considerate of China’s sensitivities.
Yet even with North Korea’s insulting gesture during Wu Dawei’s visit, the pressure created by two back-to-back provocations, and the discomfort emanating from international reactions to them, reaching such an agreement will be extremely difficult. If trade- and finance-focused sanctions are indeed what is being asked of Beijing, the comparative level of integration of the Chinese and North Korean economies will mean that it is China that will bear the disproportionate burden of their implementation. As a result, the prospect of a convincing multilateral response to the ‘outright disaster to world peace’ of North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile provocations still feels as remote today as it has for years.