Analysis, Foreign Affairs, Military, Nuclear Weapons

A Decade of North Korean Nuclear Tests

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test. Each new nuclear test triggers comparisons with previous tests and predictions about when future tests will be carried out by North Korea. The increasing frequency of missile tests and nuclear tests this year alone seems to indicate that it is only a matter of time before the next test happens. As the data below demonstrates, North Korea has made significant progress between the first and fifth test. What will be outcome of the next nuclear test?

North Korean Nuclear Tests 2006-2016

The following narrative account excerpted from Victor Cha’s The Impossible State (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) describes that fateful evening during the first nuclear test.

North Korea’s First Nuclear Test *


IT WAS SUNDAY EVENING, October 8, 2006, and I was in the kitchen doing the dishes after dinner. My wife put the boys to bed and I was looking forward to a light run to wind the evening down before another week of the frenzied pace at the NSC. Just then, the phone rang. It was the White House situation room and they alerted me to await a call on my STU (Secure Telephone Unit) phone. When you work at the NSC and you are asked on a Sunday evening to take a secure call, it is never good news. The STU rang and I picked up the receiver. The duty officer said that the sit room had word from the U.S. embassy in Beijing, via the Chinese, that a North Korean nuclear test was imminent. I asked how much time. The sit room officer said that the DPRK informed the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, which relayed the information to Beijing. Beijing then relayed it to our embassy and then to the situation room. I said, ‘Okay, so how much time?’ The response, ‘Well, sir, probably about forty- five minutes.’ I threw on a suit (the Bush White House did not approve of staff wandering around the West Wing in jeans, even after hours, as a sign of respect for the office) and brought an extra shirt, knowing it would be at least forty- eight hours before I would come home again. Soon after my NSC colleague Dennis Wilder and I arrived at the situation room ready to brief senior officials on the current status and implement instructions from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, the test took place. Seismic monitors detected an explosion at the P’unggye nuclear test site that we had been watching for months. The site was about 380 kilometers (236 mi) northeast of Pyongyang and only 130 kilometers (80 mi) from the Russian border. The explosion produced a tremor of about 4.2 magnitude. While this was a small test, about the equivalent of five hundred tons of TNT, which raised some speculation that it might just have been a high- explosives test, WC-135 ‘sniffers’— aircraft that collect atmospheric samples—later confirmed the presence of Krypton 85, indicating a nuclear test, albeit only a partially successful one. As we worked throughout the night in the situation room, coordinating statements on the test with allies, preparing the president’s statement, and preparing policy alternatives for Hadley, Secretary Rice, and the president to deliberate on, I wondered to myself what impact this test would have on China’s support for its poor Korean province.

There was no country more outraged by the nuclear test than China. Beijing, in unison with other countries in the prior weeks, had been warning the DPRK through all of its communication channels in the foreign ministry, party, and military not to conduct a test. From China’s perspective, a nuclear test would be an unprecedented act that defied the nonproliferation agreements and would remove any ambiguity about whether the North had the bomb. Prior to the test, Chinese negotiators would sometimes deflect statements of alarm about the DPRK by asking ‘how do you know they even have a bomb and not just some plutonium?’ They could do this no longer. The nuclear test did not threaten China per se, but it did violate the primary maxim: to avoid a crisis and instability on the peninsula. Pyongyang understood this, and thus, in Beijing’s eyes, the nuclear test amounted to the ultimate sign of disrespect and irresponsible behavior that Kim Jong-il could have levied against China, short of starting a second Korean War. It was almost as if Pyongyang dared China to abandon it, leveraging its own vulnerability with a sense of confidence in the end that once again, China would support the regime and clean up its mess. The test was also meant as a clear signal to the world that no one, not even China, could tell Pyongyang what it could and could not do.

* Excerpted from pages 328-330 in The Impossible State.


Game Changer? *


The October 2006 nuclear test was commonly referred to as a ‘game changer’ both inside and outside governments. It constituted the ultimate nuclear provocation short of attack and crossed yet a new red line in DPRK brazenness. Though the test was not entirely successful, it took us to a place we had never been before. The liberal South Korean government feared that the nuclear test would cause the United States to take off the diplomatic gloves and address the issue now with military force. Indeed, in President Bush’s first phone call after the nuclear test with South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, Roh was so concerned that he was barely even listening to Bush’s calm, methodical call for taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council for a strong resolution, and instead the ROK president rapidly read talking points about how the United States should not provoke a war in Korea (this was obviously not a good phone conversation). Others believed that the nuclear test was such an affront to China that Beijing would finally clamp down on the regime and use its vast material leverage to choke the regime into giving up its nuclear weapons.

In the end, neither of these was true. Beijing did take tougher measures, most of which took place out of the public eye. In addition to taking the unprecedented step of signing on to two UNSC resolutions against North Korea, it also curtailed economic and political cooperation through unseen but all-important party-to- party channels and PLA-to- KPA (People’s Liberation Army–to–Korean People’s Army) channels. But it hardly abandoned the regime. As for the United States, the Bush administration did not respond with thoughts of attack, but instead tried to turn lemons into lemonade. The immediate diplomatic reaction when things go awry, as they did in October 2006, is to find a manner of leveraging the bad outcome in ways that can achieve positive longer-term objectives. What this meant for Rice was that the nuclear test would lead to a period of sanctions to punish Pyongyang, but it would eventually pave a path back to diplomacy where the United States would be in a stronger position to implement the Joint Statement.

* Excerpted from page 268 in The Impossible State.


Analysts have different perspectives on when the next North Korean nuclear test will occur and how countries will respond. Although the United Nations Security Council members continue to negotiate, they have yet to reach a consensus on how to respond to the fifth nuclear test. Will a sixth nuclear test come before or after a new resolution?

Data from Beyond Parallel suggests a defined provocation window for the Kim Jong-un regime around the next presidential election. View the results of the study here.

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