North Korea’s Brazen Nuclear Moves

April 16, 2017



North Korea is still defying the international community with its nuclear weapons program, and it now may have enough fissile material for 20 bombs. Its nuclear-related activity has surged this year, part of an effort by its leader, Kim Jong-un, to enhance his influence ahead of a rare congress of his ruling Workers’ Party. The congress is set to open on May 6.

In January, the North carried out its fourth nuclear test, and the following month it conducted a test of a long-range ballistic missile, the kind that could one day carry a nuclear weapon to hit the United States. It claimed to have tested a more powerful rocket engine and to have succeeded at shrinking the size of a nuclear weapon so it can fit on a missile.

In April, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile and also made three attempts at launching a powerful intermediate-range mobile missile called the Musudan.

Though the four most recent tests failed in one way or another, North Korea’s overall activity this year has raised regional tensions and highlighted the inability of the major powers, specifically the United States and China, to curb the North’s dangerous ambitions.

Even the United Nations Security Council’s decision in March to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea — a decision in which China, North Korea’s chief ally, concurred — seems to be having little impact. Doubts persist about China’s commitment to enforcing them.

The launch failures are an embarrassment for Mr. Kim and have led to speculation that he might attempt another nuclear test — North Korea’s fifth since 2006 — before the party congress, where he hopes to tighten his grip on power. That would inevitably lead to more sanctions and accelerate talks between the United States and South Korea on stationing missile defenses in South Korea.

While sanctions are important and China, more than any other country, has the power to make North Korea feel their effects, sanctions alone are not enough to mitigate the threat. Backing an inexperienced and reckless leader like Mr. Kim into a corner is risky and might lead to even more dangerous responses, like aiming a weapon at South Korea or Japan, with potentially catastrophic results.

At some point, the United States, along with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, will have to find a way to revive negotiations aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. The Obama administration earlier this year had secret contacts with the North that foundered over a disagreement on whether to focus on denuclearization (America’s priority) or on replacing the current Korean War armistice with a formal peace treaty (North Korea’s priority). But the idea of talking with the North is politically unpopular in America, and this is an election year.

An opportunity to get the dialogue going again may present itself after the party congress. Robert Carlin, a retired C.I.A. and State Department analyst of North Korea, writes in the 38 North blog of seeing signs that Mr. Kim could by then feel confident enough in North Korea’s nuclear deterrent to shift attention to reforming the economy while pushing again for a new peace proposal.

If something like that happens, the administration should be nimble and creative enough to work with such a proposal, despite the obvious difficulties of dealing with Mr. Kim. So far, though, President Obama has shown little interest in applying the approach that he pursued successfully with Iran — a combination of sanctions and negotiations — to North Korea.


Missiles paraded in Pyongyang, North Korea, last October. Credit Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

Missiles paraded in Pyongyang, North Korea, last October. Credit Wong Maye-E/Associated Press