When North Korea tested yet another nuclear device last month, the news cycle covered it for 36 hours, the United States sent bombers to fly over the area, and various heads of states wagged their fingers. Then it was over. This is largely what the world has come to expect from the wacky regime in Pyongyang, but the details of the test signified something deserving of more serious attention this time around. Before this test, all indications suggested that the North Korean nuclear program was an essentially useless pile of weapons. Now it seems that the regime may have turned a corner and established a true, albeit shaky, deterrent force.
There was no doubt about what had happened when seismic sensors registered a 5.0-magnitude earthquake near a presumed North Korean test range on September 9. It was North Korea’s fifth nuclear test and, unlike others, it was successful. Estimates put the weight of the bomb at about 10 kilotons, well short of the megaton-sized thermonuclear warheads fielded by some states but comparable to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even more significant than the weight of the bomb was the impact of the regime’s statements in the aftermath of its detonation. North Korea claimed it had standardized and miniaturized its warheads, which, it said, can now be affixed to missiles. As Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear arms expert, noted in an interview with Vox, these comments likely indicate the regime is preparing to disperse its warheads among military units for potential use. Of course, like much of what the regime spouts, this is likely hyperbolic. But given Pyongyang’s progression in testing and its willingness to make these claims, these capabilities are likely not far off.
If solidified, North Korea’s nuclear capability should be seen as a legitimate deterrent. Though it conducted its first test in 2009, the weapons used had little meaningful deterrent capability. They were unreliable—even highly-controlled tests failed—making it questionable whether the weapons could ever work in a real-world situation. There was no way to deliver them except by planes, which are high vulnerable to interference from defense systems. Furthermore, at just a few weapons, large counter-force measures could have wiped out the entire fledgling stock in just a few strikes. A new posture, however, eliminates those weaknesses. North Korea’s opponents must now assume that the weapons will work and that the ability to mount warheads on missiles provides the regime with a two-pronged attack option. Moreover, once the missiles are distributed among military units, countries attempting to take out the weapons will have to gather the difficult-to-acquire intelligence necessary to locate them.
Even having acquired this force, North Korea is no more likely to use it. The priority of this regime, like all others, is survival, and it knows that any use of a nuclear weapon would result in a devastating reprisal. But the mere fact of possession creates a much less stable situation in East Asia. As Lewis explains, in the event of a crisis, South Korea will have to consider the fact that North Korea could use a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, it increases the benefit of a first strike: opponents know that they may have to use their weapons to take out North Korea’s nukes or leadership, and Pyongyang knows that its small force is vulnerable and thus only effective if used in a first-strike launch.
With a credible deterrent as a given, one additional factor remains uncertain: how North Korea’s behavior will change. Though some believe it may become more aggressive, others posit that the establishment of a credible nuclear shield may temper its behavior. In the end, unpredictability has always been North Korea’s best weapon.
Though this lack of clarity will persist, the United States, South Korea, and its allies must respond unequivocally to the new North Korean deterrent. Unfortunately, their options are limited. It became clear long ago that North Korea will not willingly give up its program, and additional sanctions are not going to change its mind. Persuading China to cut off North Korea is a pipe dream, given that China fears the collapse of the regime much more than upgrades to its weapons. Strikes on the regime and its nuclear facilities in the near future could disable the program, but North Korea would still have the ability to unleash a terrible conventional counterstrike on Seoul and U.S. forces.
For now, the unfortunate reality is that containment and crisis management remain the best options. Given the greater instability associated with North Korea’s possession of a credible deterrent, the United States and South Korea must ensure that their own command and control procedures are fine-tuned to deal with a crisis and eliminate chances for miscalculation. Barring a major turn of events, the world will be dealing with North Korea and its nuclear program for the foreseeable future. And just as it has dealt with nuclear programs under other regimes stretching as far back as the Stalinist Soviet Union, the world will also learn to deal with legitimate nuclear weapons in North Korea.