North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon underground early Sunday morning, demonstrating both its destructive power as well as its defiance of the international community.
In this, North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, the blast’s power reportedly exceeded – by up to seven times – that of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It marks the first time Pyongyang has achieved anything near this level of destruction.
The United States’ response came initially in the form of a tweet by President Donald Trump, who wrote “North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”
The President then announced he would be “meeting General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea.” referring to the two retired Marine generals who now serve as his Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense, respectively.
Mattis later told reporters “any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response – a response both effective and overwhelming.”
Kim Steps Closer to Nuclear Capability, China Condemns Test
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, North Korea’s test of a hydrogen bomb caused a 6.3-magnitude earthquake; a subsequent tunnel collapse caused a 4.1-magnitude quake shortly thereafter. Though technical experts remain skeptical that the North Koreans have managed to move any closer to miniaturizing the weapon to fit on a ballistic missile, all agree this detonation marks the most powerful test to date.
As has become common practice in the wake of these tests, all eyes turned to China, still seen as the best hope to apply leverage to Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang. President Trump’s tweets Sunday morning included one stating “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”
For its part, the Chinese government issued a statement of “strong condemnation” for the test. And, as President Xi Jinping hosted a summit of the BRICS nations in Xiamen, some experts suggested the nuclear test was not a messaging mechanism toward the U.S. at all. Rather, Kim meant to send Xi a message that North Korea has no plans of being bullied by anyone – friend or foe.
Dennis Wilder, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, told the Cipher Brief that the latest round of international sanctions on North Korea is “the first time that Beijing has really taken steps to hurt the North Korean economy.” Therefore, Wilder believes, “Kim is warning the Chinese that drastic measures, such as an oil embargo, will not work and indeed could lead China and North Korea into a military conflict.”
Gordon Chang, a Cipher Brief Expert and author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, explained that Kim chose his timing carefully, because “neither Washington nor Beijing was in a position to respond effectively.” In Chang’s view, “Trump’s Washington is in obvious disarray, and Xi is in a vulnerable period in the months before the Communist Party’s 19th Congress, which begins October 18. Xi is trying to consolidate his position for the rest of his career, so he may feel that at this time he should let matters with North Korea slide.”
Trump Drives a Wedge with Regional Ally
But China was not the only nation that President Trump had tweets for in the wake of the North Korean test, writing “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
Many found these words surprising, given the nearly 25,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the extensive joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the two nations just completed together. The accusation of appeasement also compounded President Trump’s recent threat to withdraw from the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea.
However, Secretary of Defense Mattis offered a reassurance late Sunday afternoon. “We have the ability to defend ourselves and our allies – South Korea and Japan – from any attack,” he said. “And our commitments among the allies are ironclad.”
Wait and See
Speaking to Fox News Sunday, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin threatened a clear escalation on the sanctions front: “I’m going to start a sanctions package to send to the president, for his strong consideration, that anybody that wants to do trade or business with [North Korea] would be prevented from doing trade or business with us.” The President later affirmed his consideration of this route – which, because China is included in that group, would have an enormous impact on the global economy – in a tweet.
Overall, experts remain divided on how to solve the Pyongyang puzzle – and a test at least four times more powerful than any previous North Korean tests only makes the issue more urgent.
Ambassador Joseph Detrani, Cipher Brief expert and former Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks with North Korea, told TCB Sunday afternoon that even now, “accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, even assuming they agree to cap their program, would be a mistake.”
Detrani, who also served as the Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center, noted that allowing this would not only encourage other states to attempt to obtain nuclear capabilities but “the possibility of nuclear weapons and/or fissile material in North Korea finding its way to rogue states or terrorist organizations should be a major concern for all of us.”
Others believe it is too late for that. As Cipher Brief experts former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winnefeld and former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell wrote in the Cipher Brief earlier this year, “North Korea will never willingly give up its program.” Washington’s objective, they believe, must “shift from denuclearization to deterring the North from ever using or proliferating its nuclear weapons.”
Indeed, a diplomatic solution that leads to complete denuclearization is highly unlikely, Morell told The Cipher Brief in late August. Why? “It would have to be one that is crafted to convince Kim that he does not need the weapons to protect himself, but also one that allows him both to continue to portray the U.S. as a threat and to keep his country sealed from outside information and influence – all while explaining to his people that the North really did not need the nuclear weapons that he told them they did and that he has sold to them as his key achievement as their leader.”
Deterrence of Kim also suffers from a low probability of success, according to Wilder. Instead, he says, “the question is not whether he can be deterred but whether the elite of North Korea can be convinced that Kim is taking a path that does not lead to peace and stability but rather leads to the destruction of the North Korean state.”
Whatever the path forward, our experts agree that time is a factor. Years of negotiations and sanctions have made little to no progress, and the Kim regime is under pressure. Recent purges by the young ruler as well as the assassination – allegedly ordered from Pyongyang – of Kim’s older brother in Malaysia demonstrate instability in Kim Jong-un’s rule that could be driving his increasingly provocative acts internationally. Moreover, Chang suggests that Kim may have “miscalculated with regard to Trump,” as the American President’s rhetoric sharpens and he appears “ready to move against the regime.”
As for the outbreak of actual conflict, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations and Cipher Brief expert told the Cipher Brief to “pay attention to tangible movement and operation and what’s going on and where our people are at, as opposed to rhetoric…I don’t want to trivialize both North Korea and this perceived road to conflict. But we need to look at what’s really happening tangibly.”
But, late Sunday morning, when asked whether the U.S. would attack North Korea, President Trump replied: “we’ll see.”