18.11.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

No DPRK nuclear test yet

North Korea has conducted a total of six nuclear tests since 2006 and a seventh is believed to be just around the corner – in 2022, Western experts have named seven or eight dates on which Kim Jong-un will definitely detonate a nuclear bomb.

In late October, US Department of State Spokesman Ned Price, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby, not to mention lower-ranking officials, spoke of the North being about to test.

  On September 27, in a meeting with journalists, a spokesperson for the ROK Ministry of Unification noted that preparations for the tunnels to receive a nuclear charge were allegedly complete.

On September 29, a spokesperson for the ROK parliamentary intelligence committee said North Korea could conduct a nuclear test between October 16 and November 7: between the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16 and the November 8 midterm US congressional elections.

The talks were accompanied by threats of what would happen if the DPRK “dared”. South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong has already said that the US, Japan and South Korea were prepared to give an unprecedented response if the DPRK conducted its seventh nuclear test; they would impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang that would increase restrictions on oil and oil product exports to the country, “as well as the North Korean hacking group Lazarus”.

Furthermore, the Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported that if the North conducted a seventh nuclear test, the US administration might increase pressure on Pyongyang, including by sending a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the Sea of Japan and would begin drafting a UN Security Council resolution that would impose additional sanctions on Pyongyang. Of course, the ROK, the US and Japan can adopt their own sanctions.

On November 2, 2022, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, responsible for disarmament and international security issues, adopted a resolution condemning North Korea for conducting six nuclear tests. The document, which called for a ban on all nuclear weapons testing, was supported by representatives of 179 countries. Only North Korea voted against it.

On November 7, on the eve of the crucial date, US Department of State Spokesman Ned Price called on all UN member states, especially the permanent members of the Security Council, to uphold the principles of the organization’s Charter. The tirade came as Russia and China had blocked a US resolution aimed at punishing North Korea for its recent missile launches.

But November 7th passed, followed by the 8th and 9th, and the nuclear bomb was never detonated. Moreover, satellite images taken the day before the US midterm elections show no significant activity detected in or around the tunnel at the Phungeri test site.

Nevertheless, this has not led to a change of opinion among Western experts and diplomats. Instead of analyzing why the North has not yet detonated the bomb (and whether it will at all), they simply set new dates, guided not so much by reality as by the image of Kim Jong-un that exists in their minds.

Thus, on November 10, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that “the DPRK would conduct its seventh nuclear test at some point in this broader timeframe, and by broader I mean we have been talking about this now for a couple of months”.

The ROK media has again set a specific date of November 29 as “Missile Industry Day” to mark the anniversary of the Hwasong-15 ICBM test launch on November 29, 2017.

Other anonymous experts are predicting that the North could make the test when US President Joe Biden attends the G20 summit in Indonesia, scheduled for November 15 and 16.

In parallel with the new deadline, there is a lot of hype about what exactly will be tested. Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Secretary General Olli Heinonen estimates that North Korea may conduct not one but two nuclear tests:  Pyongyang will test tactical nuclear charges intended for a short-range ballistic missile and a cruise missile – these carriers require different warheads in terms of their parameters. In addition, the tests could be another step towards a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle for medium-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles. “North Korea is anticipated to increase its nuclear arsenal to between 151 and 242 nuclear weapons by 2027 with the country having the capacity to manage between 30 kilograms to 60 kilograms of plutonium, and 175 kilograms to 645 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) by then”.

As a result, there is a sense that certain things are expected of the North Korean leadership, and the failure to explain what Pyongyang really wants is turning into the classic rhetoric of rogue states that only villainize because they have an archetype to do so. This can be seen very clearly in the reasoning in which Pyongyang’s actions are attempted to be explained by Moscow’s policy, expecting it to “cover it up” in the UNSC in the event of a test.

The conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo also notes that “amid the deepening US-China contest and the Ukraine war, China or Russia would not put the brakes on North Korea’s missile provocation”.

 Meanwhile, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov points out that all parties to the conflict on the Korean peninsula should avoid steps that could provoke increased tension.

Georgy Zinoviev, head of the First Asian Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, noted that the missile launches by the DPRK were “provoked by military and political activity” from Washington and Seoul, which has increased in recent months. At the same time Pyongyang expressed its goodwill, but the other parties did not seize the opportunity. As a result, the situation on the Korean peninsula continues to deteriorate.

The Russian representative to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, pointed out at the UNSC meeting on North Korea that Russia opposes any military activity that threatens the security of the Korean peninsula and North-East Asian countries, and the reason for the current escalation is “Washington’s desire to force Pyongyang into unilateral disarmament by means of sanctions and forceful pressure.”  Anna Evstigneeva noted that “the build-up of sanctions against the DPRK already goes beyond measures to counter prohibited nuclear missile programs and threatens North Korean citizens with unacceptable social and economic and humanitarian disruption.” And, like Zinoviev, she stressed that “Western counterparts have consistently ignored Pyongyang’s repeated calls for the US to end its hostile activities, which would open up opportunities for dialogue. Pyongyang’s 2018-2019 counter-steps and positive signals have not been taken into account. It is precisely because of the US position that the Council has never been able to find the strength to respond to them appropriately and facilitate the process of détente.”

But what is the likelihood of the test even happening? Russian expert Vladimir Khrustalev points out that with the growth of computer technology, new developments that in the 20th century required field tests can now be achieved through computer modelling. And given that the DPRK is now actively developing the technology of this group, the military-technical aspect of the tests will eventually yield to the political.

But assuming the nuclear test is a political event, it is clear that for the DPRK each such move could mean a new round of sanctions and a certain deterioration of relations with Russia and China, even if they do not join the general condemnation and do not behave as they did five years ago.

All the more so that when it comes to forms of display of power, Pyongyang is doing fine without a nuclear test. The 59 ballistic missiles launched during 2022 speak for themselves, and the new nuclear doctrine looks like a sufficient warning.

 If one accepts the version that the DPRK was delaying the test until after the CPC Congress, it means that Pyongyang is listening to requests of this kind.

Of course, there is some small chance of a test, but it is worth paying attention not to whether or not it will take place, but to other things. First, how many bad predictions there have been, undermining the reputation of the experts. And second, the extent to which the impending nuclear tests are demonized in such a way that anti-Pyongyang propaganda tries to equate a nuclear test with the use of nuclear weapons, threatening the North with the “end of the regime.”

This means that US planners are seriously considering the option of the North attacking the South first, which the author sees as a rather serious threat when Western intelligence and analysts fail to see the real objectives of the enemy, and substitute some fictitious constructs for them. In terms of the likelihood of military conflict, this is far more dangerous than a nuclear training explosion.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

Please select digest to download: