Joshua PollackWhat To Expect From North Korea

[Cross-posted from Yep, it’s back up.]

What should we expect from North Korea?

A good place to start might be the Foreign Ministry statement of April 29:

In case the UNSC does not make an immediate apology [for the presidential statement condemning the launch of the Unha-2], such actions will be taken as:

Firstly, the DPRK will be compelled to take additional self-defensive measures in order to defend its supreme interests.

The measures will include nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Secondly, the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel as its first process without delay.

Emphasis added.

We are now at one nuclear test and counting.

(Why) Did It Come as a Surprise?

In light of the foregoing statement, today’s test cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. But people who follow this subject intently were taken aback by how soon it happened. One would assume that the preparations were in motion even before April 29, yet we saw nothing in the papers about it. That’s awfully interesting, since the last time a nuclear test was announced to the world as a fait accompli — I’m relying on memory here, so please correct me if I’m wrong — was the first of India’s two rounds of testing in 1998, widely considered in the United States to have been an intelligence failure.

There are two possibilities. Either A) the Obama Administration saw some advantage to keeping mum, and turns out to be awfully good at keeping mum, or B) someone missed something they should not have missed. If it’s the latter, the results may be no more than mildly embarrassing, but it’s still a little disconcerting.

Update: Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. and South Korea were keeping a weather eye on the test site. But it’s not clear that they had good indications on timing.

Further update: Thanks to the contributions of readers here and here, it’s clear that Option A, above, is the correct answer. There were a few leaks, but nothing that the community of wonks picked up on the time. Perhaps Option B applies to us. We’ll have to do better, next time.

I had not seen it widely discussed, but would venture that the tacit consensus, expressed earlier by Sig Hecker, was that North Korea was unlikely to test again before completing a reprocessing campaign. Perhaps not, after all.

Now might be a good time to revisit what North Korea is doing on ICBMs and the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle.


  1. Major Lemon (History)

    Tuesday May 26th: “A South Korean news agency is reporting that North Korea has test-fired two short-range missiles from an east coast launch pad. The Yonhap news agency cites unnamed government sources as saying the missiles have a range of about 130 kilometers. The reports says one was a surface-to-air missile and the other was a ground-to-ship missile. Both were fired Tuesday afternoon (AP).

  2. abcd (History)

    Maybe they’ll test the rest of the devices in their small arsenal and speed up the disarmament process…

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Now might be a good time to revisit what North Korea is doing on ICBMs

    Yes indeed. A good start would be figuring out the throw-weight vs range curve of a weaponized Unha-2. Is it the basis of a plausible ICBM, or does NK need a yet heftier rocket?

  4. Jochen Schischka (History)

    I think this raises an interesting question:

    Could the DPRK have built this nuclear bomb in the short time between April 14 and May 25 2009 from unproccessed material (i’m assuming that the tunnel/infrastructure for the test was already completed earlier on)?

  5. Gridlock (History)

    4Kt is enough to take out a Capital Ship, right?

    I heard it reported there were 3 test firings of MRBMs right after the test, is this Kim’s idea of a firework party?

  6. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    At an event at Brookings on May 1, Gary Samore said of the possibility of another North Korean nuclear test, “I think they will. That’s what they are threatening to do.” And on May 19 (apparently), Adm. Mullen commented on the possibility of a test but refused to confirm or deny published reports.

    I suspect the administration had good indications, if not a clear idea about the exact date, and just kept quiet as part of its attempt to downplay the “threat.” And unlike the Bush administration, there do not appear to be, yet, deep divisions among senior officials about policy vis-a-vis North Korea, hence the lack of leaks.

  7. SB (History)

    There were other indicators as well. A very brief article in this week’s Economist, which was available online last Thursday, said that “Instead Mr Kim is building a new long-range missile testing pad. Ominously, there is new activity, too, at a site used in 2006 for a nuclear test.” So at least some people got wind of the pre-test activity. I have to admit though, I didn’t catch that line until after the test occurred.

  8. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    They definitely knew.

  9. J House (History)

    I commented on ACW after the BM test that the next nuclear test was sure to come, as the NK’s had clearly threatened,and, as you have pointed out.These serve dual purposes- clearly a test of the resolve of the new admin and the continuation to perfect the technologies for both programs.
    The third threat is another red line-will the U.S. allow NK to produce bomb fuel without international controls?
    Surely the US IC knew this second test was imminent, and it didn’t leak.
    It seems the current admin was unable to persuade them to stop it through private channels.
    The ball is in the WH’s court (again).

  10. Tom (History)

    If I’m reading the KCNA news release right it seems to be saying that this test was the result of about five months worth of preparations

    “The successful nuclear test is greatly inspiring the army and people of the DPRK all out in the 150-day campaign, intensifying the drive for effecting a new revolutionary surge to open the gate to a thriving nation.”

    Is it even possible to set up a new test site in 5 months assuming a small amount of extra excavation to attempt to decouple it? Or is it safe to assume this has been in the works for some time now?

  11. Josh (History)


    The “150-day campaign” or “150-day battle” refers not to the nuclear test, but to a national economic production drive of sorts, described here and here. Preparations at the test site probably started well over a year ago.

    A recent Yonhap report (I’m having a hard time finding it online now, but here’s a synopsis) associated the “150-day campaign” with an attempt to establish credentials for KJI’s presumed successor of choice, his third son, Kim Jong-Un. That only makes it more interesting that the KCNA statement associated the nuclear test with the “150-day campaign.”

    I guess it’s legacy-building time for KJI.

  12. PC (History)

    My understanding is that tunneling is the most observable process for test preparations. Since it appears that was done by at least early 2007 (as Dan Pinkston mentioned in another post)what other “sources and methods” available to our keen analyst community could have been available to get wind of the test? Aside from, of course, prior vague reporting from the S. Korean press about activity in the vicinity of the test site.

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