Joshua PollackHints From Pyongyang: No 3rd Nuclear Test

Funny thing about the Bomb: you can’t eat it.

Going by what the North Korean government has said of late, they’re not exactly beating their swords into ploughshares or their spears into pruning hooks. But, we are told, national security goals have made way for economic goals, and a third nuclear test should not be expected.

Dismissive remarks about further nuclear testing have now appeared at least twice in reports about a major industrial achievement. On December 19, 2009, KCNA, the official news service, reported a visit by Kim Jong Il to the Songjin Steel Complex, a.k.a. Songgang, home to a new “Juche-based” method of iron and steel production. After inspecting the facilities, KJI was pleased:

The workers of Songgang completed the steel-making method based on Juche iron by their own efforts and with their own technology, shattering conservatism and mysticism about technology, he noted, adding that this is a historic event of special mention in the development of metallurgical industry and a victory greater than the third successful nuclear test.

On December 25, KCNA reported the visit of a delegation from the steel complex to Pyongyang, where they were greeted with “a joint congratulatory message” from the Powers That Be — the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party and the National Defense Commission of the DPRK. It concluded:

The above-said spectacular success represents a great victory of the immortal Juche idea and a great demonstration of the national power more striking than the conduct of the third nuclear test.

(Emphasis added in both quotes.)

These statements, attributed to the highest levels, are internal propaganda. That’s what KCNA is for, mostly, and outside of North Korea, who could possibly care about local developments in ferrous metallurgy? It’s hard to avoid the impression that the regime is trying to set public expectations: Don’t stay up waiting all night for more big bangs, folks.

The tougher question is, why? Not knowing won’t stop me from guessing.

A Shift in Priorities

First, we could take Pyongyang at face value.

The January 1, 2010 joint New Year editorial of three North Korean newspapers was titled, “Bring About a Radical Turn in the People’s Standard of Living by Accelerating the Development of Light Industry and Agriculture Once Again This Year That Marks the 65th Anniversary of the Founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” (It reads better in the original, for all I know.) The KCNA excerpt describes the past year as one of “dramatic change” and the start of “a decisive turn in the Korean revolution and the building of a thriving nation,” a time of “great revolutionary upsurge” marked by technological and industrial achievements, nay, triumphs — foremost among them the second satellite launch, the second nuclear test, the production of Juche steel, and the “attainment of the cutting edge of CNC technology.” The rest of the achievements are purely economic.

The coming year, too, will be “a year of general offensive, when all-Party and nationwide efforts should be concentrated on improving the people’s standard of living on the basis of the laudable victory and achievements of the great revolutionary upsurge.”

So, based on what the government is telling its people, military achievements will take a backseat to economic ones, meaning no nuclear tests to muddy the narrative. Given the new restrictions on open-air markets and the “currency reform” that destroyed virtually all private savings in North Korea in 2009, this prospect must make the average citizen shudder with dread — there’s every reason to expect the further reconsolidation of the command economy.

[Update | Feb. 2. On reflection, the announced shift is away from both military and heavy-industrial priorities, and towards production of food and consumer goods. See the comments for further elaboration.]

Not Necessary or Not Worth It

Second, North Korea may judge its second nuclear test to have been a success, obviating the need for additional testing. They may believe that the second test shows they have a working weapon in the neighborhood of 4 kt yield — what they apparently told the Chinese they were aiming for back in October 2006, before their first test fizzled.

This scenario would fit well with a view of the first test shared by a number of close observers (see: So, Like, Why Didn’t It Work?, October 10, 2006; NORK Nuke Missile?, November 3, 2006).

Third, as Paul Kerr pointed out in these webpages around the same time, the shock value from this sort of thing starts to wear off quickly (see: More Norky Goodness, October 9, 2006). It just may not be worth it, next to how much it would piss off the Chinese, not to mention the further expenditure of limited plutonium stocks (a concern that led many experts to doubt that North Korea would test in 2009).

Not a Good Time

Fourth, let’s recall that the Norks are making nice. Foreign Ministry statements on January 11, 2010 (“DPRK Proposes to Start of Peace Talks”) and January 18 (“DPRK on Reasonable Way for Sept. 19 Joint Statement”) call for replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty — Pyongyang’s new condition for denuclearization, or returning to talks on denuclearization, depending on how you read it. A third nuclear test would complicate the charm offensive.

(Incidentally, the latter statement mentions the demolition of the Yongbyon cooling tower in 2008, which I take as an indicator that they’re unlikely to rebuild it while the nice-making persists.)

So take your pick: for some, all, or maybe none of the above reasons, North Korea is letting the man (and traffic lady) on the street know that there are no immediate plans to test again.


As a reward for reading this far — if you skipped down here, scroll right back up, mister! — here’s the video of Steven Bosworth’s January 19, 2010 appearance on the Colbert Report, in which the envoy to North Korea explains why the peace treaty condition isn’t going to fly. No, there’s no astounding impression of an atmospheric nuclear test, but Colbert does manage to leave Bosworth speechless at the end.

Bonus bonus!

You must have been wondering, Hey, just how often does “reasonable” appear in daily KCNA items, anyway?

The answer, according to the invaluable search engine at NK News, is 1,163 times since KCNA went online in January 1996. Which is more than I’d expected, but still two fewer times than “nuclear war,” 88 fewer than “destruction,” 650 fewer than “aggressor,” and 987 fewer than “reactionaries.” Now you know.


  1. Paul
  2. Betsy (History)

    Interesting article, but what I really want to know is where to get the awesome t-shirt?

  3. Bruce (History)

    Perhaps this is an over-interpretation of a translation but, by twice discussing “the” third nuclear test rather than “a” third nuclear test, is North Korea indicating that there have been THREE nuke tests, even if the West only identified two (in 2006 and 2009)? “The” seems to imply past event while “a” suggests a future event.

    In the past, there have been seismic anomalies with man-made characteristics that were not fully reconciled between seismologists and other analysts.

  4. OtherRatchets (History)

    One other explanation is that they’re devoting their military resources to other things. Recall that the recent live-fire tiff with the south began with an angry declaration that some South Korea-controlled waters were off limits. It may be the case that they are either planning to work on their delivery systems (i.e. cruse missiles) or that they plan to spend their military efforts on blowing things up near South Korea rather than near China.

  5. Josh (History)


    I’m not sure if the t-shirt can still be had, but the image comes from here.


    I had the same thought about “the” third nuclear test, but the correct explanation appears to be that there’s no definite article in Korean, and KCNA’s locally trained translators don’t always know what to do with “the.” Note that the Jan. 1, 2010 joint New Year editorial refers to “the successful second underground nuclear test” having taken place in 2009, and does not mention a third.

  6. Josh (History)

    I didn’t pick up on it at first read, but the clearest statement of the shift of official priorities in the joint New Year editorial seems to be this:

    The might of the country’s economy, including the heavy industry, was strengthened in the flames of the gigantic great upsurge [of 2009], setting up a springboard for the country, already a politico-ideological and military power, to justifiably reach the status of an economic giant.
    Now, based on the brilliant achievements of the great revolutionary upsurge, the Party is unfolding unprecedentedly grand plans and operations to bring about a decisive turn in the people’s standard of living.

    (Emphasis added.) It also bears mentioning the “might of the country’s economy, including the heavy industry,” is not at all the same thing as “a decisive turn in the people’s standard of living.” So something new is being promised here, not more of the same. A respite from moving mountains. Notice what the people are being told — after all the heavy lifting of 2009, now it’s time for both bread and circuses:

    Light industry and agriculture are the major fronts in the efforts for improving the people’s standard of living.
    Great are the foundations of light industry and agriculture, which our Party has laid out with an eye on today against all odds.
    An all-Party, nationwide effort should be directed to mass-producing consumer goods.
    The light-industry sector should carry forward the upgrading of its factories and enterprises on a high level, and strive to improve the quality of the consumer goods.
    Local-industry factories should be operated at full capacity, and units, as many as possible, should launch a campaign to turn out more daily necessities favoured by the public.
    The agricultural sector should sharply increase the grain production by thoroughly applying the Party’s policy of agricultural revolution, like improving the seeds, doing double cropping and improving potato and soya bean farming.
    It should strictly observe the requirements of the Juche farming method and introduce organic and other new farming methods and technologies.
    We should ensure that the updated stockbreeding, fish farming and fruit production bases that have established a Juche-oriented breeding system and embodied the principle of profitability demonstrate their great effect in reality.
    We should radically increase the state investment in the fields related to the people’s living, and all the sectors and units should supply fully and in time the raw and other materials needed for the production of light-industry goods.

    Not that I’d be too, too optimistic if I were North Korean, but it does sound like the regime has settled on the need to address pocketbook issues, rather than nuclear saber-rattling and other monumental expressions of state power.

  7. Josh (History)
  8. Paul
  9. Paul
  10. Jan

    Seems that the pictures on the bottom of the second link show a new rocket engine. ISNA reports: Iran unveils Simorgh satellite carrier engine .

    I find it also remarkable that the faces of the scientists are covered with face-masks.

  11. Paul

    Yes the face masks are interesting – perhaps a security precaution after the recent assassination of Tehran University Prof?