TSG IntelBrief: North Korea Crisis Goes Thermonuclear
September 5, 2017

North Korea Crisis Goes Thermonuclear

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• On September 4, the United Nation’s Security Council met in an emergency session to discuss North Korea’s latest nuclear test.

• On September 3, Pyongyang detonated what it claimed to be a thermonuclear weapon, the largest by far of its sixth nuclear tests.

• The response to this latest test will likely be more sanctions on North Korea amid increased military preparations and posturing.

• War on the Korean Peninsula is a remote but catastrophic possibility, given the high tensions and increasing pace of North Korean provocations.

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On September 3, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test—the first since January 2016—and dramatically raised tensions and concerns across the region and globe. North Korea stated the device was a ‘hydrogen bomb’ and analysts believe its explosive yield was between 50-120 kilotons. It was by far the largest weapon tested yet by North Korea. Added to its rapid pace of ballistic missile testing  the world watches as North Korea races to build a fully functional nuclear program that includes a miniaturized warhead for its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB), that will survive atmospheric reentry. The latest test registered 6.3 on the Richter scale but its fallout registered even more strongly in the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and at the United Nations. 

On September 4, the United Nation’s Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the North Korean nuclear test. This was the second time the council has met in emergency fashion over North Korea in less than a week, another indicator of a rapidly escalating crisis. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N Nikki Haley, told the Council North Korea ‘was begging for war’ and called for additional sanctions targeting oil imports going into the already heavily-sanctioned country. It is unclear if China (or Russia) will go along with such sanctions; cutting off fuel supplies could destabilize the regime of Kim Jong-un to the point of collapse, which could create a humanitarian nightmare for Beijing.

The U.S. still refuses to hold direct talks with Pyongyang, preferring to pressure China to use its leverage with North Korea. This strategy is not working, though it is unclear whether any options would work given North Korea’s increased rate of missile testing and this latest nuclear test. U.N. sanctions that target oil and fuel would be the most damaging punishment possible, and the credible threat of such sanctions might bring about some change in Pyongyang’s behavior but could also provoke an even more aggressive response. Already, there are press reports of a possible ICBM test by North Korea, possibly to coincide with the anniversary of the country’s founding by Kim Il-sung. This would be the third ICBM test by North Korea in the last month, all despite a test ban from the U.N.

It is difficult both to overstate how aggressive North Korea has been in the last month, and how important it is address the crisis through diplomatic means. Pyongyang has now flown an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) directly over northern Japan, threatened to launch missiles against Guam  tested banned ICBMs, and detonated its largest nuclear weapon to date. Meanwhile, China has been unable or unwilling to pressure Pyongyang into changing its behavior. Chinese influence has always been overstated; in that while it does have economic levers that could move North Korea, Pyongyang has clearly made the decision to become a credible nuclear and ICBM power regardless of what China wants. Adding to the diplomatic difficulties are differences within South Korea on how to address the threat from the North, and poorly-received tweets by President Trump alleging South Korean ‘appeasement’ while insisting North Korea will only respond to ‘one thing’. The situation will likely grow even more tense and diplomacy is needed that can ease the crisis as it peaks.

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