Pyongyang Tested Another Bomb. What Should We Do About It?

on January 8 | in Asia-Pacific, Intelligence Analysis, Intelligence Collection

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On Wednesday, North Korea announced it successfully conducted a hydrogen bomb test — its first nuclear test since 2013. Shortly thereafter, seismologists detected an earthquake — man-made, according to South Korean meteorologists — near the Punggye-ri nuclear site. But U.S. officials were not convinced Pyongyang actually carried out a “successful” hydrogen bomb test.

Lack of hard evidence proving North Korea’s nuclear activities notwithstanding, unhealthy the international community still gave the test the attention Pyongyang desired. The UN Security Council held an emergency session that morning upon the requests of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. The Security Council also vowed to pursue sanctions to punish Pyongyang. Both South Korean and Japanese leaders condemned the test and vowed to take firm measures in response to North Korea’s challenge to nonproliferation and regional security.

 All of this is fine if we’re content with our shopworn approach with North Korea: after a lull in provocations, Pyongyang turns to saber-rattling (i.e. a missile salvo, a nuclear test, or a military skirmish with Seoul). The international community subsequently makes condemnatory comments and vows to punish North Korean behavior. We pass a security council resolution and slap on a few sanctions. The U.S. beseeches China to punish North Korea, but Beijing won’t risk Pyongyang’s collapse on its border. Then we repeat the cycle several months later.

In the greater picture, the success or failure of Pyongyang’s hydrogen bomb test is less relevant. So is the international community’s mechanic response to the DPRK’s provocations.

Rather, the U.S. and South Korea should instead focus on re-assessing their intelligence collection strategies and policy toward the Hermit Kingdom. It was indeed disturbing that no country’s intelligence service was able to detect or had much forewarning of an impending North Korean nuclear test. Still, this should not be gratuitously attributed as an unchangeable feature in dealing with an opaque country.

The U.S. boasts having one of the world’s most advanced and capable intelligence systems, yet it has made little progress in identifying and closing intelligence gaps on the North. South Korea is probably in the most advantageous position — geographically, linguistically, and culturally — to collect against the DPRK, yet both the Defense Minister and the National Intelligence Service said they saw no indication of the North preparing for a nuclear test.

And what about Washington and Seoul’s North Korea policies more broadly? Sadly, both countries lack a consistent strategy in dealing with Pyongyang. A new presidential administration invariably ushers in adjustments in handling the Kim regime. The incoming administration sorts through its intelligence priorities and recalibrates its foreign policy objectives, and often feels the need to “fix” policies of the previous administration.

Often, this sets the clock back in making progress on any issue. In South Korea, for instance, the pro-engagement policies of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations were followed by the Lee Myung-bak administration’s harder-line approach with the DPRK.

A lack of continuity is counterproductive in attempting to effect any change in North Korea’s behavior and securing the peninsula. Furthermore, it puts Pyongyang at an advantage, allowing it to “time” its provocations so that the incumbent administration has little incentive to address or pursue effective steps toward constraining its behavior, leaving the problem to be addressed and “recalibrated” by the next administration. Pyongyang has been exploiting our democratic systems of governance for years.

We can start by setting a consistent and continual intelligence and foreign policy strategy toward the DPRK.

Here are three ways we can do it:

Reassess our understanding of North Korea. As rudimentary as this sounds, it forms the underlying basis of our North Korea policy and intelligence strategy against Pyongyang. And too often, when North Korea provocatively lashes out, policymakers get swept up in triaging and responding to that particular incident, that they lose sight of the overall North Korea strategy.

We know that the DPRK will periodically conduct a nuclear or missile test or engage in a military scuffle with the South — that’s part of its strategy in bargaining with the U.S., South Korea, and regional neighbors. We shouldn’t act surprised or angry whenever this happens.

Be consistent in our North Korea policy. By no definition is Pyongyang’s behavior “consistent.” It goes from a period of quiet and hibernation followed by a display of its destructive capabilities. But many of us know this seemingly “unpredictable” conduct is the DPRK’s strategy, and so long as this tactic works in getting the international community’s attention, the Kim regime will resort to using it.

The issue, it seems, is not that the DPRK is inconsistent; rather, it’s that the U.S., South Korea, and allies are unable to develop a consistent North Korea policy. Of course, Pyongyang is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, as they are one of the central pillars holding up the regime as well as a highly useful bargaining chip. Hence, the DPRK will consistently use the threat of nuclear destruction as long as it works.

So shouldn’t we also have a consistent strategy toward the North too? Flip-flopping from engagement to hard-line tactics only make us more vulnerable to Pyongyang’s antics. Developing a broad, grand strategy on North Korea, and orient all of our policies and intelligence priorities on this foundation.

Cooperate, cooperate, cooperate. Let’s face it, one country alone — not the U.S., not South Korea, not China — cannot “solve” the North Korea dilemma. The U.S. is linguistically, culturally, and geographically far removed from Pyongyang to be the sole undertaker of this endeavor. Not to mention, it has other priorities that consume policymaker attention. South Korea, while being the DPRK’s closest neighbor with the greatest stake in Pyongyang’s antics, will look to stronger nations (i.e China and the U.S.) to deal with North Korea.

Combining the strengths and advantages of each country under a common goal of solving the North Korea problem once and for all — and eventual reunification — will yield better fruit than going solo. Washington and Seoul already have a robust security and intelligence alliance. We can take this up a notch by sharing more information and treating this not as a regional problem, but a global one.

Yes, the “North Korea problem” can’t be solved overnight, but steps can be taken to chip away at this larger-than-life puzzle. We must endeavor to forge a better solution to dealing with this problematic regime.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics and decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank. 

Photo: Another sunny day in Pyongyang, courtesy of the Kim family. 

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