Michael A. Levi, a CFR expert on nuclear weapons and technology, says North Korea may have decided to announce plans for a nuclear test to offset signs of “weakness” caused by the failure of its long-range missile. “To North Korea that probably means it needs to try something else and a nuclear test is their only real option to step things up a notch,” Levi says, adding it is an unusual development given the recent softening of the U.S. position on bilateral talks.
Levi says that if North Korea does go ahead with a nuclear test, it could lead to a military response from the United States and a worsening of relations between China and North Korea.
When we had our last interview in July it was about the missile tests held by North Korea. In that interview you said the real problem was not so much the missile tests but North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program. Now we have a statement from the North Korean foreign ministry that North Korea is planning at some point a nuclear test. Should we get concerned about this?
Obviously, North Korea makes a lot of threats that it doesn’t follow through on, but this is a threat to take seriously. There has been speculation—especially in Northeast Asia, and particularly since the failed test of a long-range missile—that North Korea would move to a genuine nuclear test. From a North Korean point of view it’s fairly clear the failed missile test shows weakness and another missile test in the near term is unlikely to do much better. To North Korea that probably means it needs to try something else, and a nuclear test is their only real option to step things up a notch.
Why do they feel they have to appear so tough? They seem to have created a picture that the United States is on the verge of invading. Is this for political reasons or do they really fear the United States is going to invade them?
With the caveat that it’s next to impossible to understand what goes on in North Korea and in the mind of its leaders, it seems like it’s a mixture of both. A threat like this helps rally the country and ever since we started worrying about North Korean nuclear weapons some time ago we worried that North Korea would take drastic steps to rally national support if it thought it was under a threat. At the same time what the North Korean leader hears from his closest advisors may be to some extent insulated and he probably has this view that he is under an immense threat reinforced.
The missile test got China very angry with North Korea and I assume a nuclear test will worsen relations with China. Am I wrong?
A nuclear test would substantially worsen North Korean relations with China. We’re in a situation in Northeast Asia and in the United States where a lot is in flux. There are American elections coming up, a new Japanese prime minister has come to power with plans just announced to visit China and South Korea to try to shore up relations that have been damaged in recent years, and North Korea may feel increasingly threatened because of these various steps.
So what should the U.S. policy be? Our ostensible policy is to just get the Six-Party Talks going again.
The United States took a very important move recently in offering to have bilateral talks before Six-Party Talks. This is something Washington has resisted for years so this is a real move forward from the United States. It is interesting to see that this threat of a nuclear test is essentially the next move North Korea has taken after that offer. A recent bill passed by Congress also mandated that the administration appoint a high-level permanent envoy for negotiations with North Korea.
These seem to be conciliatory steps, or at least steps to focus on the diplomatic options, so this talk of a nuclear test is a peculiar step in some ways for North Korea to take right now. The United States has several options. One is to focus on assembling different countries so that they have some plan for what their response will be if North Korea conducts a nuclear test. It strikes me that if they’re going to go that way it would be useful to have explicit steps that they would take outlined right now. In the aftermath of a test everyone would be scrambling but to have a [UN] Security Council resolution, for example, that lays out the specific things that will happen—not like the Iran resolution that says things might happen—but one that says here are the penalties at a minimum that North Korea will endure. That may be able to deter them.
You probably will also hear a more intense version of the calls we heard from some quarters before the North Korean missile test to put out of commission the North Korean launch sites. You may hear some variation on [targeted strikes] at the nuclear test sites and there is more of an argument to be made for that. This is a far more threatening development than the missile test and so the balance will tilt somewhat in the direction of that argument. Now, where it balances out is difficult to tell because there are still immense downsides and dangers to any sort of strike.
And the biggest downside I would see would be an invasion of the South by the North.
Right, this could catalyze some sort of a war. But if North Korea follows through with a test there may be military action. People, even in South Korea, where they’re the most hesitant to do these sorts of things, have been talking about this sort of response for several years. They may have softened their stance by now but this is certainly part of the conversation. It will be part of the conversation in Japan, and part of the conversation in the United States. And some might argue that if military actions come, better that [they] come before. That’s again complicated because until a test happens we don’t know for sure that North Korea will follow through.
I assume we’ll be able to tell if they’re actually preparing for a test.
This is complicated. We can tell if they’re preparing, but it’s difficult to tell if they have completed final preparations for a test and it may be difficult to tell if they attempt a test and fail. This is a technical issue. There are certainly seismic monitoring systems that monitor earth vibrations, like for earthquakes but targeted at detecting underground nuclear tests. These will be based in South Korea and elsewhere. It’s very difficult to tell whether we would be able to detect a failed test.
In other words, we’re not going to have the old-fashioned tests in the Nevada desert where you had atmospheric tests.
I don’t expect an aboveground test. North Korea’s test sites are focused on underground testing and when they speak of requiring safety preparations before they would go forward they’re talking about things like containing an explosion underground. Now, if the underground test site wasn’t going to work and North Korea really felt deeply threatened, could they attempt an aboveground test? Absolutely.
North Korea’s main complaint against the United States for months now has been this stepped-up law enforcement on counterfeiting and getting banks involved in cutting off North Korea’s money.
The U.S. contends this is standard law enforcement and they’re not going to make a special exception for North Korea. It’s impossible to know from a North Korean perspective whether their focus on the counterfeiting issue is genuine or whether it’s simply an excuse not to engage in talks. Certainly one would think that an American offer of bilateral talks, which North Korea has been asking for for years, would outweigh the concerns over counterfeiting if those concerns were genuine.
How much of a surprise is the North Korean threat?
Particularly to those in the region, to South Korea and to Japan, this isn’t much of a surprise. They have been thinking about this for a long time. They constantly hear North Korea use the phrase “physical response.” Naively, that is interpreted as a threat of a military strike but in many intelligence circles in the region it’s interpreted more subtly; physical refers to physics. This is a reference to a nuclear test.
What’s the latest thinking on how many nuclear weapons they have?
We’re looking at roughly eight nuclear weapons. It’s hard to pinpoint things and this also strikes at something very important. When North Korea started to reprocess more plutonium to potentially build more nuclear weapons, a segment of the American defense policy community said there is no real difference between one or two, six or eight, because they can be used to affect roughly the same deterrents. But what is fundamentally different is that if you have one nuclear weapon you do not blow it up in a test. You probably don’t do that even if you have two nuclear weapons. If you have eight you have plutonium to spare, and so we have made a nuclear test by North Korea more likely by letting them go forward with the reprocessing.