Despite strong international opposition, even from ally and benefactor China, North Korea on Tuesday tested its third nuclear device, prompting an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The test appears to show an increase in North Korea’s nuclear capability and is likely to further isolate the Pyongyang regime. Analysts say that hopes for improved relations with the new governments in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, or even Beijing are now on hold – at least for the time being.
“This is meant to get the attention of South Korea, the US, Japan and – dare I say it – China. With leadership transitions going on in all those countries this is a particularly appeasement-prone time,” says Sung-yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University in Boston. “None of those countries want a foreign policy crisis at the moment and will be more likely to resort to damage-control diplomacy.”
The US Geological Survey detected unusual seismic activity slightly north of the site of North Korea’s 2009 test, just before noon local time. The activity observed was inconsistent with that of a natural earthquake.
North Korea later confirmed the test.
"The test was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb, unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power,” said an English-language dispatch from the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official state broadcaster. If true, this concerns the international community because it indicates the country may be getting closer to the ability to put a nuclear device on a missile.
The blast had a magnitude of 4.9 with an estimated yield of between 6 and 7 kilotons, which is larger than North Korea’s 2009 test – itself an increase over its first test in 2006. North Korea is apparently seeking to develop lighter weapons that can travel farther. However, it is still believed to be far from developing a nuclear warhead that could reach the US.
This test was apparently directed at the US, which North Korea still considers its sworn enemy. The KCNA report stated that “the test was to defend our country’s safety and sovereignty against the US’s aggressive behavior that infringed upon our republic’s lawful right to peacefully launch a satellite.”
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Monday that Seoul and Washington were given advance notice that the test was to be carried out on Tuesday.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated which governments were alerted ahead of time.]
South Korea immediately condemned the launch, calling it an unacceptable threat and a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions. China expressed “firm opposition,” reflecting Beijing’s growing frustration with North Korea’s provocative behavior. US President Obama called it a “highly provocative act” that threatens international peace and pledged to defend the US and its allies, which include South Korea.
Since 2009, despite having a young, Western-educated leader take over, North Korea has maintained its position as combative and withdrawn from the international community, continuing an old cycle of provocations and increased international sanctions. In December, impoverished North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket that led to expanded UN sanctions.
The latest test, which the North indicated was a response to those sanctions, will likely only mean more sanctions for North Korea from the international community, though some analysts question their value at this point, despite the fact that the food shortages and economic difficulties caused by sanctions have not changed North Korea’s behavior on controversial issues such as its nuclear program and human rights record.
“Over the last 20 years, the international community has used sanctions and pressure when it comes to North Korea, but we’ve seen that those methods on their own cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear program,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.