Reading the tea leaves at KCNA is always fraught with peril, but Josh Pollack noticed a wrinkle in what appears to be North Korea’s latest threat to conduct another nuclear test (or, really, demonstration).
North Korea is again indicating that it will “bolster its nuclear deterrent.” North Korea has used this phrase previously in reference to its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests — or, as Tom Schelling would have it, demonstrations. So, for example KCNA explained that the 2006, that US policy compelled the DPRK “to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent. Similarly, in 2009, KCNA explained North Korea had conducted “one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent.” (The DPRK has also described reprocessing plutonium in this way.)
KCNA has spent much of the spring suggesting Pyongyang would, once again, bolster the ol’ nuclear deterrent, leading some South Koreans to anticipate another nuclear test. (A third test had looked unlikely until the Cheonan incident.)
North Korea’s latest threat comes with a new addition — “to bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way:
The recent disturbing development on the Korean Peninsula underscores the need for the DPRK to bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way to cope with the U.S. persistent hostile policy toward the DPRK and military threat toward it.
What could “a newly developed way” mean?
As I’ve already written over at 38 North, I doubt very much that North Korea could build a staged thermonuclear device. On the other hand, North Korea might be able to build a boosted device, either gas-boosted, or a “layer cake” design similar to the one Israel appears to have. AQ Khan claims Pakistan tested a boosted device, but has been hazy on the details and, well, it’s AQ Frickin’ Khan.
Building and testing, er demonstrating, more sophisticated bomb designs makes for an effective signal by North Korea. But allow me to suggest that a few more kilotons won’t objectively alter the regional security situation unless we allow it to:
At the end of the day, U.S. policy toward North Korea is based on a variety of factors. Are North Korean leaders willing to re-commit to a denuclearization agreement and follow through on it? Will North Korean leaders work toward resolving other issues, from abductions of Japanese citizens to the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan? Can the United States balance the interests of multiple parties, including allies like Japan and South Korea, as well as China? Can the United States sustain a prolonged policy of engagement? The answers to these questions fundamentally determine whether we pursue engagement or containment. The yield of North Korea’s nuclear weapons may be on the list somewhere, but it ought to be near the bottom.