Is North Korea going to risk an open air nuclear test?

Gregory Kulacki writes: North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.

It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.

At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.

China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.

Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.

It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel. But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.

Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test. [Continue reading…]

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