5th North Korean Nuclear Test: Sleepwalk to Catastrophe Continues.

With what can only be described as great timing 38North, on September 8, reported that the latest (August 27) public domain satellite imagery of the North Korean nuclear test site, at Punggye-ri, indicated renewed activity at the site.

Notably, a small number of mining carts are visible on or near the tailings piles at both the North and West Portals; the tailings pile at the West Portal has expanded and new tracks for mining carts have been laid; and a small building has been erected to the southwest of the South Portal. Overall, this activity indicates that maintenance and minor excavation operations have resumed at Punggye-ri. However, it is unclear if this activity is directly related to preparations for a fifth nuclear test.

A day later both the CTBTO and the US Geological Survey reported an Mb 5.3 event, with P-waves consisted with an explosion rather than an earthquake, epicentred at Punggye-ri. North Korea has formally announced it had conducted its 5th nuclear test, of what it calls a nuclear “warhead.” That claim, that is that the explosive device tested was for a warhead able to be fitted to a functioning reentry vehicle, should be treated with caution.

The equation for gathering an estimate of explosive yield from magnitude of seismic event is

mb= A + B log Y

where A and B are constants, depending on the geology of the area, and Y is explosive yield in kilotons of TNT. For North Korea A and B are given as 4.45 and 0.75 respectively, so Y is approximately 15Kt; North Korea’s biggest bang to date. Others, taking their cue from South Korean data, report a yield of 12Kt.

What might we say?

The best statement I have seen is due to the Arms Control Association

Current international efforts to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities are woefully inadequate. Tough international sanctions and condemnation has failed to prevent North Korea from conducting nuclear tests and has failed to constrain its ballistic missile program.

North Korea has steadily increased its nuclear explosive capabilities, missile capabilities, and production of fissile materials since 2009. It may well have also made advances in developing warheads and reentry vehicles.

The ACA statement continues,

The next U.S. presidential administration must renew efforts to productively engage North Korea in a diplomatic dialogue with the goal of freezing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing. Such a freeze would buy time to seek a more robust arrangement to roll back its capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief and other inducements. Failure to achieve such a result will allow North Korea to continue to develop and deploy missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads that can reach targets throughout Northeast Asia.

That is just sooo spot on; it is the most rational course to pursue.

The New York Times, however, was horrid. Consider this from Secretary of State Kerry;

Speaking in Geneva early Saturday morning after announcing a deal with Russia over the Syrian conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was willing to negotiate with North Korea, but only if it agreed that the goal of those talks was for it to give up its weapons. “We have made overture after overture to the dictator of North Korea,” he said, including on normalizing the country’s relationship with the West and a formal peace agreement to replace the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War but not the state of hostilities.

“All Kim Jong-un needs to do is say, ‘I’m prepared to talk about denuclearization,’” Mr. Kerry said.

The actual diplomatic record, as usual with The New York Times on this, is out of history. So reading this you wouldn’t know that North Korea earlier this year did say it was “prepared to talk about denuclearisation,” and offered a relatively moderate proposal shaved of the usual ambit claims.

Kelsey Daveport reports in the latest issue of Arms Control Today

North Korea has publicly redefined its denuclearization policy, a move that some experts say may have been intended as an overture to resume nuclear negotiations until the U.S. decision to sanction the North Korean leadership likely closed off any opportunity for new talks.

A July 6 statement by a spokesman for the North Korean government said that “the denuclearization being called for by [North Korea] is the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department senior policy adviser to the special ambassador for talks with North Korea, said the statement marked a change from North Korea’s past characterizations of denuclearization, which stated that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons only when countries such as the United States disarm.

Carlin, speaking at a July 13 press briefing hosted by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that the new position, which called only for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, is more practical and “clearly and very deliberately” lays out a definition of denuclearization similar to North Korea’s position in the 1990s, when the two Koreas signed a joint denuclearization agreement for the Korean peninsula.

And what was the *immediate* US response to this?

Yet, just hours after Pyongyang’s statement, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and several senior officials because of human rights violations. This was the first time that the United States directly targeted the North Korean leader.

Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that action was taken to highlight Washington’s “condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.”

The sanctions imposed by the United States are a “dialogue killer,” said Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, at the July 13 press briefing. Sanctioning Kim was a “major step” because states do not take lightly such a decision against a foreign leader, and it is unlikely that he would have been targeted personally if the United States was interested in negotiations at that time, DeThomas said.

The immediate response was to enact “dialogue killer” economic sanctions.

This behaviour has been standard practice for much of the North Korean case during the Bush II and Obama administrations; for example Bush II scuttled an agreement by slapping sanctions on North Korea upon the basis of false allegations of counterfeiting. The North Koreans are hardly paragons of diplomatic virtue, to be sure, but you get no sense of this diplomatic history at all from The New York Times.

This is a serious omission from a newspaper that bills itself as the newspaper of record.

North Korea’s strategic programmes have been a means to “coercivelly bandwagon” with the US; they were seen as leverage to improve relations with the US. The US, by contrast, has used concerns regarding nonproliferation as a means to pursue a strategy of containment or outright regime change through strangulation.

Perhaps the North has decided that it does not have leverage sufficient, so is ramping up the pressure. Perhaps the North has decided that building a credible strategic deterrent is a price it must pay for its continued existence.

The US responds to every North Korean move with further pressure, so we have a spiral of tit-for-tat.

This is a spiral of escalation that may not have a happy outcome. Perhaps this spiral will continue until the North reaches the precipice of a genuine strategic deterrent, and then serious diplomacy will begin. Such a soft landing is not assured. The more capable they become the more they can demand.

The Iran deal is important here. The IAEA reports that Iran is adhering to its end of the bargain, however the Iranians, or better still Ayatollah Khamenei in particular, don’t think the US is adhering to theirs.

The North is surely watching the Iran case very closely.

The sleepwalk to catastrophe on the Korean peninsula inches that bit forward.