War With North Korea: Could a Nuclear Test Trigger It?

Recent press accounts of comments by South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae seemed to indicate that North Korea may be preparing for a fourth nuclear test at its Pyungge-ri test site, though the same official has since backtracked. The North has conducted three previous nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013, though the first was considered only partially successful. They have nonetheless brought strong international condemnation, and the latest has provoked a new round of UN sanctions, designed by the US and China. Indeed, the sanctions are cited as a specific grievance (along with joint US-South Korean military exercises) amid continued threats by North Korean leadership, who decry them as part of a US-led "war of aggression." Regardless of the views of Ryoo (the South Korean official), many security experts believe it may only be a matter of time before the North tests another nuclear device. Would these actions prove as provocative as previous tests?

A new nuclear test alone is unlikely to be as provocative as prior ones have — while tensions are certainly high, it is unlikely to alter the strategic balance significantly. The North can already threaten Seoul with conventional artillery (the South Korean metropolis is a mere 35 miles from the border, and hundreds of thousands of long-range artillery weapons). And official bluster aside, the North Korean’s longest-range operational missiles would barely be able to reach the U.S. base at Okinawa, much less Guam, or the continental U.S.

Other recent developments may provide more legitimate cause for concern, however. One is the decision to pull out 53,000 North Korean workers from the manufacturing facility at Kaesong, which is jointly run by North and South Korea, and is a critical source of hard currency for the North. This decision can only be calibrated to demonstrate that the North is willing to make severe sacrifices to prove a point. While the facility is a relative drop in the bucket of South Korea’s $1.1 trillion economy, it’s a big deal to their northern neighbors. What does it mean that the North is willing to put themselves through such economic pain? One likely message is that further economic sanctions are pointless, and that their nuclear program is non-negotiable.

Another development of real consequence is the shift in Chinese action and rhetoric. In addition to helping design the latest round of sanctions, Chinese president Xi Jinping said in a recent speech that no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain" while he did not mention North Korea by name, it has been widely understood that this is who he was referring to. The fact remains, though, that they have limited options for controlling their belligerent neighbor, short of cutting off oil supplies.

So while another nuclear test is unlikely to materially change the strategic balance, tensions remain high and escalation scenarios remain simultaneously unpredictable and terrifying. As regularly scheduled joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea come to a close, hope remains that the rhetoric will die down. To this end, the U.S. should avoid actions that worsen the existing tension (indeed, it seems that this is their policy for the moment). Here’s hoping that no sparks hit this tinderbox until then.