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Interview with Expert
Victor D. Cha Annalyzes N. Korea’s Nuclear Test
Dr. Victor D. Cha

Q1: What is the significance of today's nuclear test?

The nuclear test represents the latest in a string of provocations dating back to the end of 2008 when Pyongyang walked away from a denuclearization agreement at the end of the Bush administration. It then responded to diplomatic overtures by the new Obama administration by threatening and then carrying out a ballistic missile test (April), proclaiming the end of Six party talks, and conducting its second nuclear test since October 2006.

Q2: Why test now?

The test appears to be related to two factors. First, the nuclear test is part of a broader effort to improve both the North's long-range ballistic missile technology and its nuclear weapons capability. The April missile test, for example, deployed its first and second stages more successfully than the previous test in July which failed less than a minute after launch. The second nuclear test, moreover, apparently registered seismic activity consistent with a higher yield weapon (10-20 kilotons) than the October 2006 test (less than 1 kiloton).

Second, these tests could reflect a leadership transition in the North in which the stroke-afflicted leader Kim Jong-il is gradually being succeeded by a coterie of hard-line loyalists and members of the Kim family. Internal political fluidity in totalitarian systems like North Korea usually gets externalized in belligerent, not conciliatory behavior.

Q3: What do the North Koreans ultimately want?

The standard answer to this question from North Korea experts is that the Pyongyang uses such provocations to gain “face-to-face” negotiations with Washington. But Pyongyang has rebuffed all serious efforts by the Obama administration thus far to engage in high-level talks. So what do they want? The history of negotiation and Pyongyang’s rhetoric suggests two possible long-term desires.

First, the North may ultimately want nuclear arms reduction negotiations with the United States, in which they are accorded a status as a nuclear weapons state. The ideal outcome of this negotiation, in the Pyongyang’s eyes moreover, is an agreement that assures them a civilian nuclear energy element and the control of a portion of its nuclear programs outside of international inspection, the latter of which could then serve as their residual nuclear deterrent.

Second, the North may seek a special type of “regime security assurance” from the United States. This stems from the fundamental reform dilemma that the DPRK faces: It needs to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to the regime’s demise. Thus, what Pyongyang wants is an assurance that the United States will support and bolster the regime in Pyongyang as the Kim Jong-il (or post-Kim Jong-il) regime goes through the dangerous and potentially destabilizing effects of a reform process. This is different from a negative security assurance already given to North Korea in 2005 when the U.S. agreed "not to attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons" (Six party joint statement September 2005).

These goals pose formidable challenges for the United States and other members of the Six Party talks.

Q4: What are likely next steps?

- The U.S. is likely to send a high-level official to the region to reassure allies of U.S. security guarantees and the U.S. nuclear umbrella

- The UN Security Council will likely seek a new Chp. 7 resolution calling for full implementation of sanctions laid out in UNSCR 1718

- There will be increased calls for participation by UN member states in the Proliferation Security initiative

- Five of the six parties to the talks may convene to discuss next steps (US, Japan, ROK, China, Russia)

- US likely to consider measures to reinforce its defense posture in Asia

Victor Cha is the CSIS Korea Chair and a former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

For more information about Critical Questions or CSIS policy experts, please contact Neal Urwitz,, or call (202) 775-3167






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