By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

For the past several weeks, I have started nearly every day by checking the news to see if North Korea has undertaken a fourth nuclear test. If so, I would need to wear a decent tie for the interviews that would ensue. My go-to news source is Twitter, where Dan Pinkston and other Seoul-based North Korea watchers will be among the first to report. Closer to home, Aidan Foster-Carter won’t be far behind.

Another nuclear test has been in preparation since last summer, when excavation work and two new tunnel entrances were observed at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. Excavation of one of the tunnels was accelerated this year and other activity consistent with test preparations was observed this spring. In late March, North Korea warned of ‘a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence’. Presumably this meant a weapon based on highly enriched uranium, to complement the nation’s plutonium weapons, but it might also have meant multiple tests. Given North Korea’s penchant for raining on others’ parades, many watchers suspected that a test was most likely during President Obama’s 25–26 April visit to Seoul.

The website 38 North is the best source for information on test preparations, among other North Korean topics. Even North Korean diplomats follow it – but apparently not carefully enough. One recently commented that the site had been contradictory about whether a test was imminent. In fact, 38 North has consistently said that while preparations appeared to be stepped up this spring, a test was not necessarily imminent.

Test launches of two Nodong missiles on 26 March – the first in five years – underscored the significance of the nuclear test preparations. There is insufficient evidence to determine whether North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. The US intelligence community remains agnostic. My view is that North Korea probably can. After all, they have been working on warheads since at least the late 1980s, when evidence of high explosives testing became visible near the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

The Nodong is surely North Korea’s nuclear-weapons vehicle of choice. Development work on the missile started in 1988, when plutonium production was also well underway. North Korea’s Scud missiles are also nuclear-capable, but their smaller airframe diameter (0.88m vs 1.25m for the Nodong) makes for a more difficult weapon miniaturisation task. Pakistan procured Nodongs precisely because of their nuclear potential. Tehran also procured Nodongs, presumably for the same reason, although there is no evidence of any Iranian nuclear warhead.

It stands to reason that North Korea has built such warheads. It has both technical and political reasons now to test them again. So why haven’t they done so yet this year? 

Chinese pressure is the most likely answer. Among other ways of conveying its anger at last year’s nuclear test, China froze high-level visits and more vigorously implemented UN sanctions. If North Korean intelligence is any good, it will have predicted that another test will bring yet more serious Chinese retaliation. It will be interesting to hear if China’s representative at the Shangri-La Dialogue gives any hint of this. 

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Key developments and trends in Asia-Pacific security

This Regional Security Assessment 2014 is the first IISS Strategic Dossier to be issued in association with the Shangri-La Dialogue. It focuses on issues reflecting the most important themes to emerge from successive Dialogues.

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