Kim Jong-un’s nuclear test dilemma

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Kim Jong-un’s nuclear test dilemma

Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor and head of the Institute for Future Strategy, Seoul National University.

Will North Korea conduct another nuclear test? Only Kim Jong-un knows the answer. Perhaps the North Korean leader has not decided yet. There are ample reasons for it to carry out another test. First, it needs to improve its nuclear capabilities, including making warheads smaller and lighter, as well as standardizing them to fit onto ballistic missiles. North Korea also needs another test to pressure the United States. Despite Kim’s demand that Washington present “new calculations” after the failed Hanoi summit in 2019, America did not. Under Joe Biden’s presidency, the U.S. has increasingly lost focus on North Korea. To badger Uncle Sam, Kim might feel the need to stage a mega event akin to the nerve-racking escalation of tensions between him and Donald Trump

But all the predictions of another test in April, June or early July proved to be mistaken. Why? That’s because security experts saw the test as a simple matter. But Kim Jong-un makes decision after considering all factors, including the domestic and external impacts. The current situation is drastically different from 2016, when the country conducted its first nuclear test. At that time, a test was essential to advance its nuclear technology and the economy was not in as bad a shape as now. Kim had nothing to lose in his relations with China and America. But a test now is not a must, although it can help improve his nuclear armaments. An additional test — overinvestment in nuclear programs and under-investment in the economy — only worsens unequal distribution of resources by the regime.

The biggest problem with another test is the possible impact on Kim’s powers. The test in 2016 helped lift North Koreans’ support for his regime, but another test now will certainly help sink it. Ordinary North Koreans know very well that a rapid reduction in their income owed much to international sanctions on the regime’s bold nuclear tests. They immediately will worry about an exacerbation of their economic pain by another test. If their livelihoods cannot improve even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, their disgruntlement will deepen.

A survey by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University on North Korean defectors shows that North Koreans’ support for Kim fell to 62.5 percent in 2019 from 72.5 percent between 2017 and 2018 due to deepening economic hardships from sanctions and the botched summit in Hanoi. Kim’s approval rating is probably at the lowest point since he took power in 2011. His plight largely originated with the outbreak of the pandemic, the border shutdowns that followed, and toughened controls on people. A nuclear test conducted under such circumstances could push support for Kim down to the point of threatening his regime’s security.

North Korea can hardly brush off China’s reaction. For Beijing, the North’s nuclear programs are a double-edged sword. China will certainly oppose another round of sanctions on its ally, but then things get complicated. The higher value of its North Korea card amid the tense Sino-U.S. standoff could be an advantage for China. But Beijing does not want an unstable Korean Peninsula after its ally’s seventh test. In fact, the North’s nuclear armaments sound more alarms in China, a neighbor, than to America. If Kim pushes forward another test despite Beijing’s disapproval, China could be tempted to put economic pressure on the North.

A seventh test alone cannot change the United States’ status quo strategy. Given a heated power contest between Washington and Beijing, the Biden administration can hardly shift its policy focus to North Korean nuclear issues. It is questionable if the U.S. government would concentrate on North Korea ahead of mid-term elections in November.
Because additional sanctions on the North cannot be endorsed by the UN Security Council due to China and Russia’s opposition, the United States can consider secondary boycotts. But secondary boycotts targeting North Korea and Russia are not effective. If the boycotts are to be successful, the U.S. must sanction large corporations and banks in China, but it is doubtful that Washington would take the risk. If U.S. sanctions on China help Beijing and Moscow get closer amid the ongoing Ukraine war, that will not benefit U.S. national interests.

If Kim pushes ahead with his seventh nuclear test, it can be followed by an eighth or ninth. His maneuverability is quite limited. If he goes ahead with a test to create a favorable environment, it can backfire. And yet, he cannot go back to the days before the first test in 2016. If he nevertheless pushes the test after defying all the odds, that represents his strong determination. It also reflects the desperateness of a country that cannot simply wait for the resumption of its border trade and economic aid from China until after the end of the pandemic. If the U.S. does not come up with a “new calculation,” North Korea will put more pressure on it with more tests.

A seventh test is not a one-time event but a harbinger of a structural change. If volatility deepens in the North, uncertainties will grow in the South. Coupled with chaotic developments around the globe, the North Korean nuclear issue will certainly worsen our economy. Policymakers of South Korea must look at the big picture and meticulously prepare for contingencies instead of repeating the same policies over and over as the previous administration did.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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