North Korea's Latest Missile Firing and Nuclear Weapons Test

This article has been written Dr Frank Boulton – an active Medact member and Trustee with a long-standing interest and considerable experience of the nuclear weapons debate.

On January 6th 2016, North Korea announced its successful detonation of a ‘hydrogen bomb’ in its fourth nuclear-bomb test. Seismic detectors around the world revealed a 5.1 magnitude earthquake centred on the county’s only nuclear test site, at Punggye-ri. The estimated yield of about 10Kt was less than what might be expected from a full-blown hydrogen bomb; some experts (such as Frank von Hippel) feel that it was really a ‘boosted’ fission bomb amplified by a deuterium/tritium fuse to increase the yield of fission-inducing neutrons. But this development marked a significant step towards weapons-miniaturisation and hence missile carriage.

On 7th February 2016 North Korea launched into space a three-stage missile with a payload of 200Kg which they claimed was a satellite put into orbit (such satellites normally weigh 800 to 1500 Kg). (For comparison, UK Trident D5 missiles have three stages and a MIRV (multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle) payload of classified weight with up to, possibly, eight warheads each weighing 164 Kg and a minimum range of 7800 km.) As yet, the North Koreans have not yet developed a targetable re-entry system, which would be a very significant development.



These were no mean technical feats. The North Koreans’ indigenous missile-producing facility has produced several thousand missiles – mostly of rather short range and based on Soviet-origin one-stage Scud missiles. In 2006 a two-stage rocket with a range of several thousand miles was fired, and a three-stage one in 2012 which had a small payload of about 100Kg.

North Korea has had a nuclear research programme since the late 1950’s (when it was much more resourced than the South), initially sponsored by the Soviet Union and encouraged by the discovery of indigenous uranium deposits. These deposits are of rather poor grade, but good enough for the country’s later leaders to start mining them from the 1980’s when outside sources were denied. A ‘research reactor’ – IRT 2000 – was built with the aid of the Soviets and opened in 1965. (‘Research reactor’ is a portmanteau term for several types of small-scale reactors used to produce medical isotopes, or to analyse materials for traces of elements, or to test radiation-resistant materials in the construction of nuclear power plants. They also supply invaluable operational experience.) At first the IRT 2000 used Soviet-supplied moderately enriched uranium (20%), and then highly enriched (98%, which is of weapons-grade).

The construction in the 1980’s of two UK Calder Hall-style graphite-moderated power plants, the designs of which were obtained through open access, enabled them to produce substantial amounts of weapons-grade plutonium (which was the primary purpose of Calder Hall). Hence, the North Koreans gained access to systems whereby both uranium and plutonium-based weapons could be developed. In more recent years this has been considerably assisted by complex clandestine trading relations (Mark Hibbs, August 2013) which demonstrate how readily North Korea has been able to by-pass any export control systems under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).


A historical outline

Koreans, whose history and culture go back to Classical times, have long been impervious to American diplomacy: this started with the notorious ‘Sherman Incident’ of 1866 (in which a well-armed US merchant ship visiting Korea provoked an attack resulting in the firing of the ship and the deaths of all its crew) after which the US forcibly opened Korea to trade. Russian interests in Korea grew toward the end of the 19th century, but after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, Japan annexed Korea, formally taking it as a protectorate in 1910 in which state it remained for 35 years.


The Korean, Cold War and post-Cold War periods

Japan’s expulsion from the peninsula in 1945 was followed by Soviet occupation of its northern part and American occupation of the south, either side of the ‘38th parallel’. After massive fluctuations of fortune during the Korean War (1950-53) and the intervention of the Chinese Peoples’ Volunteer Army (which provoked the American General MacArthur to consider using nuclear weapons), fighting came to a standstill around the current demilitarised zone (DMZ) and an armistice was signed in July 1953. There has never been a peace treaty and technically the two sides are still at war.


North Korea

During the Cold War, North Korea asked for nuclear weapons from the Soviets and from the Chinese, but only got promises of atomic assistance for civil nuclear power. In 1984 it signed the NPT but never allowed inspections.  It threatened to withdraw in 1993 and actually did so ten years later.

With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990, the North Koreans lost their main security guarantor; currently their main relatively well-disposed ally is China which, however, is very concerned that a collapse of the North Korean economy – for instance as a consequence of international sanctions – would leave it with a major refugee crisis on its borders (the population of N Korea is about 23 million). Chinese relations with North Korea are less amicable than they were, and even more so with the accession to power in 2011 of Kim Jong-un; but China is North Korea’s main trading partner by far. During recurrent North-South crises, China has a habit of sending tank regiments to its North Korean border, but no Chinese troops are there. China has condemned every North Korean nuclear test.

During a relative thaw in relations, North Korea signed in 1994 a ‘Framework Agreement’ with the US, the objective of which was to stop North Korea’s indigenous civil nuclear program and replace it with relatively proliferation-resistant light water reactors (LWR), and also to develop step-by-step normalization of bilateral relations. The prospects were never going to be easy but the accession of G W Bush and his ‘axis of evil’ speech in 2002 was a major set-back.  Although North Korea may well have been preparing to reprocess plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel from those LWR’s the ultimate cause of the breakdown remains veiled in uncertainty. It may be significant that North Korea still has no nuclear electricity power plant in operation. By contrast, South Korea has 23 reactors which generate 29% of the country’s consumed electricity, the first going active in 1978.


South Korea

Not that all has been well in South Korea. In 1979 Park Chung-hee, the military strong-man President, was assassinated and within weeks General Chun Doo-hwan took control of the government and imposed martial law across the nation. In May 1980 a student uprising was suppressed with violence but an increasingly demonstrative democratisation movement led to the restoration of democracy. The 40,000 or so American troops in South Korea became implicated with the dictatorship by association, but did not oppose democratisation. The troops are still there. One of the uprising’s leaders, Kim Dae-jung, was elected President in 1997 and while the US was pursuing its ‘Framework Agreement’. He attempted a ‘sunshine policy’ toward North Korea (which gained him a Nobel Peace laureate). This was not universally popular, not least when large financial inducements to the north were revealed.

South Korea’s nuclear industry is also involved with the international nuclear fusion project – ITER – researching into nuclear fusion as a source of electricity.  It is also actively engaged in programmes for exporting nuclear technology to countries such as Jordan, Turkey, the UAE and Indonesia. Furthermore, there are voices within South Korea to militarise its nuclear industry, but while the ‘nuclear umbrella doctrine’ of its US ally holds, substantial moves in this direction are unlikely. There is also an active anti-nuclear movement which needs our support.


The significance of North Korea’s more recent developments

In spite of its poverty, N Korea has learnt how to re-process spent nuclear fuel (to get plutonium) and how to develop high-enrichment of uranium, so it has both options to get fissile nuclear weapons at hand. When the Cold War ended they reacted to what they saw as threats from the US and South Koreans and – increasingly from Japan. They left the NPT in 2003 (possibly illegally but article X of the NPT provides for this). It has procured many ‘dual-use’ materials, often clandestinely and via unscrupulous middle-men in ways which illustrate the profound risk of nuclear weapons-proliferation by other States.

Hence, there is real cause for concern. It may not be insignificant that the current escalation has come about since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as North Korea’s ‘supreme leader’ in December 2011. Nevertheless, North Korea presents a threat to world peace and cannot be allowed to develop its nuclear arsenals further – but neither should any other nation.  Indeed, while there are eight other fully-fledged nuclear armed states, the very existence of any nuclear weapon is a continuous threat to world peace.

The ease,  skill and cunning with which North Korea has manipulated trade in dual use components and occasional specialist equipment illustrates the wider opportunities for diversion of nuclear technology to produce weapons and hence to defeat the key objectives of the NPT. North Korea also cites the example of Colonel Qadaffi of Libya as a person who, by giving up his nuclear options, effectively committed political suicide.



The unanimous condemnation of North Korea’s actions by the UN Security Council calls for deepening sanctions, to which China is now committed. But North Korea responded with a gesture of defiance (Guardian 3rd March) and China is likely to continue providing North Korea with an economical lifeline. International trade sanctions are often ineffective but did help procure the Iran deal of 2015; were North Korea seen to evade sanctions effectively, Iranian public opinion may change.

Nevertheless, China holds the key – in that sense, Donald Trump, in his CBS Interview of 10 February, is correct (although not in his recommendation that the US ‘force’ China to make Kim Jong-un ‘disappear’). Nuclear bombs are primarily political rather than military weapons and international diplomacy would deal with them best through political rather than military processes. The political significance of North Korea’s actions was very evident in their public’s reception of the news.

China is in continuous dialogue with North Korea’s leaders: China’s priority, however, is for political and social stability in that country more than removing its nuclear arsenal (Brooks and Rapp-Hooper, 2013; Guardian 2016). The supremely sensitive and delicate nature of encouraging such political stability if it were to include even a tacit withdrawal of a nuclear threat, requires overt and covert support from the World Powers and the UN. The rattling of any nuclear sabres (which would be popular in South Korea and in Japan although the respective governments are more cautious) must be avoided. Sooner or later, armistice talks must resume (in spite of many failures sine the 1950’s). Meanwhile, US policy in SE Asia remains to provide its allies with ‘Extended Deterrence’ to dissuade North Korea from attacking them. According to deterrence theory, the US says this could be done by giving security guarantees to the allies, public re-affirmation of US defence commitments which may include a nuclear declaratory policy, and demonstrating US retaliatory capabilities by military exercises, etc. In addition, extending Ballistic Missile Defence systems to the Region could help to deny North Korean efficacy and assure the US’ allies, but it is recognised that this could alarm China through the difficulty of distinguishing whether such a BMD system would include defence against China, which would upset current Sino-American understanding.

Is it surprising, therefore that N Korea’s leaders are paranoid in an increasingly uncertain world, and want the world sit up and take notice? But this would be so for any other aspiring nation feeling under threat from its neighbours, the consequences of which would be further nuclear weapon proliferation, international destabilisation, increasing possibilities of an accidental nuclear war and its consequent global nuclear famine, if not complete human annihilation. However, North Korea remains an insignificant threat to UK security.

The demonstrable failings of the NPT processes indicate that it needs to be reinforced. The recent opening of the next phase of the UN ‘Open Ended Working Group’ (Rebecca Johnson, February 2016), in which all member nations can participate and with decisions reached not by the usual consensus but by a majority without vetoing powers, offers real hope. A clear majority of nations favour discrediting nuclear weapons and developing a legal treaty to ban them, after which measures can be taken to eliminate them. Although such measures will be opposed by the five Nuclear Weapons States accredited under the NPT, one of which is the UK, their leaders should pursue diplomacy.  Rather than an ‘extended deterrence’ involving nuclear weapons, the real needs of the people of Korea would be best dealt by encouraging a diplomatic process led by China, driven by recognising the real humanitarian threat of nuclear famine as a consequence of any substantial nuclear exchange. This remains our task. In this respect, support from the next American administration is vital.


Further reading

Timeline of the North Korean nuclear programme

Mark Hibbs, August 2013 )

Agreed Framework of 1994

North Korean relations with the US

Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations

Video of interview with Donald Trump, CBS news, 10 February 2016

Linton Brooks and Mira Rapp-Hooper, 2013    Extended Deterrence, Assurance, and Reassurance in the Pacific during the Second Nuclear Age,   Strategic Asia 2013–14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, Oct 2013  The  National  Bureau of Asian Research

Rebecca Johnson. Britain’s boycott of the UN multilateral nuclear disarmament talks. Open democracy 26 February.

The Guardian, 3rd March 2016 North Korea fires missile volley into sea after UN ratchets up sanctions