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Elizabeth Philipp

UN, Others Respond to N. Korean Moves

March 2016

By Elizabeth Philipp

14_NEWS_NKorea.jpgThe international community is debating new punitive measures in response to recent actions by North Korea to advance its nuclear and missile capability.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned North Korea’s Feb. 7 satellite launch and a Jan. 6 nuclear test as violations of previous Security Council resolutions. Last month, North Korea launched a three-stage rocket and placed a satellite into orbit. The rocket launch is of concern to the international community because of the potential scientific advantage it provides Pyongyang for developing a long-range missile that could eventually be outfitted with nuclear warheads.

In January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, which had a yield of about 10 kilotons. Pyongyang said it had tested a hydrogen bomb, which would signify a technological advance for the state. Government officials and independent experts expressed serious doubts about the claim.

In a statement shortly after the satellite launch, Ban said, “It is deeply deplorable that [North Korea] has conducted a launch using ballistic missile technology in violation of relevant Security Council resolutions.”

The Security Council last adopted a resolution on the North Korean nuclear program in 2013. Late last month, the council was deliberating on an additional resolution condemning the recent nuclear test explosion, reaffirming restrictions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs and the financing of them, and imposing new restrictions.

Ban reiterated his call to Pyongyang to “halt its provocative actions and return to compliance with its international obligations” and his “commitment to working with all sides in reducing tensions and achieving the verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”

After Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January, Ban condemned the test “unequivocally” at a press conference.

U.S. Responds

In the United States, President Barack Obama on Feb. 18 signed into law a bill that expands sanctions on North Korean individuals and banking, calls for closer scrutiny of the human rights violations experienced by North Korean citizens abroad, and supports enforcing existing nonproliferation efforts.

The bill, H.R. 757, was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2015 by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and a bipartisan group of five co-sponsors. The bill initially stalled, but after the Jan. 6 nuclear test, it gained momentum and moved through the House and Senate, where the Foreign Relations Committee added several new sections. One imposed a requirement on the secretary of state to report to Congress on a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, based on a “complete interagency review of current policies and possible alternatives,” and provide recommendations for legislative and administrative action. Another addition requires the president to direct development of a strategy to improve international implementation and enforcement of existing UN sanctions specific to North Korea.

After the Senate passed the bill on Feb. 10 by a vote of 96-0, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) issued a statement saying the legislation provides “a more robust set of tools to confront the growing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threat.” The House approved the Senate version of the bill on Feb. 12.

The United States previously has imposed national sanctions on North Korean entities for actions materially contributing to the proliferation of nonconventional weapons or their means of delivery, most recently in December 2015.

North Korea’s Progress on Sub Missile Questioned

North Korean video footage of the Dec. 21 test launch of a ballistic missile designed for deployment on submarines appears to have been seriously doctored, a U.S. research institute says.

The footage, which Pyongyang released Jan. 8, intentionally misrepresented the success of the test, experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies wrote in a Jan. 12 analysis.

The launch was an ejection test of the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a submerged barge. Ejection tests are designed to evaluate a missile’s stabilization systems and the process of underwater launch. North Korea first conducted a successful ejection test from a submerged barge in May 2015. (See ACT, January/February 2016.)

Pyongyang attempted to launch the KN-11 from a submarine last November, but the test reportedly was a failure because the missile failed to eject successfully.

“Although the KN-11 appears to eject successfully, which is an improvement over November, we think that a catastrophic failure occurred at ignition…. The rocket appears to explode,” wrote Catherine Dill of the James Martin Center.

The launch portrayed in the video took place in the waters near the Sinpo Shipyard, where Pyongyang’s SLBM program is based, Dill wrote.

The December test was the third SLBM test for North Korea in 2015. Although it is not clear why the SLBM tests have failed thus far, “it seems the North Korean specialists are trying to master the mechanism for ejecting the missile from the launch tube, and then igniting the missile’s engine,” said Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in a Feb. 19 email to Arms Control Today.

North Korea has likely tested the missile ejection mechanism on land, Elleman said. But “failures are inevitable and expected” in developing a viable SLBM capability and “only tell us that [the North Koreans] are trying to do something that they have not done before,” he said.

There are “no shortcuts” to developing a reliable SLBM system, Elleman said. “[I]t will take some time to perfect all of the necessary technologies.”

He said he suspects it will be “most likely after 2020” before North Korea could develop an operational SLBM capability.—ELIZABETH PHILIPP

    Regional Reactions

    China has signaled support for punitive actions against North Korea. In remarks on Feb. 16, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that North Korea must “pay the necessary price” under new UN sanctions, according to a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Wang said the purpose of a forthcoming UN resolution would be to “stop North Korea from going any further down the path of developing nuclear weapons.” He stated that North Korea must return to the six-party talks, a negotiating forum that Pyongyang left in 2009.

    Japan and South Korea also have taken action against North Korea in response to its recent actions. Tokyo intends to tighten restrictions on travel between North Korea and Japan and to ban North Korean ships from docking in Japanese ports, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said at a Feb. 8 press briefing.

    On Feb. 10, South Korea suspended its participation in the joint industrial venture at Kaesong in North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex has served as a cooperative project for the two Koreas since 2002 and the city of Kaesong as a venue for diplomatic meetings as recently as December 2015. As further justification for shuttering the industrial zone, the South Korean minister of unification, Hong Yong-pyo, also publicly stated on Feb. 10 that hard currency earned by the North Koreans through the Kaesong venture has been “wrongly harnessed” and used to fund Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

    Space Launch

    The Feb. 7 launch marked North Korea’s fifth firing  of a long-range rocket since 1998. U.S. officials contend that the launch is a cover for an effort to eventually develop and deploy a long-range missile capable of striking the United States. UN Security Council President Rafael Darío Ramírez Carreño of Venezuela referred to the Feb. 7 event as a “missile launch,” as did U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby in a Feb. 8 press briefing. Other experts, however, suggested that although the firing of the space launch vehicle had implications for ballistic missile development, North Korea might also have an interest in space development. In a recent analysis for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggested that the sequence of events in the North Korean rocket program does not comport with a program of research and development on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). No country has first developed space launch technology and then applied it to an ICBM program, he said. In the analysis, he explained that the large rockets North Korea has launched have been designed to perform as satellite launchers. Significant flight testing would also be required before North Korea could deploy a reliable ICBM, he wrote.

    The rocket fired on Feb. 7 had three stages and was liquid fueled, making it similar to the Unha space launch vehicle that North Korea sent into space in 2012, Elleman said. According to a Feb. 20 story from Yonhap, the South Korean military has finished gathering debris from the launch and will assess it to gain data on Pyongyang’s capability. The final stage exploded into more than 270 pieces, possibly intentionally by North Korea, before landing in the Yellow Sea, the story said.

    North Korea announced its impending test to the International Maritime Organization on Feb. 2 for the period of Feb. 8-25, but later shortened the anticipated launch period to Feb. 7-14.

    North Korea watchers have been anticipating a rocket launch since North Korea undertook serious renovations at its Sohae satellite launch station at Tongchang-ri on the peninsula’s west coast. Renovations completed in 2015 included the installation of a covered launch tower and a movable warehouse, both of which serve to protect a space launch vehicle from the elements and to conceal launch preparations, according to analysts at 38 North. North Korean rockets are liquid fueled, meaning they must be fueled in place before launch, which is a slow and detectable process.

    With the Feb. 7 launch, North Korea claims to have placed into orbit an earth observation satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-4. (Kwangmyongsong means “bright star.”) There is no public information indicating that the satellite is transmitting a signal back to Earth. According to a Yonhap report, South Korean intelligence has estimated that the Kwangmongsong-4 weighs 200 kilograms, twice as much as the satellite launched in 2012.

    Pyongyang also claimed to have placed a satellite into orbit in 2012, but it is thought to have been a dummy satellite as there is no indication that it ever made contact with Earth.    

    Following broad international criticism, new punitive measures are promised. 

    After Tougher Sanctions, Effective Engagement Needed to Curb North Korean Nuclear and Missile Threat

    Today, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a fifth resolution to address North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear and missile programs. UN Security Council Resolution 2270 was adopted in response to North Korea’s dangerous nuclear provocations of early 2016, namely a fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a second launch of a satellite on Feb. 7, which has implications for its long-range ballistic missile development efforts. The new resolution imposes the most comprehensive sanctions to date. UNSCR 2270 seeks to: curb Pyongyang’s access to materials with military applications,...

    North Korea Claims Hydrogen Bomb Test

    January/February 2016

    By Elizabeth Philipp

    Ko Yun-hwa (left) and Yun Won-tae, senior officials with the Korea Meteorological Administration, point to a screen in the organization’s offices in Seoul showing seismic waves originating from the area of North Korea’s nuclear test site on January 6. (Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)North Korea declared on Jan. 6 that it had successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb earlier that day, sparking a mix of condemnation and skepticism around the world. Government officials and independent experts agreed that the event was an underground nuclear test, but cast doubt on the claim it was a hydrogen bomb.

    In response to the North Korean announcement, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Jan. 6 that the initial evidence of the test is “not consistent with North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test” but that the blast was “provocative and a flagrant violation” of a number of UN Security Council resolutions. The test has not “caused the United States government to change [its] assessment of North Korea’s technical and military capabilities,” Earnest said.

    Classic hydrogen bombs are more technologically sophisticated devices and produce a higher explosive yield because they involve two stages: a first one involving nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, and a second one involving nuclear fusion, the combining of atoms. North Korea’s past three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013 were of fission devices. North Korea is prohibited from testing nuclear weapons under UN Security Council resolutions.

    The Jan. 6 announcement, which was relayed by Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), described the test as a “spectacular success.” Pyongyang also indicated its intent to continue nuclear development, stating it “will steadily escalate its nuclear deterrence of justice both in quality and quantity.”

    Punggye-ri Test Site

    Seismic activity from the nuclear test was detected immediately by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the international body that is preparing for the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and monitors the environment for nuclear testing.

    North Korea, which is not a party to the CTBT, is the only state to test a nuclear weapon in this century.

    The CTBTO reported an “unusual seismic event” near North Korea’s known nuclear testing site via a statement on its website Jan. 6. The seismic data confirm that it was “indeed a manmade explosion,” said Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the CTBTO, at a Jan. 7 press briefing.

    Although North Korea did not announce an imminent test, experts have been aware of preparations for months, tracking activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. In a Dec. 2 analysis on 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote that Pyongyang is “excavating a new tunnel for nuclear testing.” Speaking on the implications of that activity at a Dec. 16 press briefing by 38 North, Joel Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute said digging a tunnel is “serious” and that North Korea “may want more tunnels for the future to conduct more tests.” In a Jan. 7 analysis of satellite imagery published by 38 North, Joseph Bermudez, chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis, said the test almost certainly was conducted at an older tunnel that was used for the 2009 and 2013 tests. North Korea had been excavating this tunnel for more than a year, he wrote.

    Nuclear Yield

    Experts can estimate the yield of a nuclear explosion based on seismic data. Through its International Monitoring System, the CTBTO detected the test at more than two dozen detection stations around the world, Zerbo said at a Jan. 6 press briefing. The explosion was found to be similar to the 2013 test in size and location, he said.

    The CTBTO analysis found the magnitude of the explosion to be 4.85, just slightly smaller than the 2013 test, which had a magnitude of 5.1, according to Zerbo. The recent event is “on the order of 10 kilotons,” said Lewis at a Jan. 7 briefing by 38 North. But that is just an estimate, given that the North Korean site is not calibrated, he said. A calibrated site would allow for a standardized and reliable seismic reading.

    Zerbo said the CTBTO would monitor its radionuclide detectors, which collect gases released into the air by the nuclear explosion. The presence of certain elements, such as xenon, can confirm that the seismic event was caused by a nuclear explosion. It can take time for the gases released by the explosion to reach the surface. In 2013, it took 55 days for the CTBTO’s radionuclide detectors to pick up evidence from the February test. The 2009 nuclear test yielded no radionuclide evidence.

    Test Type

    The evidence indicates that the magnitude of the test was significantly less powerful than past tests of hydrogen bombs by other states, said a South Korean military official quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

    Randy Bell, director of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s International Data Centre speaks at a press briefing in Vienna on January 6. (Photo credit: CTBTO)Rather than a classic two-stage hydrogen bomb design, it is more likely that North Korea tested a “boosted fission device,” Lewis said at the Jan. 7 briefing by 38 North. A boosted device uses hydrogen isotopes to increase the explosive yield by making the fission reaction more efficient.

    That may be what North Korea means when it refers to a “hydrogen bomb,” he suggested. The detonation of a boosted fission device thus would be consistent with North Korea’s hydrogen bomb claim and with the observed yield, he said. A boosted device would be a “reasonable” step for North Korea in its fourth nuclear test, he said.

    The increased efficiency means that North Korea would require less fissile material for each weapon and therefore represents an “important and useful step” in developing warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, Lewis said.

    North Korea deploys a variety of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. It has displayed an ICBM, the KN-08, but not tested it. Pyongyang is also developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it most recently tested in December (see page 38).

    A second important implication of the test is that a boosted device “makes an excellent first stage” of a two-stage hydrogen bomb, Lewis said.

    International Responses

    At a Jan. 6 press conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “condemn[ed the test] unequivocally” and announced that the UN Security Council would immediately begin work on a new resolution against North Korea.

    The Security Council held an emergency meeting on Jan. 6 to discuss responsive measures. The United States expressed its support for new multilateral sanctions in a Jan. 6 press statement by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

    The effectiveness of additional sanctions depends on China, Joseph DeThomas, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said at the Jan. 7 press conference by 38 North. Experts have criticized Beijing, which is North Korea’s primary trading partner, for being too lenient on Pyongyang.

    “Sanctions alone will not leverage change in the North Korean policy in the absence of a fundamental change in the Chinese policy,” DeThomas said. The additional sanctions should eventually be coupled with a diplomatic and political track that provides North Korea a pathway to negotiated denuclearization, he said.

    South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (center) speaks as Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (second from right) listens during an emergency meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential Blue House on January 6. (Photo credit: South Korean Presidential Blue House/Getty Images)On Jan. 6, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a statement, saying the Chinese government is “firmly opposed” to North Korean nuclear testing and called on Pyongyang to “honor its commitment to denuclearization.”

    In a Jan. 6 statement, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for the United States and other allies of Seoul to impose sanctions on North Korea, saying her country would work with the international community to ensure North Korea “pay[s] the price” for the “grave provocation.”

    Members of the U.S. Congress from both political parties called for a variety of actions, particularly a strengthening of sanctions. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Jan. 6 that “new and more biting” sanctions on North Korea are necessary. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called for the “toughest and broadest possible sanctions against North Korea” and any entities that support Pyongyang’s illicit activities.

    In separate Jan. 7 statements, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for expanding missile defense systems to counter the threat posed by North Korean missiles. 

    North Korea declared it had successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb, sparking a mix of condemnation and skepticism around the world.

    North Korea Tests Sea-Based Missiles

    January/February 2016

    By Elizabeth Philipp

    North Korea conducted two tests of a sea-based missile late last year, apparently with mixed results.

    The most recent ejection test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), on Dec. 21, was successful, according to analysts. In an analysis of satellite imagery for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Joseph Bermudez said reports of the Dec. 21 test at the Sinpo Shipyard were supported by imagery of the site.

    Ejection tests are designed to evaluate the missile’s stabilization systems and the process of underwater launch. North Korea first conducted a successful ejection test from a submerged barge last May. (See ACT, June 2015).

    The Dec. 21 ejection test came less than a month after a failed Nov. 28 launch test from North Korea’s experimental SINPO-class submarine. Despite the failure of the launch test, some experts suggested it may be a more focused research and development effort by Pyongyang to hone and eventually deploy a sea-based nuclear-armed missile. The subsequent ejection test in December appears to substantiate this suggestion.

    South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency first reported on the Nov. 28 launch that day, citing a South Korean official who described the test as unsuccessful because the missile “failed to soar from the waters.” Additionally, “no missile flight was tracked on radar” nor was missile debris “observed floating on the surface of the water following the test,” according to Bermudez, who is chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis.

    Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 email that the development of new technologies is sometimes a process of “two steps forward, one step back,” in which “something that worked in an earlier test fails in a later test.” Testing the SLBM would help North Korea “identify flaws that need fixing,” he said.

    Missile components are increasingly difficult for Pyongyang to procure due to UN Security Council resolutions, Bennett said. Resolutions have included demands for North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program, including ballistic missile development.

    The SLBM tests coincided with the run-up to North Korea’s Jan. 6 test of a nuclear device (see page 36). Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 10 reported North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s announcement that his country was “ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb.” The assertion of a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, design is new for North Korea.

    North Korea said the Jan. 6 test involved a hydrogen bomb, but experts are skeptical of the true test type. North Korea is believed to be able to deliver a nuclear weapon via its medium-range Nodong missile. (See ACT, June 2014). 

    North Korea conducted two tests of a sea-based missile late last year, apparently with mixed results. 

    Show but Don’t Tell: Selective Nuclear Narratives in North Korea

    For a propaganda state reliant on a state-sanctioned image to indoctrinate its people and promote a certain reputation globally, a successful missile test is an event to be photographed and celebrated in the state-run news. Today, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that his state has developed a hydrogen bomb, a new claim that has elicited skepticism from experts. This decree, like its many other public pronouncements and demonstrations of military equipment, does not necessarily reflect North Korea’s true current capability. Pyongyang meticulously crafts its own nuclear narrative...

    Putting the Horse Before the Cart: Resuming Talks with North Korea

    International relations with North Korea have been marked by provocations, off-and-on diplomatic engagement, and the threat of military conflict for decades. The threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs came back into the spotlight this fall with talk from North Korea that it would soon conduct a fourth satellite launch, which has not been delivered upon to date, the highly anticipated military parade in honor of the Korean Workers’ Party 70 th anniversary, and reports that Pyongyang is making preparations for a fourth nuclear test explosion. It is Pyongyang itself that...

    North Korea’s Nuclear ICBM?

    With the 70 th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea approaching on Oct. 10, the director of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) lauded his country’s “shining achievements” in space development in an interview with the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 14 and raised the possibility of another satellite launch in the near future. The unnamed director reported that North Korea is at a “final phase” in the development of a new earth observation satellite, a “peaceful project” pursuant to improving the people of North Korea’s...


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