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North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Six Explanations; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0011/2016

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 7, 2016

Background Briefing:

Could you comment on North Korea’s nuclear testing today? Why did they do that this particular time?

ANSWER: North Korea’s claim to have carried out a more advanced test of a nuclear bomb than previously has not been confirmed by independent sources. The United States government has cast doubt on North Korea’s claim it conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb. It is clear that an explosion of some type was set off on January 6th

as claimed. It measured 5.1 on the Richter scale and was located in the area where North Korea has conducted three previous nuclear tests.

In order to confirm whether or not North Korea’s claim that it successfully conducted its “first H-bomb test” it will be necessary for reconnaissance aircraft to collect air samples of the gasses emitted by the test. John Carlson, the former head of Australia’s nuclear safeguards office, speculated that North Korea carried out a low- yield “boosted explosion” in which tritium, a hydrogen isotope, underwent partial fusion.

Decision-making in North Korea is opaque at the best of times. There are at least six explanations for the timing of this nuclear test.

First, North Korean scientists must continue to test nuclear weapons in order to develop a miniaturized warhead for deployment on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The timing of the nuclear explosion, according to this view, was that North Korean scientists had reached the technical standards required for the test. The last North Korean nuclear test was in 2013.

Second, North Korean leaders, and the current leader Kim Jung-un in particular, relish being unpredictable. When they feel that North Korea is being ignored by the international community, they resort to provocative actions. This form of brinkmanship is designed to force the five other members of the Six Party Talks (China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States) to deal with North Korea and perhaps even offer economic incentives to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

Third, the nuclear test was carried out to bolster Kim Jong-un status as undisputed leader of North Korea on the eve of his birthday (January 8) and in advance of the May congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, the first such congress in thirty-five years. In December last year Kim made an ambiguous statement that implied North Korea had developed a hydrogen bomb and this test is a confirmation of that claim.

Fourth, the nuclear test was designed to influence China from putting increased pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

Fifth, the nuclear test was carried out to convince the United States that its policy of sanctions and isolation of North Korea was a failure.

Sixth, North Korea carried out the nuclear test to develop a deterrent against attack by the United States. North Korea’s official statement noted “this test is a measure for self-defense… to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country… from the ever- growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces…”

These six explanations are not mutually exclusive. Several of these explanations in combination could explain the timing of the test.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer)]

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