North Korea’s Next Nuclear Test Is A Matter of ‘When,’ Not ‘If’

But Russia and China block any U.N. action against the Hermit Kingdom.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally to celebrate the declaration that it had achieved full nuclear statehood in Pyongyang.
North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally to celebrate the declaration that it had achieved full nuclear statehood in Pyongyang.
North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally to celebrate the declaration that it had achieved full nuclear statehood in Pyongyang on Dec. 1, 2017. Kim Won-Jin/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. officials and their allies in East Asia have assessed that there is little, if anything, they can do to prevent North Korea from carrying out a seventh nuclear missile test, following years of diplomatic deadlock and a raft of recent ballistic missile tests.

“Kim [Jong Un]’s next nuclear test is a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’” said one South Korean official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the North Korean dictator. “We unfortunately have to plan as if it is a done deal.”

Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to talks with North Korea as it stubbornly develops a nuclear weapons program, despite sweeping international sanctions. Those overtures, however, have been met with radio silence. All the while, North Korea has steadily continued testing and expanding its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

U.S. officials and their allies in East Asia have assessed that there is little, if anything, they can do to prevent North Korea from carrying out a seventh nuclear missile test, following years of diplomatic deadlock and a raft of recent ballistic missile tests.

“Kim [Jong Un]’s next nuclear test is a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’” said one South Korean official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the North Korean dictator. “We unfortunately have to plan as if it is a done deal.”

Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to talks with North Korea as it stubbornly develops a nuclear weapons program, despite sweeping international sanctions. Those overtures, however, have been met with radio silence. All the while, North Korea has steadily continued testing and expanding its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“We’ve all been hearing there could possibly be another nuclear test. That in itself just raises concern for everyone,” Bonnie Jenkins, the Biden administration’s top arms control envoy, said in an interview on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum this week. “We’ve been very clear with North Korea that we are open to dialogue with them. Once again, it’s a case where they have not really responded,” she said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have conceded that they don’t have an exact idea on the timing of a new nuclear weapons test from North Korea, given both countries’ extremely limited access and insight into one of the most closed-off dictatorships in the world. Officials said that North Korea’s next nuclear test would most likely occur at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in the northern part of the country.

A new nuclear test would rattle U.S. allies in the region, chief among them South Korea and Japan, and put new pressure on the Biden administration to revamp its North Korea policy, which has taken a back seat to other major world crises including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet the Biden administration has few tools left in its toolbox to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, said Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

North Korea has already weathered crippling international sanctions, meaning adding more would do little to deter it, and the toxic state of U.S.-China relations leaves U.S. President Joe Biden little room to work with Beijing to try to quell tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“Many of the tools that we’ve had in the past are either no longer available or have been rendered irrelevant,” Cha said.

North Korea has conducted a record-shattering 63 ballistic missile tests this year (eight of them intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs), ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula and far outpacing its previous annual record of 25. North Korea’s latest ICBM test on Nov. 17 prompted an outpouring of sharp criticism from Washington and its allies abroad.

But so far, U.S. efforts to drive home a unified condemnation at the United Nations have run aground. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) on Monday failed to pass a resolution condemning Pyongyang’s latest ICBM test after Russia and China vetoed the measure. It was the 10th such UNSC meeting on North Korea this year, none of which produced any significant action in condemning Kim or hitting the country with new sanctions. The meeting highlighted the diplomatic impasse the United States faces over North Korea’s nuclear program on the world stage.

“How many more missiles must get launched before we respond as a unified council?” fumed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at the meeting. She pinned the blame for the impasse squarely on the shoulders of Russia and China.

“Two veto-wielding members of the council are enabling and emboldening the DPRK,” she said, referring to North Korea through the acronym of its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “These two members’ blatant obstructionism puts the Northeast Asian region and the entire world at risk. You simply cannot be considered a responsible steward of nuclear weapons if you condone this behavior.”

Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year that has resulted in an estimated 200,000 battlefield casualties, accused the United States of confrontational military activity over North Korea.

“It is obvious that Pyongyang’s missile launches are the result of the short-sighted confrontational military activity of the United States being carried on around the DPRK, which harms both its partners in the region and the situation in Northeast Asia as a whole,” Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy, Anna Evstigneeva, told reporters after the meeting, speaking through an interpreter.

North Korea, meanwhile, dismissed Western criticism and said it was simply exercising self-defense after a series of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. In October and November, the U.S. and South Korean militaries conducted major joint air exercises.

“The UNSC has turned blind eyes to the very dangerous military drills of the U.S. and South Korea and their greedy arms buildup aiming at the DPRK and taken issue with the DPRK’s exercise of its inviolable right to self-defense,” said Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s sister, in a statement released by North Korean state media.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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