North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.
It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.
An excerpt from 东方巨响 : a documentary film on the history of China’s nuclear weapons program produced by China’s People’s Liberation Army and released in 1999.
At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.
China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.
Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.
North Korea’s Choice
It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel. But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.
Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test.
Chairman Mao didn’t worship nuclear weapons. He famously disparaged the atomic bomb as a paper tiger. Mao believed nuclear weapons were too destructive to use in a war. Their only value was in vitiating nuclear threats against China with the fear of potential retaliation. Does Kim Jong-un think about nuclear weapons the same way? We don’t know, because we don’t talk to the North Koreans enough to understand their point of view or trust anything they say.
China went on to develop a very limited nuclear force calibrated to maintain a credible possibility of nuclear retaliation. The United States government not only never panicked, it found a way to develop a viable relationship with the nuclear-armed communist giant. By the time China first tested an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, reforms within China made it appear even less threatening. Profound US discomfort with China’s nuclear force remains, but the two sides have managed to not only avoid a war but to develop robust and mutually beneficial ties.
North Korea may seem too small, its culture too parochial to make dialog and cooperation as appealing to the United States as Nixon’s opening to China in 1972—just six years after China’s daring nuclear-armed missile test. It is hard for the nation of 24 million with a GDP the size of Jackson, Mississippi’s to command the same respect as China’s 1.3 billion. Perhaps the North Korean leadership sees nuclear weapons as a great equalizer: a viable means to force the United States to sign a peace treaty, and, as one North Korean student recently told a US reporter, “leave us alone.”
The US Choice
Ri told the United Nations that the “ultimate goal” of his country’s nuclear weapons program was to “establish a balance of power with the United States.” It is worth exploring what that means, and bilateral dialog is the only way to do that.
There is no indication North Korea will agree to denuclearize unless the United States agrees to join them. The US must decide whether the risks of continuing to rely solely on pressuring North Korea, at the cost of Pyongyang’s ever more provocative demonstrations of its capability to harm the United States, are more likely to yield an acceptable outcome than the risks of engaging the North Koreans in a discussion of what might be required to make their nuclear weapons program less threatening to the United States and its allies. The most immediate choice is whether continuing to introduce ambiguity about pre-emptive US military action is worth provoking the test flight of a nuclear-armed missile over Japan.
In the Chinese case the United States came to tolerate its nuclear weapons program in the context of broader shifts in the international security environment that encouraged a bilateral rapprochement, even though the fundamental security problem – Chinese reunification and the status of the Republic of China on Taiwan – remained unresolved. The initial impetus for reestablishing relations was a shared concern about a mutual adversary, the Soviet Union. But the relationship managed to outlive the Soviet Union’s collapse. Tensions within the US-China security relationship have slowly intensified in the post-Cold War period and the United States is still unwilling to accept its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. Yet both sides, for the time being, do not seem overly concerned about the risk of a nuclear confrontation.
Despite their volatility, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un could find the basis for a US-North Korean rapprochement in their shared concern about an accidental nuclear war, or the outbreak of a conventional confrontation that would cause great harm to both nations. Talking about stopping a risky test of a nuclear-armed missile that would fly over Japan is a good place to start.
China is urging both sides to come to the table.