September 13, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: North Korea Moves From Rhetoric Towards Reality

• The gap between rhetoric and dangerous reality narrowed significantly as North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on September 9.

• Pyongyang is infamous for its outlandish threats—particularly against the U.S.—but it is moving quickly towards achieving a level of capability with which to back up those threats.

• There is no public verification for North Korea’s claim to have miniaturized a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile, but estimates indicate it likely will by 2020.

• The use of sanctions as the standard response to provocative behavior becomes less tenable as an unpredictable North Korea improves its nuclear capabilities.


Tensions on the Korean peninsula are markedly high after North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on September 9. The 10 to 30 kiloton detonation was at least double the yield of previous tests, though analysis of the type of bomb and other details have not been made public. What is clear, however, is the sharp escalation in the rhetoric and tensions between South Korea and North Korea—two countries with a long history of unstable rhetoric and vivid threats. This latest nuclear test has already produced calls for more sanctions and other actions by the UN Security Council—and perhaps the U.S. unilaterally. Such measures have become commonplace in response to North Korean provocations. Yet the familiarity with such scenarios may obscure fundamental changes taking place on the peninsula.

South Korea and its allies have dealt with North Korea’s apocalyptic rhetoric backed up with conventional weapons for decades. Periodically, Pyongyang issues threats towards South Korea as well as the U.S. Typically, the North Korean threats are almost cartoonish in nature. While the threats are not ignored—as they might signal maneuvering by a government into which the West has limited insight—they tend to be viewed as somewhat routine. However, the routine nature in which such outlandish threats are viewed becomes more blinding and potentially dangerous as North Korea steadily improves its nuclear weapon and delivery capabilities. 

North Korea has always been a direct and credible threat to South Korea, as well as to Japan to a degree. Yet North Korea’s focus on developing a nuclear weapon arsenal is not only to deter potential attacks or attempts at regime change. It is also focused on building several intercontinental ballistic missile systems (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The U.S. estimates that Pyongyang could have ICBM capability by 2020. While there is always disparity between North Korean claims and its realistic capabilities, it is clear that the country has made significant advances and will likely continue to do so given the long-standing pattern.

North Korea’s threats and earlier nuclear tests have been assessed as posturing and brinksmanship in order to get more aid, attention, or sanctions relief. Yet as the gap between Pyongyang’s rhetoric and its capability narrows, the international community must take this rhetoric more seriously. The most recent test led Seoul to publicly threaten to reduce Pyongyang to ash if the North made any threat of nuclear use against the South, an unusually specific response, but understandable given the stakes.

All parties—to include China most of all, as well as Russia, Japan, the EU, and the U.S.—are caught in a geopolitical paradox in which they try to assess the risk of a North Korean nuclear attack through the lens of a rational state actor, while simultaneously assessing North Korean rhetoric as that of an unstable, erratic, and unpredictable country. The available levers of influence and power with which to dissuade North Korea from its current path still exist, but to date, they have not worked sufficiently, creating an ever-pressing need for new conflict resolution approaches to deescalate a very dangerous geopolitical trend line.


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