The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) recently staged a third nuclear test on 12 February 2013, in a show of defiance amidst international sanctions and condemnation over its ballistic missile and nuclear program.

North Korea first received assistance with nuclear research and technology through the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since then, other countries had suspicions and fears that North Korea had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international treaty aiming to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

North Korea staged its first nuclear test in 9 October 2006, resulting widespread condemnations by the international community. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 1718, which condemned the test and imposed sanctions on North Korea as a response. The resolution also demanded North Korea not to “conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile”.[1] However, North Korea remained undeterred and continued several nuclear and ballistic missile tests after 2006. It conducted a second nuclear test in 2009 and a third one in 2013.

2013 nuclear test
On 12 December 2012, North Korea defied international appeals and went ahead with a plan to launch a satellite into space with a ballistic missile. Most international observers allege that the launch was simply a disguised ballistic missile test, which was banned under international provisions. As a result, on 22 January 2013, the UNSC approved a new resolution condemning the missile test and expanded its sanctions against North Korea,[2] much to the displeasure of the state, which threatened to wage a “full-fledged confrontation”.[3]

This “confrontation” came on 12 February 2013, when seismic activity was detected in North Korea, indicating the possible occurrence of a nuclear test. North Korean media soon confirmed that a “miniaturised and lighter nuclear device” was successfully tested, much to the alarm and dismay of the world. The yield of the nuclear weapon was estimated to be at least five kilotons, which is much smaller than the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.[4]

A Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) newsreader announces the latest nuclear test. Source:
A Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) newsreader announces the latest nuclear test. Source:

North Korea was roundly criticised by the international community for the nuclear test. The test came at an extremely sensitive time for its neighbours. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s President-elect Park Geun-hye were just recently elected to their positions. North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, China, was celebrating the Lunar New Year and was also in the midst of its leadership transition. The nuclear test was also conducted on the day of the United States of America’s (USA) State of the Union address by President Barack Obama.

China- The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China "resolutely" opposes the latest nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.[5]
Japan- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a "grave threat" that could not be tolerated.
USA- Obama called the test a "highly provocative act" that hurt regional stability.[6]

Despite the widespread disapproval of the test, North Korea told China that it is prepared for a “fourth and fifth nuclear test and a rocket launch” this year, in order to force the USA to the negotiating table and establish diplomatic relations with North Korea, which is technically still at war with the USA.[7]

Most countries are fearful of the threat presented by North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. North Korea possesses substantial expertise in ballistic missile technologies, and is known to export these missile technologies to other countries. Its account that the most recent nuclear test is based on a “miniaturised” design means that North Korea will soon be able to design nuclear bombs small enough to be fitted on the tips of ballistic missiles, which can strike most of Europe and the USA.

Another concern is the potential for nuclear proliferation. North Korea’s constant nuclear tests and warmongering may worry its neighbours, South Korea and Japan, forcing them to turn to nuclear weapons to protect themselves, which will spark a nuclear arms race in the region. There are also fears that North Korea, which was previously listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the USA, may pass nuclear weapons designs to other states like Iran, or to terrorist organisations.

Looking ahead
The options to resolve the nuclear issue are limited. The costs of a military attack to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities will be horrific, as North Korea is highly militarised. Complete disengagement from the negotiating process by the USA, Japan, and South Korea will make them look weak in face of threats, and may embolden other states, like Iran, to pursue their own nuclear weapons program. At the same time, North Korea has repeatedly walked out of negotiations, such as the Six Party Talks with South Korea, China, the USA, Russia, and Japan. The Six Party Talks have achieved little; since the talks began, North Korea has already made three nuclear tests.

Thinking questions
  1. Should some states have the monopoly on nuclear weapons?
  2. What are some methods the international community should use to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?

[2] Timeline: N Korea nuclear stand-off
[3] North Korea Sanctions: More Threats Of Nuclear Tests, Rocket Launches
[4] North Korean nuclear test’s missing blast particles add to mysteries surrounding program
[5] China opposes DPRK's nuclear test, says statement
[6] North Korean nuclear test draws anger, including from China
[7] Defiant North Korea prepares another nuclear test