North Korea Conducts Another Nuclear Weapons Test As The World Runs Out Of Options

North Korea conducts yet another nuclear weapons test, and it's unclear what anyone can do to stop them.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

In yet another move guaranteed to increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia generally, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test overnight and all signs indicate that they’ve made real progress in increasing the power and decreasing the size of their weapons:

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea conducted its fifth underground nuclear test on Friday, its government said, despite threats of more sanctions from the United States and the United Nations. The latest test, according to South Korean officials, produced a more powerful explosive yield than the North’s previous detonations, indicating that the country was making progress in its efforts to build a functional nuclear warhead.

The test confirmed the explosive power and other characteristics of a “nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on” its ballistic missiles, the North’s nuclear weapons institute said in a statement on Friday.

A statement from the South Korean military also said that an artificial tremor, registered as magnitude 5, had originated from Punggye-ri in northeastern North Korea, where the North has conducted its four previous underground nuclear tests.

A senior official at the Defense Ministry later told reporters that it had concluded that a nuclear detonation had caused the tremor.

The ministry estimated the explosive yield was equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far, according to the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. The South’s government estimated the North’s last nuclear test, conducted in January, at 4.8 magnitude with an explosive yield of six to nine kilotons. (By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 exploded with 15 kilotons of energy.)

North Korea’s first nuclear detonation, conducted in 2006, was largely dismissed as a fizzle, registering only as a 3.9 magnitude tremor with about one kiloton of energy. But its nuclear devices have steadily improved, producing bigger explosions with stronger seismic tremors in subsequent tests.

At the same time, the North has launched a series of ballistic missiles with growing ranges that it said were intended to carry nuclear warheads, though doubts persisted that the country had mastered the technology needed to produce a nuclear warhead small and sturdy enough to travel a long distance through Earth’s atmosphere.

On Friday, North Korea reported a major advance in its efforts.

“The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the D.P.R.K. to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power,” it said in a statement on Friday, using the initials of the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This has definitely put on a higher level the D.P.R.K.’s technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles.”

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn of South Korea called an emergency meeting of top security officials, while his boss, President Park Geun-hye, cut short a visit to Laos, the president’s office said.

The episode unfolded less than a day after President Obama concluded the final Asian tour of his presidency and highlighted the conundrums that the North Korean threat presents to the United States and China, which have often been at odds over how to respond to the bellicose acts of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

This is the second North Korean nuclear test of the year, coming after January’s test in which the Kim regime claimed to have tested the nation’s thermonuclear (Hydrogen) bomb, a claim that was a first disputed by most international observers but subsequently confirmed to be the case based on atmospheric testing. In response to that test, the United Nations Security Council, with the support of Russia and China, imposed yet another round of sanctions on the Pyongyang regime. As I noted at the time, though, it was unlikely that these new sanctions would have any more of an impact on North Korean behavior than previous sanctions have had. For years now, each advance that the Kim regime, regardless of which Kim we’re talking about, has moved forward with the development of nuclear weapons with little to no regard for international opinion, the sanctions that have essentially cut it off from the rest of the world more than any other nation on Earth, or even the objections of its chief patron China, which has signaled its own increased impatience with a client state that seems intent on heading off in its own direction. As such, it was hard to believe that the January sanctions were going to accomplish anything, and today it seems apparent that this assessment was correct. For better or worse, and make no doubt it is mostly for the worse, the North Koreans are likely to continue their nuclear testing, and the fact that they keep getting closer to a smaller, more powerful weapon is a matter of deep concern. This is especially true given the fact that their nuclear weapons research is going hand in hand with missile testing that seems to have the obvious goal of creating a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile, or at least one that is capable of reaching not only its immediate neighbors but also deep into China and Russia as well as at least the West Coast of the United States. If they reach that point, then it’s unclear what, if anything, anyone will be able to do about North Korea.

The problem we face, of course, is the same one that we’ve faced for some time now, namely that it’s unclear what could be done, or could have been done, to deter the North Koreans from this course of action once they developed the level of technical expertise needed to develop nuclear weapons and acquired the raw materials necessary to accomplish the task. Even before Pyongyang began developing nuclear weapons, a military solution to the North Korea problem was a dangerous endeavor due to the fact that, while the combined forces of the United States and South Korea would likely easily defeat the North in short order, it would come with a huge loss of military and civilian life. North Korea still has tens of thousands of weapons on its sided of the border that could easily be aimed at the massively populated areas around Seoul, for example, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths and tens of thousands of casualties. For years, it has been believed that the north had also developed a powerful biological and chemical weapons program that would massively increase both military and civilian casualties into the mix. With the missile technology it has developed, Kim Jong Un could direct that type of weaponry not only toward South Korea but also Japan. Now, with the possibility of adding nuclear weapons to the mix we’re reaching the point where the leadership in Pyongyang may be essentially untouchable.

In the past, the Chinese seemed to have some influence over events in North Korea, but it’s not clear that this is the case anymore. As the North Koreans have continued with their nuclear and missile testing in defiance of international sanctions, Beijing has become increasingly publicly impatient with the Kim regime, but it appears from the outside that the old influence doesn’t have the power that it once used to. This is hardly surprising, of course. As North Korea becomes more of a nuclear power in its own right it becomes harder for even the Chinese, who are essentially the only nation with which the North has any real economic relationship at this point, to intimidate Pyongyang into action. In fact, we may be close to the point where China’s ability to significantly influence North Korea has already passed. If that’s the case, it’s hard to figure out what other options the world may have when it comes to dealing with this reclusive and increasingly dangerous regime.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. ltmcdies says:

    and America is “this close” to electing Donald Trump president and commander in chief…..not a comforting thought.

  2. Argon says:

    The serious worry is if N. Korea decides to sell them.

  3. Slugger says:

    I don’t know anything about NoKorea; I have never been on the peninsula, don’t speak the language, and have not read anything other than the popular media about the country. I would like to hear from someone who meets those three criteria. However, if a third world economy can produce these results it means that anyone can. We have lived in a world where nuclear weapons were the controlled by a few nations and their satrapies. We now live in a world where every Elbonia, Kakastan, and Dribbleland can produce these weapons. I think that this will change things.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    It’s clearly Clinton’s fault.

  5. Jc says:

    Yeah, if when N Korea falls apart , where do these weapons end up? Or who would they sell them to in desperation. Scary.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:


    Maybe, but they would have to be singlemindedly devoted to developing the weapons, like North Korea. NK had to kidnapped scientists (and, prior, develop an intelligence agency with those capabilities) and devote an insane amount of their budget to nuclear development, at the cost of millions of lives of their citizens. And even then, they only succeeded because of the nuclear benevolency of Abdul Kahn.

    Most third world dictators, while evil, don’t have the will or even capability to do this.

    So I guess I’m saying it is possible in our world for any tinpot dictator to develop nuclear technology, but its not probable.

    What’s more likely, as@Argon says, is that NK will simply sell their weapons on the black market. While that’s not a comforting thought, I would rather live in a world where the point of sale for nuclear weapons is somewhat identifiable, than a world where anyone can develop an ICBM.

  7. Guarneri says:

    “it’s hard to figure out what other options the world may have when it comes to dealing with this reclusive and increasingly dangerous regime.”

    Clearly we should introduce them to the Iranians who will inform them how tough we are, apologize to them for America’s past transgressions and laziness,
    send them plane loads of cash, and then tee off on No. 1.

  8. Neil Hudelson says:


    Hey Guarneri? We’ve been using a diplomatic approach to Iran for 40 years now. F*ck, we even sold them our missiles to fund the Contras (I’m sure for some reason you’ve forgotten about that).

    And after those 40 years, do the Iranians have nuclear weapons?

    (In case you don’t know, the answer is “no.”)

    So what is your point?

  9. CB says:

    Its almost enough to make one forget about the thousands of “conventional” artillery pieces zeroed in on Seoul. Christ, what a nightmare.

  10. Mu says:

    Lets have a quick look who all developed nuclear weapons
    Indira Gandhi
    Nawaz Sharif
    Kim Jong-il
    Quite frankly, Kim Jong-Un wouldn’t make the top three in most scary guys on that list, and we seem to have survived anyway. It’s just the usual wining of the bully boys that someone else dared to pick up a stick and now wants to be treated as a non-sheep.
    As for “doing something about it”, it’s not going to happen. Because to to anything the individual states would have to agree that there’s something the UN can do unilaterally to a sovereign state (the Iraq affair was for violating something Iraq had agreed to, if not voluntary). And we all know how well Russia (Crimea) and China (Taiwan) react to measures affecting what they consider internal sovereign affairs. Not talking what our alt-right would have to say about it.

  11. Tyrell says:

    @C. Clavin: I am not so sure about that. I don’t know of anything that Hillary did when she was Secretary of State that made things any worse.
    At some point either China will have to do something or the US will.

  12. Gustopher says:

    Is this more or less dangerous than Pakistan having nuclear weapons? It certainly doesn’t make the world a safer place, and diplomacy with the North Koreans isn’t likely to work.

    (Iran has always been a rational actor, often with very different interests than ours, but rational, so diplomacy can work there — North Korea is different)

    That leaves three options:
    – do nothing
    – negotiate with China
    – take away North Korea’s nuclear power by force.

    Not sure China can curb their dog.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    @Guarneri doesn’t have ‘points,’ that would require thought. He comes by, cuts a fart and scurries off to Dave Schuler’s site to complain how mean we are to him at OTB.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    Probably the only way to get China to take this seriously is for South Korea and Japan to start developing nukes. That would scare China, but good. But of course neither SK nor Japan is interested in playing that game.

    In the meantime China wants to play games with territorial waters, and we for our part are selling weapons to Vietnam, not a friend of the PRC, including F-16s and UAVs. (I doubt the jets worry China as much as the fact that any Vietnamese base able to handle Vietnamese F-16s would also be able to handle US jets.) In other words, there is some tension between us and the Chinese, and for the moment they want to play games not deal with intractable problems like North Korea.

    China needs to gin up nationalism to replace their fading ideology and prepare for a downturn ahead. So I doubt we’ll get any help there unless we can dream up a scenario that involves toppling Kim but keeping NK as a separate vassal state of China. Unification would have to be off the table.

  15. Gustopher says:

    My worst instincts want to put a fleet off their coast, in international waters, of course, and shoot down their next missile test.

    I can see all the ways this could go wrong and escalate things terribly, but it still has a very appealing quality to it.

  16. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds: But of course neither SK nor Japan is interested in playing that game.

    It hasn’t mattered if they were interested or not because we’ve been playing the game for them.

    One of the things that allowed us to survive the 20th century and to build this world we have in the 21st is that the United States was willing to take on the burdens of hegemony while forgoing some of the entitlements. Oh, we certainly benefited greatly from being the dominant power in first the West and then the whole planet, but we took far less advantage of it than we could. That we enabled this little stretch of relative peace and growing, though not equitably distributed, prosperity might go down as America’s greatest contribution to Mankind.

    But it does seem like we’re coming close to the end of this game and no one has any clue what the rules will be in the next one.


  17. Jack says:

    Apparently it’s time for Obama to send them a pallet of cash. It worked for Iran, right? Right?

  18. Pch101 says:

    South Korea is about the size of Virginia, and all of it is located within a couple hundred miles of the North Korean border. It has a population of 50 million people, which provides 50 million reasons why the options are limited. Nobody outside of North Korea wants much of the South Korean population to be killed off in a war, whether that war is nuclear or conventional, yet that would be the likely outcome of another armed conflict.

    There just isn’t much that can be done, unfortunately. The Chinese are in a better position to deal with North Korea, but they don’t seem to be doing much better with this than is the west.

  19. wr says:

    @Jack: “Apparently it’s time for Obama to send them a pallet of cash. It worked for Iran, right? Right?”

    So you’re saying that if we could stop NK’s nuclear program by sending them money, we shouldn’t do it? Why? Because you wouldn’t feel all manly inside? Or because the black guy solved the problem? Or just because you’re a whiny little troll who complains about everything?