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North Korea Cooks Up a Nuclear Surprise

North Korea has threatened to do a "new type" of nuclear test. So what is it waiting for? The most annoying possible moment to do it.

by Ryan Faith
Apr 8 2014, 6:30pm

Photo by Stephan

The Korean War, or Korean Thunderdome as it's also known — “Two Koreas Enter, One Korea Leaves!” — has now technically stretched on for two-thirds of a century. And this year, as usual, springtime has brought with it the climax of the annual strategic-weapons pissing match between the two adversaries.

So far, North Korea has fired artillery rounds in South Korea's general direction and launched the smallest of its profoundly annoying medium-range missiles, potentially leaving its bigger, badder missiles for later. The regime has also been threatening a “new type of nuclear test" — after all, if a crazy country wishes to convey its willingness to get even crazier, it makes sense to go from smallest weapons to largest.

Less than two weeks after the US, Japan, and South Korea met in the Hague to chat about how incredibly annoying North Korea was getting with all of its missiles and nuclear weapons testing, they met again this week in Washington DC to talk about the same exact thing. It might be a bit dull to keep on and on about North Korea’s habits, but when the asshole who lives down the street refuses to turn down his music, the topic inevitably creeps into conversation during neighborhood association meetings.

And the neighbors are getting restless. Two days before the DC meeting, Japan said that if North Korea fires any long-range missiles that get close enough to be “threatening," Japan will shoot the things straight out of the sky. Then on Monday, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the US Navy would be sending two missile-defense vessels to join in the fun and take potshots at ambitious North Korean rocketry experiments.

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The North Koreans have not provided many details for how they’ll go berserk if anyone turns their rockets into fiery balls of shrapnel before falling back to Earth does that anyway, but one likely option would be to make good on that threat to carry out a “new type of nuclear test." There’s been a great deal of speculation about what this could mean — a simultaneous detonation of two nuclear devices, a higher-yield weapon than they'd revealed in the past, a weapon that uses uranium instead of plutonium, or some other kind of nuclear madness they gin up.

Each type of demonstration would have different implications for counter-proliferation efforts, strategic postures throughout northeast Asia, upcoming South Korean elections, the US/Japan/South Korea trilateral relationship, and so on. This has been keeping the wonk community quite busy speculating about what might happen, while North Korea simply tells the world that it will have to “wait and see."

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Understandably, many South Koreans in particular are wondering when “wait and see” will become “waited and saw.” Some media reports have featured speculation about patterns in North Korean nuclear testing and the kinds of events that preceded them in the past. Others have mentioned a series of upcoming anniversaries, meetings, and events that Kim John-un might choose to commemorate with a gigantic explosion. (Current odds-on favorites are April 9, 15, and 25.)

Perhaps more compelling to North Korea than anything else is the fact that Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive in South Korea at the end of the month during his Asia tour. So North Korea certainly has the option of lighting off a nuke shortly before — or even during — Obama’s visit. It's not hard to imagine this would accomplish Kim's goal of ensuring that the US, Japan, and South Korea continue discussing North Korea and its weapons for a very long time.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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