Nuclear conflict with North Korea: a spiral of repeated failure


North Korea carries out a nuclear test; the UN imposes sanctions; North Korea repeats its actions. This cycle has been repeated for 10 years now and has so far proved impossible to break.

North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests in the past 10 years. Five times, the UN Security Council has imposed or tightened sanctions. For years now the West has issued similar words of condemnation after each new test. And time and again North Korea has demonstrated that the international community still has not found any way of resolving this nuclear confrontation in the long term. Meanwhile, the cycle of action and reaction continues.

Monday, 9 October 2006

Exactly ten years ago, then dictator Kim Jong Il shocked the world with the first North Korean nuclear test. It was the middle of the night in Europe when the earth shook in the northeast of the country at 10:36 local time. The South Korean secret service estimated that the bomb had an explosive force of 0.55 kilotons. This was considerably smaller than the first atomic bomb ever used in conflict, dropped on Hiroshima in Japan by the United States: That had an explosive force of around 12.5 kilotons. But the message is clear – and the rest of the world is outraged.

US President George W. Bush on 9 October 2006:

“The United States condemns this provocative act. Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.”

It was the start of a spiral that has continued ever since, with no resolution in sight.

Five days later, the 15 members of the UN Security Council vote unanimously to impose sanctions against North Korea.

UN Resolution 1718, passed on 14 October 2006

Kim Jong-Il (Getty Images/AFP/KCNA via Korean News Service)The first two tests took place in Kim Jong Il’s era

The resolution forbids North Korea from carrying out any further nuclear tests or firing any ballistic missiles. It calls upon the country to suspend its nuclear program and return to the negotiation table. Among other things, Resolution 1718 freezes the assets of people involved in the North Korean nuclear program and imposes travel bans on them. It also imposes a trade embargo covering items such as tanks, combat vehicles, large war materials, fighter planes, helicopters and battleships. And, of course, anything connected to the further development of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The resolution also prohibits the export of various luxury items to North Korea. Third countries are called upon to inspect cargoes if there is reason to suspect that biological, chemical or nuclear weapons are being illegally exported to North Korea. This, however, proves difficult to implement. Not all countries comply. And China, North Korea’s ally, continues to support the leadership in Pyongyang, and does not inspect any shipments to or from North Korea.

Monday 25 May 2009

Two-and-a-half years pass. Ignoring international protest, North Korea launches a satellite carrier rocket on 5 April 2009. The UN Security Council condemns the action, whereupon North Korea breaks off the so-called six-party talks (with South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States) about its nuclear program. On 25 May Kim Jong Il conducts a second nuclear test.

Javier Solana, then the EU’s foreign policy chief:

“These irresponsible acts by North Korea warrant a decisive response from the international community. The European Union will be in contact with its partners to discuss appropriate measures.”

The international community’s response comes in June.

UN Resolution 1874, passed on 12 June 2009

Nordkorea Atomanlage Punggye-Ri (picture-alliance/AP Photo/GeoEye)The Punggye-ri test site has seen considerable activity

Existing sanctions are tightened and extended to include more people, businesses and goods. Third countries are required to inform the UN Security Council before selling weapons to North Korea. Suspicious goods seized during cargo controls must be destroyed and the UN Security Council informed. Money transfers to the North Korean government are also circumscribed. Transfers that could support the further development of the nuclear program are banned. Loans can only be made to North Korea by UN member states for explicitly humanitarian purposes.

Another two-and-a-half years pass. North Korea now has a new leader in Kim Jong Un, who assumed office on the death of his father in December 2011. Initial hopes that this might signal a policy shift are disappointed. Following a change in the constitution in April 2012, the country starts describing itself as a nuclear power. In December of the same year, North Korea tests a long-distance ballistic missile. The UN Security Council responds with another resolution.

UN Resolution 2087, passed on 22 January 2013

Among other things, this resolution sets out the rights of third countries to confiscate and destroy exported or imported goods if they are suspected to be linked to the North Korean nuclear program. The travel ban against people involved in the nuclear program is also reinforced.

Kim Jong Un makes it clear that he is not impressed. For the first time since taking office, he himself gives the order for a nuclear test to be carried out.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

North Korean officials standing to attention(Reuters)The third test was celebrated at the highest level

Around midday local time, seismological stations near North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear weapons test site record an artificially created tremor of between 4.9 and 5.2 magnitude. It is the country’s biggest nuclear test to date. According to data from South Korea, the bomb had an explosive force of between 6 and 7 kilotons.

NATO press statement, 12 February 2013:

We condemn in the strongest terms the test by North Korea of a nuclear weapon, conducted in flagrant violation of relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Again the Security Council convenes; again, sanctions are tightened.

UN Resolution 2094, passed on 7 March 2013

Resolution 2094 aims to stop North Korea making further progress with its nuclear program. It blocks access to the international banking system and the technological equipment needed to enrich uranium. The intention is to block the flow of funds to the North Korean leadership. Existing sanctions are extended: The travel ban is extended to include more individuals, and the assets of another two businesses are frozen. The list of banned export goods also gets longer: North Korea is not allowed in future to import gemstones, yachts, luxury cars or racing cars.

Over the following months the situation on the Korean peninsula intensifies. Among other things, Pyongyang announces that it intends to extend its nuclear program still further.

The tensions of 2013 are initially followed by a relatively quiet phase. However, the situation suddenly worsens at the start of 2016.

Südkorea TV-Programm Atomtest Nordkorea (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)The fifth test was even broadcast in railway stations

Wednesday 6 January 2016

According to its own reports, North Korea tests a hydrogen bomb for the first time. Experts cast doubt on these reports because of the small explosive force: They assume that this was in fact a “conventional” nuclear test.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 6 January 2016:

 “With this renewed violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is breaching the principles of the international community and endangering regional and international security.”

The United Nations Security Council approves the heaviest extension of the sanctions to date. The resolution is 19 pages long.

UN Resolution 2270, passed on 2 March 2016

Portrait of Kim Jong Un surrounded by fireworks (Reuters/KRT)Kim Jong Un is celebrated as a hero for the tests

The existing trade embargo is extended. In future it will also include small arms and light weapons. Furthermore, no one is permitted to buy commodities such as iron, coal, gold, titanium or rare earths from North Korea any more, nor may they sell it aircraft fuel or missiles. In addition, the new resolution insists that cargo shipments – both imports and exports – have to be controlled, even if there are no grounds for suspicion. The aim is to make it even harder for the regime to finance its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomes the move, saying that, as North Korea has violated international law time and again with repeated provocations, the international community had to pass this resolution in order to remind the country of its obligations under international law.

For its part, however, North Korea reminds the world of the threat it poses.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Just nine months after the fourth nuclear test, North Korea carries out a fifth – and last, to date – on its Punggye-ri test site. It is also the strongest. Foreign experts estimate that it had an explosive force of around 10 kilotons.

US President Barack Obama, 9 September 2016:

“To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state. […] Today’s nuclear test, a flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions, makes clear North Korea’s disregard for international norms and standards for behavior and demonstrates it has no interest in being a responsible member of the international community.”

The UN Security Council has announced that further sanctions will be imposed.