Funny thing about the Bomb: you can’t eat it.

Going by what the North Korean government has said of late, they’re not exactly beating their swords into ploughshares or their spears into pruning hooks. But, we are told, national security goals have made way for economic goals, and a third nuclear test should not be expected.

Dismissive remarks about further nuclear testing have now appeared at least twice in reports about a major industrial achievement. On December 19, 2009, KCNA, the official news service, reported a visit by Kim Jong Il to the Songjin Steel Complex, a.k.a. Songgang, home to a new “Juche-based” method of iron and steel production. After inspecting the facilities, KJI was pleased:

The workers of Songgang completed the steel-making method based on Juche iron by their own efforts and with their own technology, shattering conservatism and mysticism about technology, he noted, adding that this is a historic event of special mention in the development of metallurgical industry and a victory greater than the third successful nuclear test.

On December 25, KCNA reported the visit of a delegation from the steel complex to Pyongyang, where they were greeted with “a joint congratulatory message” from the Powers That Be — the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party and the National Defense Commission of the DPRK. It concluded:

The above-said spectacular success represents a great victory of the immortal Juche idea and a great demonstration of the national power more striking than the conduct of the third nuclear test.

(Emphasis added in both quotes.)

These statements, attributed to the highest levels, are internal propaganda. That’s what KCNA is for, mostly, and outside of North Korea, who could possibly care about local developments in ferrous metallurgy? It’s hard to avoid the impression that the regime is trying to set public expectations: Don’t stay up waiting all night for more big bangs, folks.

The tougher question is, why? Not knowing won’t stop me from guessing.

A Shift in Priorities

First, we could take Pyongyang at face value.

The January 1, 2010 joint New Year editorial of three North Korean newspapers was titled, “Bring About a Radical Turn in the People’s Standard of Living by Accelerating the Development of Light Industry and Agriculture Once Again This Year That Marks the 65th Anniversary of the Founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” (It reads better in the original, for all I know.) The KCNA excerpt describes the past year as one of “dramatic change” and the start of “a decisive turn in the Korean revolution and the building of a thriving nation,” a time of “great revolutionary upsurge” marked by technological and industrial achievements, nay, triumphs — foremost among them the second satellite launch, the second nuclear test, the production of Juche steel, and the “attainment of the cutting edge of CNC technology.” The rest of the achievements are purely economic.

The coming year, too, will be “a year of general offensive, when all-Party and nationwide efforts should be concentrated on improving the people’s standard of living on the basis of the laudable victory and achievements of the great revolutionary upsurge.”

So, based on what the government is telling its people, military achievements will take a backseat to economic ones, meaning no nuclear tests to muddy the narrative. Given the new restrictions on open-air markets and the “currency reform” that destroyed virtually all private savings in North Korea in 2009, this prospect must make the average citizen shudder with dread — there’s every reason to expect the further reconsolidation of the command economy.

[Update | Feb. 2. On reflection, the announced shift is away from both military and heavy-industrial priorities, and towards production of food and consumer goods. See the comments for further elaboration.]

Not Necessary or Not Worth It

Second, North Korea may judge its second nuclear test to have been a success, obviating the need for additional testing. They may believe that the second test shows they have a working weapon in the neighborhood of 4 kt yield — what they apparently told the Chinese they were aiming for back in October 2006, before their first test fizzled.

This scenario would fit well with a view of the first test shared by a number of close observers (see: So, Like, Why Didn’t It Work?, October 10, 2006; NORK Nuke Missile?, November 3, 2006).

Third, as Paul Kerr pointed out in these webpages around the same time, the shock value from this sort of thing starts to wear off quickly (see: More Norky Goodness, October 9, 2006). It just may not be worth it, next to how much it would piss off the Chinese, not to mention the further expenditure of limited plutonium stocks (a concern that led many experts to doubt that North Korea would test in 2009).

Not a Good Time

Fourth, let’s recall that the Norks are making nice. Foreign Ministry statements on January 11, 2010 (“DPRK Proposes to Start of Peace Talks”) and January 18 (“DPRK on Reasonable Way for Sept. 19 Joint Statement”) call for replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty — Pyongyang’s new condition for denuclearization, or returning to talks on denuclearization, depending on how you read it. A third nuclear test would complicate the charm offensive.

(Incidentally, the latter statement mentions the demolition of the Yongbyon cooling tower in 2008, which I take as an indicator that they’re unlikely to rebuild it while the nice-making persists.)

So take your pick: for some, all, or maybe none of the above reasons, North Korea is letting the man (and traffic lady) on the street know that there are no immediate plans to test again.


As a reward for reading this far — if you skipped down here, scroll right back up, mister! — here’s the video of Steven Bosworth’s January 19, 2010 appearance on the Colbert Report, in which the envoy to North Korea explains why the peace treaty condition isn’t going to fly. No, there’s no astounding impression of an atmospheric nuclear test, but Colbert does manage to leave Bosworth speechless at the end.

Bonus bonus!

You must have been wondering, Hey, just how often does “reasonable” appear in daily KCNA items, anyway?

The answer, according to the invaluable search engine at NK News, is 1,163 times since KCNA went online in January 1996. Which is more than I’d expected, but still two fewer times than “nuclear war,” 88 fewer than “destruction,” 650 fewer than “aggressor,” and 987 fewer than “reactionaries.” Now you know.