The five stages of reacting to a North Korean nuke test

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea announced on Tuesday that it had successfully tested another nuclear bomb, its fourth since 2006, and independent reports of man-made seismic activity inside the Hermit Kingdom seem to confirm the claim.

There's no real North Korea policy in place in Washington; the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of "strategic patience", which essentially amounts to waiting for either North Korea or its benefactor China to voluntarily do something productive. So when North Korea forces Washington to pay attention, even if it's only for a few days, all the United States government can do is grieve. And it happens in all five stages (with apologies to Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who came up with the five stages of grief).

Stage 1: Denial - The US government's first reaction to any North Korean nuclear test or missile launch is to acknowledge reports of the incident but defer comment until all the data comes in, which can take days. The US Geological Survey has already announced a 5.1-magnitude seismic event near previous nuclear tests. But even so, it will be hard to confirm that North Korea successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, as Pyongyang claims. This allows the world to briefly live in denial that North Korea has made a significant technological leap since the last test in 2013.

The bigger denial is the US government's view of North Korea: State Department spokesman John Kirby said late on Tuesday that "we will not accept it as a nuclear state". North Korea has been a nuclear state since 2006. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, it could have enough nuclear material for 79 bombs by 2020.

North Koreans reacting with joy to news that the country has succeeded in detonating a hydrogen bomb. The bomb test was North Korea's fourth since 2006, and independent reports of man-made seismic activity inside the country seem to confirm the claim
North Koreans reacting with joy to news that the country has succeeded in detonating a hydrogen bomb. The bomb test was North Korea's fourth since 2006, and independent reports of man-made seismic activity inside the country seem to confirm the claim. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Stage 2: Anger - In the days following a North Korea provocation, the US will lead the international community in a very public condemnation of Pyongyang's utter disregard for United Nations Security Council resolutions, its breaking of its own international commitments such as the September 2005 agreement to de-nuclearise, and its flaunting of international norms regarding safety and security in North-east Asia. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the matter.

In Washington, lawmakers will renew calls for increasing sanctions on North Korea, which is already the most sanctioned country on earth. There are already new Bills on North Korean sanctions in the works. There will also be anger directed by the Republicans at the Obama administration for not confronting North Korea's aggression more forcefully. "The past several decades of US policy towards North Korea has been an abject failure," Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker said on Wednesday.

Presidential candidates will direct anger at the Clinton administration for crafting an agreement in 1994 with Pyongyang that critics saw as a failure. Many will compare that with the Iranian nuclear agreement Mrs Hillary Clinton helped President Barack Obama strike more recently.

Stage 3: Bargaining - Once the outrage subsides a bit, the expert community and the media will resume a familiar discussion about whether China can be persuaded to intervene and solve the North Korea problem. "All eyes will be on China to see whether this nuclear test near the Chinese border will finally compel a change in Beijing's support of the regime," Dr Victor Cha, senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Wednesday. "While it might lead to some short-term titration of assistance, it is unlikely to cause China to abandon the North." China will be bargaining as well, working to protect North Korea from harsh reprisals and other punitive measures that might be advocated by countries like Japan or South Korea. The question that comes up perennially is what the US can do to press Beijing to take a harder line towards Mr Kim Jong Un. The answer always comes back the same. China highly prizes North Korean stability and is unlikely to do anything too substantial to tamp down the provocations.

Stage 4: Depression - Until this recent test, there had been signs that North Korea was opening up, albeit cautiously. There has been a new inter-Korean dialogue and family reunions were recently allowed. Beijing had recently reached out to North Korea's leadership after a long cooling-off period following the execution of their main interlocutor, Mr Kim's uncle Jang Song Thaek. Even the Japanese had some new initiatives in mind to work with North Korea. All of that will now be placed on indefinite hold.

Stage 5: Acceptance - North Korea's provocations have become so routine that after the international community goes through the motions, everyone eventually reverts to the status quo. North Korea will likely avoid any tough new sanctions, as it has in the past.

After a few months, quiet meetings may be held to re-establish back-channel talks. This is what the US did in 2013, the last time North Korea tested a nuke.

North Korea's leaders will continue to test their ballistic missile and nuclear technology; they have to in order to progress technologically and assert their relevance.

Also, there's not much the US can or will do about it, but hope that Mr Kim has enough interest in self-preservation that he continues to perpetrate violence only against his own people.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'The five stages of reacting to a North Korean nuke test'. Print Edition | Subscribe