January 6, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

North Korea's Nuclear Test Just Another Step in the Cycle

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a firing contest of the KPA artillery units at undisclosed location in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on January 5, 2016. REUTERS

Was it a hydrogen bomb? A garden-variety nuclear test? No one is quite sure just yet what North Korea is up to. What is certain is that something happened—on January 5 at 7:30 p.m. CST seismic monitors picked up a rumbling in the northeastern corner of North Korea. Measured at a magnitude of 5.1, the size and location align with previous nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean regime.

Confirmation of the type of test that was conducted should be forthcoming. Japan scrambled aircraft to collect dust samples from the air to look for radioactive materials. The resulting analysis may identify the type of material used in the test as well as the nature of the test.

We have, of course, seen this all before. There were three previous tests, each time creating an international outcry, emergency meetings of the UN Security Council, resolutions, and sanctions. All of this has amounted to little. North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program and avoid the harshest (PDF) of sanctions.

For the American public, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is seen as a threat, but it is not the most immediate. In the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, 55 percent cited the North’s nuclear weapons program as a critical threat. That ranked it 8th out of a possible 20. Solidly mid-table.

What is more interesting is what the American public favors in dealing with that threat. The most supported option is to continue diplomatic efforts to get North Korea to suspend its nuclear program. It is important to note the subtlety of wording here. The response option does not state that diplomatic efforts should aim to denuclearize North Korea. A suspension of the program would be the first step to a hopeful denuclearization.

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The least popular option for the American public is to simply allow North Korea to continue to produce additional nuclear weapons. Imagine that. Americans, at least in the hypothetical, would favor airstrikes or sending in US ground troops into North Korea over what is essentially accepting North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

Of course, most Americans have the luxury—for now—of being out of range of North Korea’s missiles. South Koreans do not have that luxury. Yet, life goes on as normal in Seoul in the wake of attacks, nuclear tests, and missile tests. (While the linked article is from 2013, it remains evergreen.) The only change is that attitudes and policy toward North Korea will further harden. As this report by the Asan Institute in Seoul makes clear [full disclosure: I am a coauthor] this has taken place among all age cohorts. Any fledgling cooperation between the two Koreas is now removed from the table, and the cycle of provocation and rapprochement continues on. 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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