Other Voices

The five stages of reacting to a North Korea nuclear test

People watch North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on TV at a shop in Tokyo after the reported nuclear test.
People watch North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on TV at a shop in Tokyo after the reported nuclear test. AP

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced 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 U.S. government can do is grieve. And it happens in five stages:

Stage 1: Denial

The U.S. government’s first reaction to any North Korean nuclear test or missile launch is to acknowledge reports of the incident but defer comment several days until all the data come in.

The U.S. Geological Survey has already announced a 5.1-magnitude seismic event near previous nuclear test sites.

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 the Hermit Kingdom has made a significant technological leap since the last test in 2013.

Stage 2: Anger

The U.S. 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 denuclearize, and its flaunting of international norms regarding safety and security in Northeast Asia.

Washington lawmakers will renew calls for increasing sanctions on North Korea, which is already the most sanctioned country on Earth.

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 to the Iranian nuclear agreement that Hillary Clinton helped President 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.

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.

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.

Even the Japanese had some new initiatives in mind. All of that will now be placed on hold.

Stage 5: Acceptance

After the international community goes through the motions, everyone eventually reverts back to the status quo.

North Korea will likely avoid any tough new sanctions, as it has in the past.

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.

There’s not much the U.S. can or will do about it but hope that Kim Jong Un has enough interest in self-preservation that he continues to perpetrate violence only against his own people.

Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist.