Breaking news: North Korea has conducted a nuclear test, this one more successful and powerful than its initial test back in 2006.

You can read some (very) instant analysis, but the short story is that this move seems puzzling, out of context, which is to say that it doesn’t fit North Korea’s existing pattern of telegraphing its moves and using its nuclear program to extract maximum bargaining concessions from the United States. An initial and early read might be that this test does quite the opposite, confronting a new US administration broadly committed to diplomacy and alienating other could-be allies (Russia, China).

My only additional insight comes by way of Drezner, pointed out a very interesting article on the Administration’s take on North Korea’s succession politics. Re-reading that in light of the nuclear test reminds us to keep two key points in mind when making sense of this test:

1. This could be driven by domestic politics. From a theoretical point, this is entirely consistent with liberal foreign policy analysis approaches to the study of international politics. However, in areas such as nuclear weapons proliferation and such–the highest of the high politics of security–realism is generally assumed to have an advantage, and states are supposed to put international factors first in making such decisions. That a state would put domestic politics first in matters of such high stakes doesn’t fit our standard explanatory models of state behavior.

2. We have no idea what on earth is going on in North Korea. The DPRK is more than just Another Country, its perhaps the most closed and authoritarian regime in the world today. As Drezner points out, much of the analysis of the DPRK has a hint of Kremlinology to it, and we are right to be skeptical. Information is scarce, and context in which to make sense of that information is even more scarce. That said, even in an authoritarian regime there are politics, and in times of succession, the stakes are high. However, few, if any analysts have a clear picture of who the players are and how the game is played.

In that context, a meaningful and effective (from a US foreign policy perspective) response is difficult to construct.

Stephen Bosworth
will certainly have his hands full–though it is entirely possible that he’ll have his hands full of free time…