In his State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama described North Korea's recent nuclear test as a provocation that required a firm response. The intended audience for that provocation, though, is up for debate. Some commentators have posited that the test was a signal aimed at China, designed to demonstrate North Korea's independence from its great-power patron. Others think that Kim Jong-un was sending a message to the newly elected president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye. Still other North Korea experts have suggested that the test was actually meant for domestic consumption, to lift the sagging morale of a deprived public or for the regime to curry favor with the military. The intended North Korean signal is being analyzed and debated by U.S. government officials, who hold views across the spectrum.
A much simpler explanation exists. Pyongyang tested a nuclear device for the same reason it has been testing long-range missile designs: to see what works. In truth, the effort was less a signal than an attempt to master the technical capabilities that are vital to its nuclear deterrent.
This rationale should come as no surprise to those steeped in Cold War history. Between 1945 and 1992, the United States conducted 1,054 nuclear tests and fired an untold number of missiles. If the goal had merely been to show the Soviets that the United States meant business, testing nearly twice a month throughout the entire Cold War would have been overkill. In fact, Operation Sandstone -- a series of three tests at Enewetak Atoll in 1948 -- was not intended to warn off the Soviets as tensions rose over Berlin. Nor was the series of 48 underground tests launched in the summer of 1964 designed to impress the newly installed premier, Leonid Brezhnev. And the United States would not have conducted a dozen atomic blasts at its Nevada test site in the first half of 1977 -- including the Cove, Dofino, Marsilly, Bulkhead, Crewline, Forefoot, Carnelian, Strake, Flotost, Gruyere, Scantling, and Scupper detonations --
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