On Tuesday evening a seismic event was detected in the vicinity of North Korea’s underground nuclear test site that appeared to be man made. It seemed North Korea tested another nuclear device. Here’s everything we know about it so far and its implications for global security.
Within hours of these reports of a possible North Korean nuclear test, the nation’s fourth in 10 years, the Hermit Kingdom declared in typically absurd fashion that they not only tested another nuclear weapon but that it was a fusion device. In other words, they claim to have detonated a so-called hydrogen bomb.
If this is true, it’s exponentially more powerful than their small-yield fission devices they have tested in the past, all of which were much less powerful than the fission bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. This claim echoed a statement made by Kim Jong Un in early December stating that North Korea had hydrogen bomb capability—a proclamation viewed as highly dubious at the time.
So did North Korea follow through with its outlandish assertions yesterday? It’s highly doubtful.
Not only was the magnitude of yesterday’s underground seismic event—estimated at 5.1 on the Richter Scale—well within the same range of prior tests, but North Korea has had trouble developing their crude fission weapons over the last decade. The idea that they could suddenly jump to producing much more challenging and complicated fusion devices is extremely hard to believe.
Reuters sources have also stated that this test looked very much like ones in the past:
The device had a yield of about 6 kilotones, according to the office of a South Korean lawmaker on the parliamentary intelligence committee - roughly the same size as the North’s last test, which was equivalent to 6-7 kilotones of TNT.
“Given the scale, it is hard to believe this is a real hydrogen bomb,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.
The BBC reports that a hydrogen bomb explosion should have been about 10 times larger than previous atom bomb tests. (Atom bombs, the kind used in WWII, rely on nuclear fission or atom-splitting; hydrogen bombs use nuclear fusion and are more complex and vastly more powerful.)
Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, was among those casting doubts on Pyongyang’s test: “The bang they should have gotten would have been 10 times greater than what they’re claiming. So Kim Jong-un is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they didn’t, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon - or the hydrogen part of the test really didn’t work very well or the fission part didn’t work very well.”
The world now will have to wait for more seismic data to be examined, and for intelligence to be disseminated to get an official word on the nature of the device tested. WC-135 Constant Phoenix atmosphere sniffing aircraft will fly their missions and intelligence services will work to create a clearer picture of the test. We should have an answer within the next few days if not sooner, but we pretty much know that answer is already.
Regardless of what type or how successful the device tested was, the international community, including Russia and North Korea’s closest ally China, have harshly condemned the supposed test. A emergency session of the UN Security Council has been called for later today in response to North Korea’s actions, although it isn’t clear exactly what punishment could actually sway the already largely isolated regime. And if North Korea broke prior resolutions, does it even matter to them at this point? Probably not.
The wild card here is China. Without China North Korea would not exist in its current form. In fact, the failed state would probably totally collapse in short order if China were to step away from North Korea’s orbit entirely. Additionally, there have been signs that the once tight relationship between the two countries has started to seriously falter.
One could claim that China has a perfect junkyard dog proxy in North Korea, one that they can mobilize to cause the U.S. trouble or to redirect international attention on a whim. On the other hand, China’s position in the world has rapidly changed over the last two decades, and instability in the region does them no good at all.
Kim Jong Un, who has proven to be a ruthless and chaotic totalitarian, one that is willing to needlessly push the shaky peace on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of all out war for little reason, has also turned off China and tarnished the traditional partnership between the two neighboring communist countries.
But if any meaningful action is possible, it will have to come with China’s leadership, not just their wary approval. Right now the Chinese leadership has a lot on its plate, so it is possible that this nuclear test was one step to far, at the wrong time, for their North Korean dependents.
Then again, it is very possible that the real issue here is not what the world community should do to North Korea, but what North Korea wants from the world community—primarily the United States. The detonation of another nuclear device can be seen as much as a petty clamoring for attention than anything else, and this time may be different than times in the past because of the fact that we are living in a post-Iranian nuclear deal reality. That does factor into the North Korean nuclear equation going forward.
For many years, the world’s focus on nuclear disarmament was centered around Iran and North Korea, both of which exchanged some nuclear technologies. President Bush famously dubbed them part of the “Axis of Evil” prior to the second Gulf War. Once North Korea achieved breakout and tested a weapon, it was almost as if they were brushed aside and the focus on diplomacy was centered on Iran, which had not yet achieved breakout capability.
Fast forward the better part of a decade and the seemingly never-ending nuclear negotiations with Iran were successful, depending on who you ask. Nonetheless, a solution, at least for the medium term, came to pass. Meanwhile North Korea was largely left to its own nuclear devices, with less ambitious, high-profile and aggressive negotiations sporadically taking place.
Now that the North Koreans have seen what is possible, this test may be an attempt at re-engagement—but with what goal in mind is not clear. The country could seek the lifting of some sanctions in exchange for stopping nuclear development disarming outright, but that is unlikely. At the very least, just going back to the negotiating table would help temporarily satisfy North Korea’s never ending quest for national recognition on the world stage.
The hard truth is that the Hermit Kingdom is a nuclear power, and an incredibly blunt but deadly conventional power as well. Military action is not possible short of an all out war. As such, the game continues and only the North Koreans and China can really change the rules going forward, for better or for worse.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photo Credit: AP