Within the past few hours, details have emerged that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) conducted its fourth underground atomic weapon detonation. Starting off the “birthday week” of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un, who will turn “30 something” on Friday, the DPRK claimed that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb.
In the event that these claims are proven true, it would be a massive step forward for the reclusive regime and put both regional and international forces on alert. At its most basic level, an atomic weapon (like the ones used by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring to an end the fighting in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War) utilizes fission to create a chain reaction explosion. A “hydrogen bomb” often styled a “thermonuclear weapon” uses an fission catalyst to produce sufficient heat in order to produce fusion. The energy released from a hydrogen bomb is thus orders of magnitude greater than that produced from a “regular”atomic detonation.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union performed large-scale thermonuclear tests (Castle Bravo, Tsar Bomba, et al.) at deserted test sites (islands, Siberia, American desert, et al.). However, both nations, as well as other nuclear states, conducted underground weapons tests in order to limit fallout. Each of North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests have taken place underground.
North Korea “officially” became a nuclear power on October 9, 2006 when the regime detonated a rudimentary atomic device with a <1 kiloton yield. In perspective, the Little Boy device detonated at Hiroshima had an ~15 kiloton yield. North Korea conducted further detonations in 2009 and 2013. The yield in 2009 was between 2 and 9 kilotons while estimates of he yield of the 2013 detonation vary widely between 8 and 40 kilotons. The resultant earthquake (a common result of underground testing) of the 2013 detonation was a 5.1 magnitude seismic event.
Early in the morning of January 6, 2016, the reclusive communist state detonated a device with a yield sufficient to cause another 5.1 magnitude earthquake in the vicinity of a nuclear testing site the government had prepared. While there is no independent confirmation of the type of test that took place, the circumstantial evidence appears to indicate that the North had carried out a successful test of an atomic device. As we noted earlier, because a thermonuclear detonation would likely produce far higher yields than an atomic test, it is probably safe to assume that the DPRK’s device was not an “H-Bomb.” Rather, it appears that, according to experts, the North Korean military cobbled together an “elevated atomic” detonation rather than a true hydrogen bomb (whether a tritium device or simply enhanced with high explosives).
The reality of whether the DPRK actually carried out a full thermonuclear test is less-relevant to the overall geopolitical discussion about North Korea than the fact that the North continues to carry out tests despite heavy international criticism. Most pointedly, today’s test has been condemned, not only by the United States and Western nations, but also by Russia and the DPRK’s long-time enabler, China. The Chinese position with regard to North Korea is especially complex when the North Korean regime takes steps to place itself squarely in the crosshairs of international controversy. Certainly the DPRK is a known human rights violator and is a cause for significant concern given the size of its military (and that military’s proximity to the developed and thriving first-world economy in South Korea).
If past actions by the North Korean government are any indication, the international community will likely attempt to reengage with the communist government in order to exchange humanitarian relief for a suspension of the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The current prediction as to North Korea’s nuclear armament suggests that the DPRK has sufficient material for 8-12 atomic weapons. Obviously, even a small nuclear device detonating over Seoul or Tokyo would be a catastrophe. However, while the North has taken sabre-rattling rhetoric into overdrive in the past, it has typically done so in order to either enhance its bargaining position internationally or to make a show of force at home. Kim Jong-Un has already showed himself, if the sparse reports from the DPRK are to be taken as credible, to be as ruthless as his father and grandfather in dealing with dissenters. Certainly expressions of strength go a long way in quieting criticism against the “Dear Leader” among his staff.
There are several larger-scale concerns that should be more troubling than the actual decision of North Korea to continue its nuclear testing. First is the precarious position where Japan finds itself in the Asian-Pacific balance of power. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution (put in place after the Second World War) effectively outlaws Japan from having or maintaining an aggressive military presence (it has been interpreted to give Japan the right to self-defense forces). Most recently in 2014, revisions to the way in which the Japanese government approaches Article 9 has permitted a “collective self defense” reading of the provision. Effectively, this will allow the Japanese to enter a conflict on the side of an ally. It’s important to note that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has previously called for revisions and broadening of the interpretation of Article 9. Especially given the tense relationship between Japan and China over the South China Sea and territorial claims on the Senkaku Islands and yet another reminder of the nuclear capability of North Korea, it’s predictable that the nationalist and hawkish forces in Japan will be able to accelerate plans for either amendment or changes to Japan’s self-defense mandate.
Another larger concern is the fact that North Korea is also continuing non-nuclear weapons development. An apparently successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in the past week underscores that the conventional weapons program undertaken by the DPRK should not be completely overlooked. While the technological prowess of Pyongyang is reportedly decades behind even Soviet-era weapons systems, the war making capacity of the communist regime is less important than the concerns over the result of a first-strike or sale of weapons to non-state actors.
The continued development of the North Korean nuclear and conventional weapons program also is proving to be a stumbling block for Beijing as China attempts to establish itself as a fully-fledged world power. The Chinese government has, perhaps out of historical communist solidarity, provided a slight veil of international support to the North Korean regime. However, relations between the two nations have deteriorated recently to the point that Kim Jong-Un has not been granted an audience in Beijing like his father and grandfather. While a cooling of relations between the two nations could force North Korea to come back to the ever-stalled six party talks (in that China will stop subsidizing North Korea and the North will have no choice but to seek international aid), it is also possible that the reclusive regime could see a decline in Chinese support to be a time to take a more aggressive stance or even prepare for war.
Today’s test comes as the third test undertaken by Pyongyang during the Obama Administration. While it may be unfair to ascribe the decisions of a paranoid dictator to the ins-and-outs of American electoral politics, the fact remains that, given the apparent yield of the device detonated today, the communist regime’s nuclear program has continued at full steam despite American condemnation. Certainly there is a vein of the American public that laughs at the admittedly ridiculous antics of North Korea’s Dear Leader. However, given that only one successful nuclear detonation in South Korea would cause chaos both for the Korean Peninsula and world markets, the fact that a reputed madman has his hand on a trigger should give the United States some pause. It is very unlikely that the United States will do anything more than condemn this round of nuclear testing by Pyongyang. While restarting the stalled six party talks may be the goal of the Administration, it is unlikely that President Obama has either the will or the political capital to make concessions to the DPRK (especially given the fact that the United States has generally been unsuccessful at evoking any change in North Korea). The reality of the President’s likely inaction on the Korean front (unless something like a strike or major military buildup actually takes place), means that this will be (yet another) foreign policy flashpoint passed on to whatever administration takes power next January. It will be imperative that Republicans vying to take Obama’s place have a policy with respect to North Korea and one that does not involve merely “resuming the stalled six party talks.”
So what should the response be from GOP national candidates seeking office that does not involve the resumption of six party talks?
After these steps are taken, the United States and its allies should return to six party negotiations. While these provisions will not totally break the back of the North Korean nuclear program, it will undermine both funding and material support being provided by outside actors to Pyongyang. Especially in the event that Chinese meddling in North Korea can be stymied, there is a strong possibility that the regime will be forced to reform. The policy points that need to be avoided are the ones that are needlessly bellicose towards Beijing or appear to be reforming “SEATO.”
While the testing of a nuclear device does not fundamentally alter the equation in the Pacific, it does bring back to the fore the instability in the relationships between China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. While the United States will likely take no definitive action during the Obama Administration, the security situation will continue to be an international relations concern for years to come.