Why North Korea can't be dismissed as a wannabe nuclear power

It’s not yet clear exactly what kind of nuclear device exploded on Wednesday. But even if it wasn't what North Korea claims, it could be a wakeup call.

People watch a huge screen broadcasting the government's announcement in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo. North Korea said it successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear bomb on Wednesday, claiming a significant advance in its strike capability.

North Korea’s Wednesday nuclear test – whatever the power or nature of the device involved – is but the latest reminder that the secretive Pyongyang regime continues to defy international attempts to curtail its atomic ambitions, and should not be dismissed as a wannabe-nuke state that can’t quite get the hang of difficult nuclear and missile technology.

The split is stark: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to see nuclear weapons as the guarantor of his regime’s continued existence. The rest of the globe, perhaps including North Korea’s closest ally, China, sees them as a weight dragging North Korea’s people backward into a poorer, isolated existence.

How to respond? Past UN Security Council resolutions and international sanctions have not (yet) had the desired effect. Now the issue is whether the US, South Korea, and particularly China can agree on further actions that will sting Pyongyang enough to actually change its behavior.

“For the indefinite future, the goal must be to sustain as broad an international coalition as possible, beginning with a shared recognition that the development and diversification of North Korea’s weapons programs is a common threat, not directed at any one country,” writes Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies.

In terms of nuclear development, it’s not yet clear exactly what kind of nuclear device exploded on Wednesday at North Korea’s isolated Punggye-ri test site.

North Korea says it was a hydrogen bomb, or as Pyongyang puts it, an “H-bomb of justice.” Most Western experts consider this unlikely. The power of the detonation was not near the levels achieved by successful hydrogen devices.

The US government’s analysis of early data shows the test “is not consistent” with a hydrogen bomb, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

To the US, “hydrogen bomb” means a two-stage fission-fusion weapon type developed by the major nuclear powers. These are fantastically difficult to develop and produce but can produce yields in the hundreds or thousands of kilotons.

North Korea did not explode one of those – or if it did, it fizzled, according to David Albright, a nuclear expert and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security.

It is possible Pyongyang is just bluffing and actually used a device similar to those it has exploded before. It is also possible North Korea tested a one-stage thermonuclear device, or a so-called “boosted” bomb.

A “boosted” bomb is much less powerful than a true H-bomb, but much more powerful than the sorts of devices North Korea is already known to possess.

“With this method, the yield can be enhanced or boosted many fold,” writes David Albright in a technical analysis of the North Korea test.

Currently, North Korea has an estimated six to eight plutonium-based fission warheads, according to the Arms Control Association. North Korea is known to have a uranium enrichment program in addition to plutonium production facilities, the ACA notes. If it has mastered the art of producing weapons-grade uranium, it may have enough fissile material for another four to eight warheads.

North Korea also is apparently working on an intercontinental ballistic missile, but test results have been mixed. Most recently, Pyongyang carried out experiments with submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, test-firing a KN-11 SLBM in November.

“The test was deemed a failure by experts because the missile failed to launch from the water,” notes the Arms Control Association.

However, the explosion of even one nuclear device – particularly a boosted one – would be a tragedy unprecedented since World War II, possibly destroying a city center.

And in some ways a developing nuclear state can be more dangerous than an established one, in the sense that nervousness about the security or power of a limited arsenal may cause dictators to keep their nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert.

“Small nuclear forces with limited effectiveness can push a given power – particularly one with extreme authoritarian leadership – into nuclear postures that present far more risks than the far later and more capable nuclear forces of major powers,” writes Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a new study of North Korea’s nuclear intentions.

In this context, why did North Korea explode a nuclear device now?

The answer to that question is fully known only to a few in Pyongyang. It’s possible Mr. Kim ordered the test so as to have something to brag about at an upcoming North Korean party congress. But in the past, the North Korean regime has shown a propensity to take provocative steps as a means to draw attention to itself, particularly when it thinks it is being unfairly ignored due to other events – such as a war against terrorists in the Middle East, or a heated US presidential campaign.

The H-bomb claim fits with that theory. What better way to create waves than say one has taken another big leap up the nuclear development ladder?

The problem is that if the rest of the world sees this claim as a deliberate overstatement it seems less a threat than a “desperate reach for prestige,” according to Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Such a claim in the absence of conclusive corroborating evidence conveys desperation and weakness from a regime that has increasingly stood on claims to North Korea’s nuclear status as a source of domestic legitimacy,” writes Mr. Snyder.

The US, South Korea, and China now all have a vested interest in imposing a tangible cost on North Korea for its actions, according to Snyder. Beijing’s role will be critical – par for the course in North Korea diplomacy. The North Korean economy, such as it is, is increasingly dependent on China even as Kim Jong-un continues to defy his Chinese patrons’ wishes for stability on the Korean peninsula.

New restrictions on international banking with North Korea may be one approach to tighter sanctions. Will Chinese banks go along with such a move?

“Major Chinese banks do not want to find themselves sanctioned for their activities in the North and the day may not be too distant when these banks will need to choose,” writes Jonathan Pollack of Brookings.

Following North Korea’s announcement of its test, the UN Security Council issued a statement saying it would begin work immediately on new measures against North Korea. Samantha Powers, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that the council needs to hold North Korea accountable “by imposing a tough, comprehensive and credible package of new sanctions.”

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