On January 6, 2015 at 10: 00 Pyongyang time, North Korea conducted a “hydrogen bomb test”. First, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake was recorded in the area of the North Korean nuclear test site. Then, the North Korean television released a special statement declaring that the country had “successfully tested a hydrogen bomb created entirely with Korean technology.” The government’s statement on the matter was spread almost immediately afterwards.
In the statement overflowing with characteristic rhetoric, it was made clear that the reason for the test was the aggressive policy of the United States (“the world has not seen a more sinister, brutal and long-standing hostile policy”), while also adding that “the test did not incur an adverse impact on the surrounding environment” and “North Korea, as a responsible nuclear weapons state, will not use nuclear weapons first, as long as hostile forces do not encroach on our sovereignty, and will never transfer the means and technology of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.” Yet, “unless the United States abandon its hostile policy toward the DPRK entirely, there can be no suspension in the development of nuclear weapons, nor can there be nuclear dismantlement, even if the sky falls in.”
According to the US Geological Survey, the epicentre of the earthquake was at a depth of 10 km below the surface. Tremors of the same magnitude were recorded during the nuclear tests in 2013. According to South Korean media reports, it is possible that the nuclear device was detonated at a depth of 100 metres, where the focus of the earthquake occurred. Meanwhile, according to the National Intelligence Service of South Korea, neither China, nor Russia were forewarned about the nuclear test.
This move by North Korea raises two basic questions: “was this really a thermonuclear weapons test, and does it really increase the threat posed by North Korea?” and “what were the reasons for the test and what are the further political consequences of this move?” Let us study them one by one.
Although tectonic activity of this magnitude suggests that something unusual was detonated, it is impossible to ascertain the yield of the bomb accurately owing to the fact that North Korea conducted the tests at a great depth, because they did not want to negatively impact their own or a foreign ecology. The release of radioactive isotopes can only be expected later. Estimates of the yield of the explosion range from 6 to 200 kilotons. Again, the question arises about the amount of hydrogen bomb material required for the explosion. The yields that have come to light are, at first glance, not enough. It is no coincidence, that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to monitor the data available to verify North Korea’s declaration about its hydrogen bomb test.
Most experts have questioned the fact that Pyongyang detonated a full-scale hydrogen bomb (its yield was too low), but recognised North Korea’s progress in the development of military nuclear technology. Perhaps it was a test of new technology; perhaps, the use of thermonuclear reactions to improve performance; perhaps it was the so-called boosting with the aim of achieving the same yield but with a much lower consumption of uranium or plutonium (which saves fissile material and allows more nuclear weapons to be created), but not the use of fusion reactions as the main energy source of the explosion.
One theory is that North Korea is partly indulging in wishful thinking. The tests concerned the so-called initiator – the nuclear bomb, the explosion of which initiates a thermonuclear reaction. That is to say, North Korea possesses an important element for the production of a hydrogen bomb, but that does not mean they possess the bomb itself.
Generally, there is a good chance that there is no bomb at all, but a nuclear explosive device. There is a rather significant difference between these concepts. A bomb requires a certain level of miniaturization that allows it to be used as part of a delivery system that can strike a location. On the contrary, the military use of explosive devices is solely based on “luring a greater number of enemies closer to it and then detonating it”. This distinction is important for staving off unnecessary panic.
Why? North Korea is unlikely to use nuclear weapons first. Even if we assume that Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is the survival of his regime, leading an aggressive war is clearly a political suicide: the international community deems any response to be adequate against those who break the nuclear taboo. Therefore it cannot be said that the nuclear test has significantly increased the level of the North Korean threat to the world.
On the other hand, that does not change the political consequences. If North Korea said it detonated a hydrogen bomb, it will answer for doing so. The White House has already condemned North Korea for violating the UN Security Council resolution that prohibits all nuclear tests – be it an atom or a hydrogen bomb. The majority of America’s allies spoke out in a similar vein.
The move that Kim Jong-un made is extremely risky. Firstly, conducting a nuclear test cannot but bring about further tension in relations with the countries that are not allies of North Korea, but occupy a neutral, supportive stance. According to the “Xinhua” news agency, Beijing stated that “the hydrogen bomb test in North Korea runs contrary to the international community’s goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “the parties must abandon their thoughts of conflict and return to resolving disputes through dialogue as soon as possible.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China also lodged a defiant protest.
Secondly, all this deals North Korea some kind of blow to its reputation. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech did not make mention of nuclear weapons and was interpreted by many as an invitation to the dialogue. As such, those who enjoy talking about the unpredictability of the Pyongyang regime or even the inadequacy of the North Korean leader have been given an incident that they can make good use of. If the nature of the regime is so fickle and impulsive, what sense is there of negotiating with it about anything?
Thirdly, there is a question of the timeliness of the tests. Neither the inter-Korean nor Korean-US relations had been marked by any deterioration, and even those who are fans of explaining away such actions by North Korea as a wish to procure more free aid, may notice that this year the problem of food security in the DPRK has reduced.
So, why now? Perhaps the order to conduct the test was given after the heightening of tension in August 2015 and it had not been cancelled until now solely for technical reasons. Perhaps the Middle East crisis played a role.
There is an opinion that the test was designed to push the United States into concluding a peace treaty that signifies the diplomatic recognition of North Korea by the United States. If so, Pyongyang demonstrated poor judgement. Firstly, a peace treaty does not mean anything, and even diplomatic relations do not mean the absence of tension. Therefore, hoping that the US attitude towards North Korea will radically change after signing a peace treaty is misleading. Secondly, in light of the reaction inside the US, it will only cause a drop in Obama’s ratings and strengthen the position of those who believe that it is necessary to be tougher on the North or, at the very least, not to appear weak. For the American foreign policy this is important, because it was this very motivation that saw troops led into Vietnam.
In any case, we should expect the “obligatory program” – a large number of condemnations from all sides (both the governing party and the opposition in South Korea spoke out), new UN Security Council resolutions, and probably new sanctions prohibiting the import of resources and technologies needed for nuclear fusion into North Korea. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are obliged to join this chorus of condemnation, since as members of the “nuclear five” they consistently speak out in favour of non-expansion of the nuclear club.
Although it is unclear how true the statement of the South Korean intelligence is, a certain cooling of relations between North Korea, China and Russia is very likely. At least at the level of the suspension or freezing of existing joint projects: the level of economic cooperation will be reduced partly for demonstrative purposes and partly because investing in North seems risky. The increasing discontent in China will be revealed by the extent, to which Beijing suspends cross-border trade, energy supply, or supply lines.
On the other hand, there is an opinion that the reaction will not be as severe. Firstly, “everyone has got used to it”. Secondly, serious experts understand that North Korea’s nuclear rhetoric is not even an intimidation, but rather actions that convey “do not touch me, or things will be even worse.” Thirdly, there are enough stress points in the world these days, where the probability of a negative development of the situation is much higher than in the case of North Korea.
Whatever it was, the leader of North Korea has made a risky move and should be prepared to face an array of consequences. Whether “he has shot himself in the foot” or brilliantly anticipated events by making an important breakthrough, only time will tell.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph. D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.