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North Korea’s 4th N-Test: Escalation Of Tensions Feared – Analysis


Pursuant to the strategic determination of the Worker’s Party of Korea, North Korea announced to have successfully conducted the first Hydrogen bomb test at 10 AM on 6 January 2015. According to a special statement broadcasted by the central TV and South Korean TV channels, Pyongyang claimed the reason for the test was the country’s right for ‘self-defense,’ and promised not to use nuclear weapons if the international community respects its sovereignty. Pyongyang also reiterated it’s much cited position that it was ready to continue with actively developing its military industry and nuclear weapon if threat perception remains or heightens.

North Korea did not notify either the US or China about its plans to conduct the nuclear test. In 2003, Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and two years later, in 2005, declared itself a nuclear power by conducting several nuclear weapons tests. This sparked concerns in the international community, particularly in neighbouring South Korea. Almost four years later, Pyongyang tested additional nuclear weapons. In December 2015, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had claimed that his country had a hydrogen bomb and was ready to use it to protect its sovereignty and national dignity. The statement also said that North Korea will act as a responsible nuclear state and vowed not to use its nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was infringed. It also said it will not transfer its nuclear capabilities to other parties.

The statement claimed that the test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology. It gave fully credit to its people for succeeding in making it scientifically accurate. It further confirmed that the hydrogen bomb test was conducted in a safe and perfect manner and had no adverse impact on the ecological environment. The statement said: “By succeeding in the H-bomb test in the most perfect manner to be specially recorded in history the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states possessed of even H-bomb and the Korean people came to demonstrate the spirit of the dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Pyongyang’s defiant move puts it now a bit step closer towards improving its still limited nuclear arsenal. The television anchor in a typically propaganda-heavy statement said North Korea had tested a “miniaturised” hydrogen nuclear device, elevating the country’s “nuclear might to the next level” and providing it with a weapon to defend against the US and its other enemies. The test was a “perfect success”, it claimed.

Claims suspect

There are doubts about Pyongyang’s claims. According to some analysts, Pyongyang has not likely achieved the technology needed to manufacture a miniaturised warhead that could fit on a long-range missile capable of hitting the US. If true, that is worrying. But there is a growing debate on just how far the North has advanced in its secretive nuclear and missile programs. The debate whether the explosion on 6 January was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device continues.

The device had a yield of about 6 kilotons, roughly the same size as the North’s last test in 2013, which was equivalent to 6-7 kilotons of TNT. According to Korea Defence and Security Forum, what Pyongyang has tested is some middle stage kind of device between an A-bomb and H-bomb and that without any clear evidence, it is difficult to trust Pyongyang’s claims. There is also a possibility that Pyongyang may have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fissile bomb. If so, it is not a true fusion capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce. A successful hydrogen bomb test would typically have a yield of hundreds of kilotons. Even a failed hydrogen bomb test would be higher than the yield of 6 January test. The first US hydrogen bomb test in 1952 had a yield of 10 megatons.

Nuclear experts say that it is possible that North Korea is using a sort of in-between weapon, called a “boosted” nuclear device. This involves a very small amount of fusion to “boost” the explosive capability of a fission bomb. According to Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, these weapons generally have a yield around 50 kilotons.

What is the difference between a hydrogen bomb and an atomic bomb? While the former is much more powerful than the latter, the former is much harder to make. Hydrogen bombs differ from other nuclear weapons by harnessing energy created by fusing hydrogen atoms together rather than by tearing atoms apart (atomic fission). This makes them much more powerful: Nuclear weapons based on fission typically have a yield of around 10 kilotons or so, while nuclear weapons employing fusion can have a yield measured in megatons. (A kiloton is 1,000 tons; a megaton is 1,000 kilotons.), explains Bennett.  North Korea is suspected to be in possession of a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs. It spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range missile to eventually carry smaller versions of those bombs. It made several attempts earlier but failed. It finally succeeded in putting its first satellite into space with a long-range rocket in December 2012.

Experts differ over North Korea’s claims that it successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb. Some feel that the claims are exaggerated. Such a view is based on comparisons of underground nuclear tests over the past several decades. According to Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, it was “probably” a test. Kenneth W. Ford, a U.S. physicist who worked on America’s first hydrogen bomb and published memoir on H-bomb in 2015, called the North Korean claim highly suspect.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group, said North Korea “may be bluffing” in making very large claims for what was actually a small atom bomb.  Daryl Kimball, Director of the Arms Control Association in the US feels it is not yet conclusive and may take some time to determine. South Korean experts put the blast’s energy as equivalent to 6 kilotons of high explosives. In contrast, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was nearly three times as powerful, with a force of about 15 kilotons. Many nuclear experts, including Ford and Albright, suggested that the North Korean test might have involved putting a tiny amount of tritium, or heavy hydrogen, into the core of an atom bomb. Such a technique is known as boosting.

Lewis thinks that if the seismic event was a test, it was much more likely to be a boosted device rather than a full fission (or “staged”) bomb. This, according to Bannett, is more consistent with North Korea’s technology level. According to him, “North Korea appears to have had a difficult time mastering even the basics of a fission weapon. Because some fusion is involved in such a weapon, Kim may be claiming that he has achieved a hydrogen bomb when in practice he only has a boosted weapon.”

If this is true, Kim’s claim of successfully detonating the nuclear device would not fundamentally change the status quo in the Korean peninsula. However, it would definitely represent a significant provocation on the North’s part. Though it is difficult to decipher the possible reason in doing so, it is possible that it was a means to extract concessions out of its enemies: the same strategy in heightening military tensions with South Korea first and then demand increases in aid from international actors in exchange for backing down. Another reason for timing this could be domestic politics. A country where the leadership culture demands that its leader is capable of achieving great achievements needs to periodically demonstrate his power and the claim of achieving a major advance in nuclear weaponry could have been such a demonstration directed at the internal audience to secure absolute compliance to the leader.

Pakistan’s role

How did Pyongyang get the technology to develop the nuclear weapons? It can be traced back to the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, known as “the father of the Pak N-bomb”. He reportedly made nearly a dozen trips to North Korea in the 1990s to negotiate the deal during Benazir Bhutto’s regime. Following his role, as many as two planes a month arrived in Pakistan in the late 1990s carrying missile technology in exchange for A.Q. Khan’s secrets, such as how to use centrifuges to enrich enough uranium. According to a report in The Times of India dated 7 January 2016, a letter purportedly from a senior North Korean official to Khan in 1998 detailed payment of $3 million to a former Pak army chief and another half million to a Lt Gen., though the Generals denied the claims. The paper further says that Khan received a pardon from President Pervez Musharraf in 2004 apparently in return for a televised confession in which he admitted selling the technology but insisted that Pakistan was not involved.

Fake earthquake?

On the morning of 6 January 2016, the US Geological Survey measured an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.1, which it believed was caused artificially based on an analysis of the seismic waves and because it originated 49 km (30 miles) north of Kilju, north eastern area where North Korea’s main nuclear Punggye-ri site is located. North Korea conducted all three previous atomic detonations there. Notwithstanding this debate, it seems clear that Pyongyang has made considerable advance in its nuclear technology and therefore its claim of miniaturising warhead that could fit on a long-range missile capable of hitting the US and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea is worrisome.

The question that arises: is it possible for earthquake monitoring agencies to tell the difference between a natural quake and one caused by a nuclear blast? The answer could be in the incident’s waveform. Japan’s Mainichi Daily News observes: “The undulations in the ground produced by a natural quake build to a sudden crescendo, while those produced by an underground nuclear test spike at the very beginning and then trail off.” South Korea’s weather service reported that the earthquake was of an ‘artificial nature.’

North Korea conducted its last atomic explosion in early 2013. It was expected that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un would make a mention about the country’s nuclear weapons in his New Year’s speech but did not probably because of deteriorating relations with Beijing. Kim Jong-un suspected that Beijing will support the US in imposing further tougher sanctions. In recent times, Beijing is frustrated at sustained provocations after Kim Jong-un took power after his father’s death in 2011.


Pyongyang’s claim of making significant advance in its striking capability following the test sets off alarm bells in the immediate neighbourhood. The vulnerability of both Japan and South Korea to the possible strike by Pyongyang was exposed. In this given situation, it could immediately draw the US as it is committed to defend its two key Asian allies by treaty obligations. Also, the US has huge stakes in the region to maintain strategic equilibrium and both its Asian allies are key to the success of President Obama’s Asia pivot policy.

The inevitable consequence of the nuclear test is clamour in the US and other countries for strong push for tougher sanctions at the United Nations. This would also further worsen already abysmal relations between Pyongyang and its neighbours. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo condemned the test, calling it a “serious threat” to Japan’s security and a “grave challenge” to nuclear non-proliferation efforts. South Korea resolved to take all possible measures, including possible additional UN sanctions, to ensure Pyongyang paid the price for its fourth test. China, its only benefactor and long-time allay but lately displeased with the new leadership in Pyongyang, might see the latest Pyongyang’s action as a slap. Beijing expressed “resolute opposition” and said to lodge a protest with Pyongyang. Though Kim Jong-un had indicated some time ago that Pyongyang was in possession of a hydrogen nuclear device, the test was a surprise because of its purported type and timing. This would also extinguish any chance of a resumption of the Six-Party Talks, which remains stalled since 2009 when Pyongyang walked out from this dialogue process. The possible chance of resolving North Korea’s nuclear program through the six-nation initiative now further recedes. Each new blast by Pyongyang is seen in Washington as further advancement of North Korea’s scientists and engineers closer to their goal of an arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles with US cities as possible targets.

North Korea’s nuclear issue comes back with a bang to the centre stage as the US prepares for the next Presidential elections. North Korea has long coveted diplomatic recognition from Washington and sees its nuclear deterrent as crucial to ensuring the survival of its third-generation dictatorship. The examples of Iraq and Libya further harden Pyongyang’s position. Having brought Iran into compliance on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration thought that Pyongyang shall too toe the line and come on board.

After taking power in 2011, Kim Jong-un pursued a bellicose posture in his rhetoric and threatened time and again to launch nuclear strike on the US and South Korea. After conducting the third nuclear test in February 2013, Pyongyang scrapped the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War. Pyongyang also restarted a plutonium nuclear reactor shuttered after a 2007 nuclear deal that later fell apart. Pyongyang also views the US-South Korea annual military drills as preparation for invasion.

Kim Jong-un is probably aware that despite its defiance to Beijing’s counsel, Beijing is unlikely to abandon because of strategic considerations and therefore does not bother that Beijing sees Pyongyang’s attitude as disrespect. This time, Beijing lodged strong protest with Pyongyang and urged to honour its denuclearisation pledges and stop taking any action that will deteriorate the situation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Beijing plans to summon the North Korean ambassador to lodge a diplomatic protest over the test.

President Obama considers the latest nuclear explosion as a matter of US national security and reiterated US alliance commitment to South Korea. The US is reaching out to not only its Asian partners including Japan but also to China to check Pyongyang’s bellicose behaviour. The US feel that though Beijing’s influence over Kim Jong-un has diminished to some extent, China still remains the only crucial player that can calm the situation. Unlike his father Kim Jong-il, the junior Kim is not quite sensitive to Chinese concerns. The US also is exploring new sanctions and strengthening the existing sanctions against North Korea, with the mandate of the UN Security Council. The test would also further North Korea’s international isolation. Already the move prompted the United Nations Security Council to hold an emergency meeting over the issue and drew international criticism that the test jeopardized efforts to realize a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.

The only available forum – the Six-Party Talks – is in limbo. Started in 2003 with China’s initiative, it involves China, Japan, the US, Russia and South Korea with the objective of dismantling the nuclear apparatus of North Korea but was aborted in 2009. The primary objective of the US is how to restart the process and feels Beijing’s role to get North Korea back to the negotiating table remains crucial. Pyongyang has been unwilling to accept any predetermined objective.

The latest nuclear detonation by North Korea is a setback to the UN commitment to its longstanding goal of making the world without nuclear weapons. When the 193-member General Assembly ended its session of 2015 in December, it passed 57 draft resolutions on arms control and disarmament out of which 23 were on nuclear weapons. In one of the resolutions, it urged all member states not to carry out nuclear weapon test explosions. 181 countries voted in favour. North Korea was the sole country which voted against it. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reacted to the test as “deeply troubling”.

Responding to the North Korean test, Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), fears that escalating tensions between nuclear armed states is raising concerns about a new arms race. However, she feels that unlike the Cold War, this time it would involve a larger number of actors and unstable and volatile regions. The risk of use by non-state actors or accident involving nuclear weapons could be more devastating that the threat to use by its possessors.

India’s possible Role

Kim Jong-un’s strategy has been to move away from total dependence on Beijing. Therefore, the regime not only has improved relations with Russia but made attempt to reach out to India by sending its foreign minister in April 2015, the first time in 25 years. In this complex situation, can India have any role to play to address to North Korea’s nuclear issue? Though India’s role shall remain extremely limited, given the diplomatic channels that both India and North Korea keep open and more so in the absence of any historical baggage, there is no harm if the Indian leadership decides to make effort to reach out to the North Korean leadership and play a mediatory role.

Even if a small step is taken, India’s image in the region and the world as a peace maker would have received a boost. If such an initiative fails, still there would be no loss of face. This is a chance for the Indian leadership to ponder about. This does mean to suggest that India should condone Pyongyang’s misdoings. For no convincing reason, Indian government’s response to such grave provocations on the part of Pyongyang has been rather meek, though India disapproved when North Korea detonated the third nuclear device in February 2013. If India is seeking a greater regional role, it would be expected of India to get involved in the Asian affairs as with Vietnam with a view to seek solutions to contentious issues that threaten peace and stability in the Asian region. India has been too cautious to take a position and has abstained at the UN whenever human rights issues are debated in the United Nations. Such a policy is difficult to appreciate. This is a huge opportunity for India to get engaged in the Korean peninsula’s nuclear issue and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership qualities can be put to test if he chooses a pro-active Northeast Asia policy not only with just Japan and South Korea economically and politically but with North Korea with deeper sincerity as well. Is Modi listening?

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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