By Aniket Bhavthankar*
On January 6, 2016 seismometers across the world had measured a 5.1 Richter scale seismic event. Immediately after that North Korea claimed that it has successfully conducted its first Hydrogen Bomb test. Arch rival and its immediate neighbor South Korea, reacted very strongly to the North Korean assertion; the United States (US) sent a stern warning to Pyongyang. Japan is equally alarmed and asked for a firm global response. China and Russia, long time supporters of North Korea have also expressed their dissatisfaction about recent developments. Unlike earlier instances, North Korea didn’t give advance notices to China, Russia or the US. North Korea is likely to face more sanctions; it has been under the UN Security Council sanctions since it first carried out a nuclear test in 2006. If claims made by North Korea are true, then it will surely escalate the nuclear challenge from this pariah state.
The US intelligence services have sensed some underground activities near the Punggye-ri nuclear site. Hence, the fourth test had been long expected. Though North Korea has claimed about successful testing of the Hydrogen Bomb, many analysts have expressed their suspicion about the announcement. As noted earlier, a 5.1 magnitude tremor was detected from Kilju City near nuclear site. And important to note, last time when North Korea conducted a nuclear test, a tremor of 5.1 magnitude was registered on the devices. Besides, the device has yielded 6 kilo tones roughly the same as the last test. Hence, it is difficult to believe that North Korea has actually detonated a full-fledged Hydrogen Bomb.
However, world powers are not taking any chances as a seismic event is not the only measure to assess the test of a Hydrogen Bomb. If traces of Tritium are found in the atmosphere then that would be a strong indication of a test of fission device. The US and Japan have send their sniffer planes to analyze the atmosphere off the coast of North Korea. The aim is to evaluate radiation coming off the test site that would provide clues about type of bomb. However, it is also not the most accurate method to know about the test. So, we have to wait to know the nature of this test. Besides this, an important thing to note is that North Korea’s ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, mount it on a ballistic missile and target its perceived enemies. Many senior US military officials have warned about North Korea’s newly acquired capability. One thing is clear: the North Korean nuclearsiation has created ripples across the world.
Foreign policy has been remained a core issue in the US presidential elections. The Republicans have accused Obama administration of running a weak foreign policy that enabled North Korea to strengthen its nuclear capabilities. Domestic constituents in the US are asking President Barack Obama to pressurize China, a staunch supporter of North Korea. Last September, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House, Obama pressed for action on North Korea’s continuous process of nuclearsiation. A new test gives an opportunity for the US to redouble the pressure on Beijing.
South Korea is really worried about the boost in the North Korean nuclear capability. They have asked the world community in general and the US in particular to pay attention on the geopolitical tensions in the Korean peninsula. The US has earlier suggested for deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) within the South Korean territory. However, South Korea was not enthusiastic about the plan as it was not in favour to have a diplomatic headache with China. It will be interesting to see whether North Korea’s test would force Seoul to change its mind.
This test will certainly add strains in the relationship between China and North Korea and increase pressure on it to contain and control Pyongyang. China has also failed in its efforts to establish a cordial relation with Kim Jong-un , North Korea’s president. China is worried that at the pretext of the North Korean tests, the United States and Japan will install more military facilities in the area. Incidentally, this will allow them to monitor situation in the South China Sea. If North Korea continues to develop a sophisticated nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms then it will certainly push South Korea and Japan to follow the North Korean footprints. This kind of arms race may potentially lead to instability in the Korean peninsula. China is also concerned that a destablised North Korea might send large number of refugees inside its territory.
We have to note, the US and China have lost their traction within North Korea since the break down of the six party talks. Only country with some influence in North Korea is Russia. But, West has differed with Russia on several geopolitical issues, especially after Ukraine crisis. Earlier, the rise of the Islamic State gave an opportunity to Moscow to score point over western capitals. And, sensitive situation in the Korean peninsula provides an upper hand for the Russia in the geopolitically divided world. It also indicates that though China considers itself as an emerging superpower, it does not enjoy political and strategic influence in its neighbourhood.
North Korea’s detonation squarely questions the effectiveness of the global non-proliferation regime. The regime has failed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. India has expressed its concerns over links between the North Korean nuclear program and the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan. Besides, there is growing suspicion that North Korea is supplying arms to warring factions in conflict-ridden West Asia. The cancer of illegal nuclear trade is posing a danger to global peace and security and warrants a comprehensive framework to confront this danger.
*Aniket Bhavthankar is a Senior Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]