North Korea’s latest test

north korea testWell, it finally happened – North Korea finally set off another nuclear test, which wasn’t much of a surprise to be honest with you. After a couple of low-yield devices the North Koreans had plenty of reasons to continue testing – we’ll talk about that in a moment – and the world reacted fairly predictably by condemning the test and promising yet another round of sanctions. Don’t get me wrong – these actions are as necessary as they are predictable, if only to make it clear that this sort of thing won’t be ignored, winked at, or let to slide. But the international opprobrium is just as predictable as North Korea’s deciding to have a third nuclear test; what’s perhaps a little more interesting is speculating about some of the (if you’ll pardon the term) fallout that we can expect to see in the next few years.

First, let’s think about why another North Korean nuclear weapons test was almost inevitable – and let’s leave speculation about the youngest Kim’s personal and political reasons aside. North Korea had two earlier tests, both of them very low-yield. In fact, their first test was so low-yield that there was a bit of speculation about whether or not North Korea might have just faked it by filling a cave with conventional explosives and setting those off. Air sampling around the periphery of North Korea showed the presence of fission products which pretty much confirmed that there had been fission taking place, but so small a yield seemed likely to have been the result of a mistake in the weapon’s design or construction – from that it was virtually inevitable that there would be a second test, if only to prove to themselves and to the world that North Korea was capable of building a full-on nuclear device. That was more or less shown by their second test – significantly more powerful than the first, although still only a small fraction of the yield of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki devices.

So – North Korea showed the world in their second test that they could design and build a nuclear device – why in the world would they risk more condemnation and sanctions by testing a third one? There are good reasons for nuclear weapons testing - here are a few that might apply in this case.

Part of the answer might well be that they just don’t care what the world thinks about them. All three Kims seem to have made a point of using international condemnation as a point of pride and as a way to help strengthen their government. And part of the reason might well be that the perceived benefit derived from showing the world a working North Korean nuclear weapon outweighs the perceived cost of yet another round of international hand-wringing and punishment – just as tacking a few more years on a life sentence might not deter a prisoner from attacking someone who’s threatening him.

Another part of the answer might be that North Korea needed to show that their nuclear weapon is an actual threat. A “fizzle” might destroy a city block or two, but it doesn’t inspire as much fear as a full-blown nuclear device. But now that North Korea has shown the world that it can field a weapon of the same class as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki devices its enemies (real or perceived) have to acknowledge that the threat level has ratcheted up a notch.

Not only that, but North Korea claims that the device it tested was smaller and lighter than their other two devices. If we assume that this is true then the recent North Korean rocket launch raises the possibility that there could be a nuclear-tipped missile coming out of Pyong Yang in the near future. While North Korea has to realize that a nuclear attack on any American city would almost certainly lead to our raining down nuclear annihilation upon them – every missile launch comes with an easily verifiable “return address” – they might feel that an attack against Japan or South Korea might not produce the same response.

One of the questions that only air sampling will answer (hopefully) is whether this device is based on plutonium as previous North Korean weapons were or if North Korea has got their uranium enrichment program to the point of building a uranium weapon (the fission products created by U-235 fission are subtly different than those produced by the fission of Pu-239). If it’s a uranium device then this not only means that North Korea has diversified their nuclear weapons program, but that they’ve got a working system to enrich uranium  to weapons-grade; something they had not previously demonstrated.

Of course there are other concerns than North Korea’s having a nuclear weapon. One is that the North Koreans have been implicated in working with both Myanmar and Iran to develop nuclear weapons – a successful demonstration of a higher-yield device would certainly show their potential clients that North Korea has effective technology for sale. Not only that, but North Korea has a history of selling pretty much any of their military technology to anyone with a checkbook – we have to consider the possibility that this test might also be a sort of advertisement to potential buyers. The point is that North Korea is already being punished by terrible sanctions and they’ve been on the international list of bad performers for many years – it seems safe to think that the potential benefits to North Korea are high enough to make this test (and potential future tests) worthwhile.

And this brings up another thought – that North Korea might be tempted to sell a working nuclear weapon to a nation or a terrorist group that might be tempted to use it against us or one of our allies. One way to try to forestall this might be to make it very clear to North Korea that if one of their weapons is used against us or one of our allies – whether by them or by one of their customers – would be viewed as an attack by the Koreans. The only way to pull this off, of course, would be to gather some high-quality data from this (and their previous) tests so that our nuclear forensics experts could unequivocally identify the weapon as a North Korean design and manufacture. But North Korea should have absolutely no doubt that we consider them responsible for the manner in which all of their weapons are used – whether those weapons were detonated by them or by one of their “customers.”

So, to recap, here are the questions and some possible answers:

  • What was the actual yield of North Korea’s new device? (A careful analysis of seismic data should tell us)
  • Was it a new uranium device or a plutonium bomb? (Nuclear forensics – if we can catch enough fission product atoms – will give us this information)
  • Was the device an advanced miniaturized design as North Korea claims? (We might not know unless we can get some inside information)
  • Can North Korea’s newest weapon be carried by one of their ballistic missiles? (Again, no way to know at the moment – but they must know that launching against us or our allies will be fatal to their nation)
  • Will North Korea put nuclear weapons up for sale? (Possibly – but if we can get good enough forensic information to positively ID North Korean uranium or plutonium we might be able to dissuade them)

The bottom line is that there’s no doubt that North Korea’s latest test tells us and the rest of the world that they are, without a doubt, a genuine nuclear power. Given the nature of the regime, this makes the world a bit more dangerous place than it was last week. But that’s life. It’s too late to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, but hopefully we can persuade them that this particular line of proliferation must stop with them.

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