Little the international community can do to stop North Korea developing nuclear weapons

January 8, 2016 8:30 pm


from the Korea Meteorological Administration point at the epicenter of
seismic waves in , at the National Earthquake and Volcano
Center. AP photo / Lee Jin-man

On Wednesday the North Korean government announced
it had conducted a hydrogen bomb test. This followed North Korean
leader Kim Jong-un’s December 2015 proclamation that the country had perfected the hydrogen bomb.
A hydrogen bomb is more powerful than an atomic bomb because it employs a two-stage nuclear reaction
to boost its explosive power. The first stage is a nuclear fission
reaction (such as in a traditional atomic bomb), which then triggers a
secondary nuclear hydrogen fusion reaction that gives the hydrogen bomb
its greater explosive yield.

If this detonation was a hydrogen bomb test – which the US government is disputing
– then it was likely less successful than the North Korean leadership
may have hoped. A hydrogen bomb would be expected to register an
explosive yield 100 to 1000 times larger
than a fission bomb. However, the blast does not appear to have
registered a sufficient explosive yield to constitute a successful
hydrogen bomb test.
The tested device may have been a “boosted fission weapon”, a precursor technological step to a hydrogen bomb. Even so, the explosive yield would be expected to be five to ten times larger than that registered by this test.
Alternatively, the device may have been a test of the first-stage fission “trigger” of a two-stage hydrogen bomb. This is plausible. This test is estimated to have been approximately 1.5 times as powerful as the 2013 nuclear test, based on the blast’s seismic readings.
of these possibilities are consistent with the developmental trajectory
of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The miniaturisation of a
nuclear weapon for deployment on the warhead of a ballistic missile
remains North Korea’s primary technical obstacle to a fully operational nuclear weapon capability.
of its relative success from a technical standpoint, the emphasis of
this test on hydrogen bomb development is significant – a hydrogen bomb
can be more easily miniaturised.

Fitting the pattern

technical development of North Korea’s nuclear program is a dynamic
space. But the contours of Korean Peninsula nuclear politics have
remained relatively predictable for many years. There is a pattern that has emerged since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
North Korea tests a nuclear device. The test highlights its
advancements in nuclear weapons technology without conclusively
demonstrating a deployable weapon.
It is clear the North Korean government sees great intrinsic value
in nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent against external aggression
and an umbrella for economic development. In addition, the threat of
nuclear weapons is useful as a diplomatic bargaining chip, a vehicle for
bureaucratic interests and a rallying symbol of the country’s
hyper-nationalist ideology.
Second, the
international community responds with rhetorical indignation and
resolve. That resolve rapidly dissolves into a negotiated compromise
resolution from the UN Security Council that adds an additional layer to
the ineffective economic sanctions regime against the North Korean government.
South Korean capital, Seoul, is essentially indefensible against North
Korean rockets and artillery due to its close proximity to the
demilitarised zone. Given the potential impact of war in Korea,
with estimated casualties of up to 500,000 people and a cost of more
than US$1 trillion, the risk is too high to justify the desired gain.
for any rational military strategist, the risks of an armed response to
North Korea’s sanctions violations and pin-prick provocations are
Doubts growing over North Korea’s H-Bomb test
Analysis: So why has Kim Jong Un pressed the button now

leaves non-military measures such as economic sanctions as the default
response available to the Security Council in responding to North
Korea’s nuclear tests. The international economic sanctions regime
against North Korea was instituted through Security Council Resolution 1718 in October 2006 after its first nuclear test, and was added to in resolutions 1874 and 2094 following the 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests.
Chinese government has often cited strategic reasons for treading
gently with sanctions enforcement. North Korea, as China’s ally in the
northeast, forms a key component of a series of buffer zones surrounding
China’s territorial periphery. China fears the potential for economic
and social dislocation in its northeastern provinces caused by large refugee flows from North Korea in the event of war or state collapse.
Third, North Korea finds creative means of circumventing the sanctions regime
and continues its nuclear weapons development. To comply with the
Security Council’s sanctions regime, North Korea would have to abandon
not only its strategic deterrent but also the foundation of its
medium-term economic development strategy, the pillar of its
institutional governance structure, and its associated ideological and
propaganda commitments.
Gains from the lifting of
sanctions and the relative trinkets offered in grand bargain proposals
would make for an unfair exchange for denuclearisation in the eyes of
the North Korean leadership.
It is likely that the
response of regional countries and the Security Council over the coming
days will remain true to form in composing a new resolution with little
more than a list of new individual and institutional targets for
sanctions in North Korea.
In the meantime, North
Korea remains committed to perfecting a deployable nuclear weapon
capability. It is confident in the understanding that there appears little the international community can do to prevent it.

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