In our forecast for 2016, we said the following three things about North Korea: “1. At some point in 2016, it is highly likely that the DPRK will carry out some seemingly irrational action, from a nuclear test to sinking a ship. It will certainly engage in making bizarre threats. 2. The global media will become intensely concerned, feeling as if the world is on the brink of war. 3. No war will begin. It will all be part of the concerted and effective strategy the DPRK has pursued since the fall of the Soviet Union.”
North Korea announced today that it carried out its fourth nuclear test, the other three having been carried out in 2006, 2009 and 2013. What made today’s test different than the previous ones was that North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb as opposed to an atomic bomb. The North Korean claim raises four questions.
First, obviously, was it actually a hydrogen bomb? Second, was it a bomb or merely a device suitable for testing but not deployment? Third, does this in any way change the strategic reality? And fourth, why did North Korea do it or threaten to do it?
It is not yet verified that it was a hydrogen bomb and simply the size of the explosion does not determine whether it was. It is possible to build larger atomic — basic fission – weapons. It is also possible to increase yield by placing a small amount of tritium at the core of an atomic bomb. It would have used a variety of hydrogen to boost yield, technically making it a hydrogen bomb, but not a true fusion weapon, as opposed to a fission-based weapon. The North Koreans could be lying, exaggerating or telling the truth. It will take careful analysis of the seismographic data, as well as of any potential leakage of even small amounts of radiation to come to a conclusion, or it may be uncertain.
There is a huge difference between testing a nuclear weapon and having a deliverable weapon. A test does not involve the complexity of weaponizing the device. A test takes place in a controlled environment and the device does not have to be miniaturized to be placed on a rocket or aircraft, or ruggedized to survive launch, the vacuum and temperature variations of space, or the extreme environment of re-entry. It is a device that can be exploded in a static environment — a science experiment in effect — and not a deliverable bomb. And the crafting of a device into a bomb is a difficult task in itself.
An atomic weapon on the order of the one dropped on Hiroshima is a terrible device. Its explosion over a city can be devastating. A hydrogen bomb can be more devastating, but in terms of the threat posed by North Korea to the rest of the world, the increase in casualties and damage does not fundamentally change the threat. If the United States, Japan, South Korea and China among others can tolerate fissionable atomic devices in North Korea’s hands, this doesn’t cross a new line. The line was crossed years ago and this simply is a quantitative and not qualitative change.
There are two basic forces shaping North Korea’s actions. The first is regime survival. After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the internal shifts in China, North Korea’s regime felt reasonably vulnerable. The specter of a North Korean regime, desperate and unpredictable, with the ability to use atomic bombs, caused other nations to be extremely cautious in pressing North Korea. The carefully crafted — and possibly genuine — image of North Korea’s leadership as psychologically unbalanced increased the significance of it having weapons. A regime in danger may respond aggressively and with atomic bombs, and this would be even more dangerous. Best to leave North Korea without a sense of imminent danger. This was a calculation that its nuclear program was designed to foster.
The second force was difficult to read. Reading what is going on inside North Korea, including things like executing an uncle with an anti-aircraft gun for falling asleep at a meeting, which was confirmed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency to have happened, indicates some significant internal splits. Kim Jung Un, the young leader, may have enemies who doubt his capacity. Setting off a hydrogen bomb, or claiming to, might solidify his position as an effective leader.
It isn’t clear that the North Koreans have a hydrogen bomb and if they do it is an impressive technical achievement. But Pyongyang’s ability to deliver lesser atomic weapons was already quite sufficient to protect the regime from outside intervention. The hydrogen bomb, if it exists and can be deployed, does not change the core equation. North Korea had carried out tests in the past. Its ability to engineer weapons that can be married to delivery systems is still unclear. And the creation of a hydrogen bomb, while not insignificant, does not change the basic dynamic that potential atomic bombs created.
If true, it has some importance, but is not a game changer.