A North Korean Hydrogen Bomb?

 

maxresdefaultNorth Korea says it’s successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. It will take days or even weeks to confirm what it really was. Something certainly does seem to have blown up: There was a 5.1 seismic event near Punggye-ri, which is where the past three nuclear tests were conducted.

There’s good reason to be highly skeptical of DPRK propaganda. It’s more plausible, as Jeffrey Lewis pointed out a few weeks ago, to imagine they’re experimenting with fusion fuels to boost the yield of a fission explosion.

But whether it was a fourth fission bomb or a hydrogen bomb, no one’s treating this as a joke. South Korea is holding emergency meetings, as is the UN Security Council. Shinzo Abe’s comments suggest that Japan is certain that this was, at least, another nuclear test:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned North Korea’s announcement that it had carried out a hydrogen bomb test on Wednesday, calling it a “serious threat” to Japan and a “grave challenge” to nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

“I strongly condemn this,” Abe told reporters.

“The nuclear test that was carried out by North Korea is a serious threat to the safety of our nation and we absolutely cannot tolerate this,” he said.

Given the North’s improvements in missile technology, there’s no way any American can view this as merely a “regional concern.” It’s not clear whether they know how to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile, and the conventional wisdom has long been that they have no clue how to build an H-bomb. But it would be a big mistake to think they’ll never be capable of it.

As Jeffrey Lewis noted,

One of the major themes of the early part of China’s nuclear program is how committed China was to matching the other nuclear powers in the possession of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles armed with multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons. A lot of Americans had trouble accepting this idea. We thought of China as being too backward to have such aspirations. That was, I argue, precisely why China wanted such weapons: because China’s communist leaders had a different vision of China’s place in the world and the development of thermonuclear weapons was a way of achieving that vision.

I think something similar is happening with North Korea. We think of the country as impoverished, both in terms of economy and leadership. Well, that’s not how the government in North Korea sees itself—and anyone who does, keeps such thoughts to himself. Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus argues—and this is what Kim was saying—that North Korea is a technological powerhouse. The North Korean propaganda line argues that this power is demonstrated by a series of achievements culminating in space launches, nuclear weapons and, yes, even thermonuclear weapons.

So, while a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.

Asian shares are falling.

So, Ricochet, how do you think the United States should handle this? It’s not reality TV. It’s just reality.

There are 150 comments.

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  1. Bill Walsh Member
    Bill Walsh
    @BillWalsh

    Well, this probably precedes another shakedown of the international community, but might also be advertising for potential customers. The Middle East seems a plausible market at the moment.

    • #1
  2. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Maybe Dennis Rodman smuggled them a bomb…

    • #2
  3. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    And I was just looking for a reason to invest in the Chinese stock market.

    Right now my money is on standard atom bomb and propaganda. The fact that they still have standard atom bombs should not be comforting.

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Bill Walsh:Well, this probably precedes another shakedown of the international community, but might also be advertising for potential customers. The Middle East seems a plausible market at the moment.

    I think it’s a big analytic mistake to see this as a sideshow to the Middle East. This is the only country in the world that’s conducted a nuclear test since 1999. And this would be the fourth time.

    • #4
  5. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    Back in 1994, Bill Clinton set him up the bomb. For great justice.

    • #5
  6. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Bill Walsh:Well, this probably precedes another shakedown of the international community, but might also be advertising for potential customers. The Middle East seems a plausible market at the moment.

    I think it’s a big analytic mistake to see this as a sideshow to the Middle East. This is the only country in the world that’s conducted a nuclear test since 1999. And this would be the fourth time.

    so … for all we talk about how ridiculous Trump is for saying that he’d cut off the head of ISIS and steal the oil…  the presumption is that wars are not that easily won in the Middle East, which is a complex place and so forth.

    But would it really be all that difficult to squash North Korea into oblivion?  Sounds like a pretty childish remark to say “let’s just conquer NK and put South Korea in charge,” but of all the places in the world, seems that might be a place where we could actually have some success if we gave it the ol’ college try.

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Maybe we could promise them that we would not allow people to say bad things about them or their prophet/leader. In return, they would not lob one of those our way for now.

    It’s not as though it’s a completely unprecedented response.

    • #7
  8. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    Mike LaRoche:Back in 1994, Bill Clinton set him up the bomb. For great justice.

    What you say?

    • #8
  9. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Ryan M: But would it really be all that difficult to squash North Korea into oblivion?

    Do you mean, “Would it be so difficult to obliterate North Korea with nuclear weapons?”

    Or do you mean, “It wouldn’t be that difficult to fight and win a conventional war and then put South Korea in charge?” The reason North Korea exists is because we were unable to do that, so the only experimental evidence we have strongly suggests that’s not so easy to do.

    • #9
  10. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Ryan M:But would it really be all that difficult to squash North Korea into oblivion? Sounds like a pretty childish remark to say “let’s just conquer NK and put South Korea in charge,” but of all the places in the world, seems that might be a place where we could actually have some success if we gave it the ol’ college try.

    Numerous issues exist with attacking the DPRK. First they do have a large conventional army, and while maybe they would crumble in short order I think it would be foolish to think they would not be able to inflict significant casualties. More importantly Seoul is within the range of conventional artillery. I’m not sure things seem bad enough for South Korea to consider the potential damage to their largest city worth the trade. Second, nothing so overt could be done without China’s blessing. I don’t know what it would take to convince them that their client state needs to go to be replaced by a Democratic and American ally. Right now the Chinese have North Korea on a leash or at least that seems to be the impression. Granted, if they have chewed through that leash I doubt China would tell us about it lest it look weak.

    The other thing is that once we go in we have to be ready to deal with a whole nation of brainwashed PTSD victims.

    • #10
  11. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I imagine that Obama will just try to pretend like nothing has happened. That seems to be his policy in the Middle East. Maybe he is more serious about Asia, but I don’t think the man has the spine or other organs to take a tough stand. Everyone thinks him weak. He will try to punt to the next administration.

    We have one year left of this man, and I figure that all the bad actors out there know they have at least one year to push the envelope, so they will. Be ready for some stormy seas my friends.

    But, hey if we are worried now just think how much better it will be with Trump in charge. The man who calls Abe a shark and thinks the South Koreans are selling us too many TVs. I guess he will bomb the North Korean’s and take their….coal briquettes?

    • #11
  12. TeamAmerica Member
    TeamAmerica
    @TeamAmerica

    Valiuth- “We have one year left of this man, and I figure that all the bad actors out there know they have at least one year to push the envelope, so they will. Be ready for some stormy seas my friends”

    Sadly, I think you are absolutely right. Rusia has just put out a document that describes the US as a national security threat to them, the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed. (although describing the US under Obama a threat to America’s adversaries…seriously?)

    I expect our opponents to grab for and consolidate strategic gains over the next year.

    Ryan M- “But would it really be all that difficult to squash North Korea into oblivion? Sounds like a pretty childish remark to say “let’s just conquer NK and put South Korea in charge,” but of all the places in the world, seems that might be a place where we could actually have some success if we gave it the ol’ college try.”

    A. We are a bankrupt country

    B. Huge risk of war with China

    I think we need to encourage our allies- Japan, South Korea and perhaps the Philippines to follow Israel’s lead and develop their own nuclear deterrent. We clearly are unable or unwilling to stop our adversaries such as N. Korea or Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

    • #12
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    TeamAmerica: I think we need to encourage our allies- Japan, South Korea and perhaps the Philippines to follow Israel’s lead and develop their own nuclear deterrent.

    The Philippines with an independent nuclear deterrent. What could go wrong?

    • #13
  14. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    Maybe we’ve been wrong to bolster South Korea and Japan. Maybe we should be reaching out to Pyongyang. They deserve to be a regional power too.

    Less sarcastically (almost anything would be) our best option might be to hit them now. Their nuclear arsenal could be depleted entirely by this test. You’d have to decapitate them before China gets a chance to respond. China is, if anything, pragmatic. They’d be willing to negotiate after a fait accompli. Of course, this is necessarily wagering with massively high stakes.

    So, how do you solve a problem like North Korea? Either Seoul is going to get bombarded or we figure out a Soviet Union style end to their regime. The fat little boy has figured out how to stay in power (it seems.) Maybe if we assassinated him and hoped for a power struggle to fracture the country?

    Also, how’s Iron Dome work with respect to strategic missiles?

    • #14
  15. TeamAmerica Member
    TeamAmerica
    @TeamAmerica

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    TeamAmerica: I think we need to encourage our allies- Japan, South Korea and perhaps the Philippines to follow Israel’s lead and develop their own nuclear deterrent.

    The Philippines with an independent nuclear deterrent. What could go wrong?

    Oh. Okay, scratch the Philippines from my list.

    But my point overall is that too many of the ‘good guys,’ our allies- Australia, Canada, Japan, Poland and South Korea have no nuclear deterrent, while our enemies- N.K., Iran as well as unstable dictatorships like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are nuking up. I don’t like the ‘bad guys’ having nukes when so many democracies do not.

    • #15
  16. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    TeamAmerica:But my point overall is that too many of the ‘good guys,’ our allies- Australia, Canada, Japan, Poland and South Korea have no nuclear deterrent, while our enemies- N.K., Iran as well as unstable dictatorships like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are nuking up. I don’t like the ‘bad guys’ having nukes when so many democracies do not.

    Then the final step to the fundamental transformation of America would be complete.

    One of the underlying premises that kept the world safe for over 5 decades was that of non-proliferation. Keep the number of nuclear powers low. Extend the “umbrella” of American nuclear deterrence to our allies through the concept of “assurance”.

    Assurance, at its core, is a guarantee that the US would nuke a third party on a second party’s behalf and thus the second party has no need to develop their own nuclear deterrent. The Japanese could remain secure under the American nuclear umbrella while maintaining their aggrieved perch as the only country on the planet to have been nuked in anger.

    Barack Obama has done more to damage the idea of non-proliferation than any other single person on the planet (and I am including A.Q. Khan.) — FWITW,  Bill Clinton, I would argue, is the person third most responsible.

    The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    Thanks Obama.

    • #16
  17. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Instugator: The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    To the point of near-inevitability.

    • #17
  18. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    To the point of near-inevitability.

    Yep – that is some serious fundamental transformation that there.

    • #18
  19. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Valiuth: I’m not sure things seem bad enough for South Korea to consider the potential damage to their largest city worth the trade.

    Add to that the fact that SK doesn’t want any part of the place really.  It would basically be taking on a giant brain washed welfare case at best.  Economically it would be devastating.

    • #19
  20. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Instugator: The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    We’re not going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle. This report suggests some questions that concerned voters might want to ask their candidates in coming elections.

    • #20
  21. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Mike LaRoche:Back in 1994, Bill Clinton set him up the bomb. For great justice.

    This was the first thing that went through my mind.  Good faith dealings with totalitarian regimes work out so well.  This should be referred to as a Democrat bomb no matter what it is.  So should the one that Iran will have shortly…..

    Not that any of that matters when it comes to what we do now but it pisses me off that when Iran tests their first one I know there won’t be a collective “Wow, Obama and Kerry really screwed that up, lets not do that again!”  We don’t learn any lessons when we refuse to see any cause and effect.

    • #21
  22. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Instugator:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    To the point of near-inevitability.

    Yep – that is some serious fundamental transformation that there.

    But what’s the alternative to further proliferation? If the North Koreans and the Iranians get/have nuclear weapons, and you are a nation that has been “guaranteed” U.S. protection under the nuclear umbrella, what would you do?(And yes, under the current administration, “guaranteed” belongs in quotation marks, along with “red line” and “unacceptable”.).

    • #22
  23. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Ultimately, this regime lives on because of China. Otherwise, it could not survive.  China is afraid of having a united Korea looking free and vibrant like South Korea, right on its border. We should treat them as a China proxy. In GWB’s axis of evil, Iran was Russia’s pawn and ally (as we see now in Syria) and NK was China’s pawn. Saddam’s Iraq was France’s client with all his contracts with French firms, which is why the French worked so hard to avert the US invasion in 2003.

    • #23
  24. Dave L Member
    Dave L
    @DaveL

    “Add to that the fact that SK doesn’t want any part of the place really. It would basically be taking on a giant brain washed welfare case at best. Economically it would be devastating.”

    My wife is Korean. Her father and his generation yearned for reunification. He had extended family in the North.  My wife’s nephew, a thirty something businessman, however, has expressed the opinion that his generation has little desire for reunification. They look on it as a potential economic disaster.

    • #24
  25. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans: We should treat them as a China proxy.

    Which entails?

    • #25
  26. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: The more countries that have nukes, the greater the liklihood of nuclear terrorism or even, nuclear war.

    We’re not going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle. This report suggests some questions that concerned voters might want to ask their candidates in coming elections.ea

    A lot of beaurcratese  to wade through,but the following caught my(terrified) eye:

    1. Page 9.: “…and was projecting lower total program cost by increasing risk to the warfighter.”
    2. Page 14: “Each year as MDA(Missile Defense Agency) falls short of its testing goals due to target failures, or retests, it takes steps to recoup by delaying or removing tests.”
    3. Page 15: “However,some of these assets were delivered without completely planned testing,which increases risks for an individual system and BMDS(Ballistic Missile Defense System) as a whole..

    The report has other worrisome findings also,but I can only take so much beauracratese in the morning. My initial reactions:

    1. Why has this not been a question or issue raised to the administration or to the candidates of both parties?
    2. If I’m a U.S. ally, I’m buying centrifuges.

    Claire,thanks for posting.

    • #26
  27. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Marion Evans: We should treat them as a China proxy.

    Which entails?

    That’s above my pay grade, but we would get more leverage by making it clear to China that we see them as enablers of the NK regime.

    • #27
  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    aardo vozz: Why has this not been a question or issue raised to the administration or to the candidates of both parties?

    I don’t know for sure that it hasn’t been. I don’t know why voters have been so unwilling to demand of the candidates any kind of serious answer to a national security question — or even a pretense of a serious answer.

    • #28
  29. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    If an A-bomb in 0-10 years is worth $150 billion, an H-bomb now has to be worth three times that. Kim Jong Un wants to be paid.

    • #29
  30. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans: That’s above my pay grade, but we would get more leverage by making it clear to China that we see them as enablers of the NK regime.

    And then?

    • #30
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