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