January 6, 2016 | Forbes

North Korea’s Nuclear Advance — With Or Without The Hydrogen Bomb

It’s almost two years since North Korea’s government threatened to carry out “a new form of nuclear test.” Asked at a United Nations press conference what Pyongyang had in mind, a North Korean diplomat said at the time, “Wait and see.”

President Obama waited, under the rubric of “strategic patience.” Now we get to see. North Korea says it has just tested a hydrogen bomb.

If true, this means a big jump in the destructive power of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. An H-bomb, also known as a thermonuclear device, can pack far more explosive force than the atomic bombs North Korea has previously tested.

Pyongyang’s claim that it has mastered the H-bomb has yet to be confirmed. But coincident with North Korea’s announcement, the U.S. Geological Survey did record a significant seismic event near North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This suggests that whether or not it was an H-bomb, North Korea probably did carry out some kind of underground nuclear test.

Let’s be clear on what this means: For America and its allies this is not just a setback. It is a debacle. This goes beyond even the highly unpleasant prospect of North Korea becoming ever more capable of directly threatening South Korea and the U.S. with nuclear strikes. In an increasingly tumultuous 21st century, North Korea is demonstrating to the entire world — notably the terror-spawning and blood-soaked Middle East — that it is quite possible for a state to ignore the rules, and illicitly acquire and brazenly test nuclear weapons. There were abundant signs of a looming nuclear arms race in the Middle East before North Korea announced this test. Now, brace for the deluge.

What are the great powers of the world doing about it? The answer these days (now that the Israelis are enjoined not to fly to the rescue) is that they wait and see.

This is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006. North Korea has carried out three of those tests on President Obama’s watch, in 2009, 2013 and now 2016 — the last two of those tests conducted under the rule of current hereditary tyrant Kim Jong Un. For young Kim, nuclear weapons are clearly central to his reign. North Korean television, which exists to sustain and glorify his rule, showed him personally signing the order for this latest test, which was carried out on Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, local time.

North Korea has also been toiling away at missile systems to deliver the bombs. Along with beefing up its Sohae launch site, North Korea’s Kim regime has paraded road-mobile missile launchers, and advertised its interest in developing the ability to launch missiles from submarines. Last year, a number of senior U.S. military officials warned that North Korea has acquired the ability — as yet untested — to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, mount it on a ballistic missile and target the United States.

Also on Obama’s watch, North Korea has been making fuel for nuclear bombs. In 2010 North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, and has since visibly expanded that facility. In 2013 North Korea restarted its plutonium producing reactor at Yongbyon.

All this has inspired warnings from analysts — from Washington to Seoul to Beijing — that North Korea’s nuclear bomb inventory is fast heading into the double-digits. Nor should this test come as any surprise. Without encountering any serious deterrent, North Korea has been, by turns, threatening and boasting that another nuclear test was in the offing.

In late 2014, for instance, when North Korea’s atrocious human rights abuses drew the condemnation of the United Nations General Assembly, a North Korean envoy responded with the threat that Pyongyang might feel compelled to go ahead with another nuclear test. Last March, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.K., Hyun Hak Bong, told Sky News that his country could fire a nuclear missile “anytime.” Last fall, according to the UPI, the same North Korean ambassador told a London audience that North Korea was ready anytime to launch nuclear bombs 10 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.

And then there was the arresting moment this past December, when Kim Jong Un himself, while visiting a historic military site in North Korea, reportedly mentioned that North Korea was ready to explode a hydrogen bomb. The source for this was a North Korean government propaganda outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, which relayed to the world Kim’s description of North Korea as a “powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb.”


What was the Obama administration doing while North Korea was advertising itself as ready to roll with a souped-up nuclear arsenal? Were the subject less grim, the answers would be a hoot.

Obama was piloting America and its fellow world powers into a farcical nuclear deal with North Korea’s longtime good friend and weapons client, Iran. The Iran deal is freighted with sunset clauses, implausible “snapback” provisions and massive sanctions relief, including a flood of unfrozen money, plus a green light for Iran to keep enriching uranium, with the help of western technology. Effectively, though not officially, this deal ensures that Iran will make its way to the bomb; though preferably not until Obama leaves office next January. Meantime, Iran has been testing ballistic missiles, a sanctions-violating move that is only useful for developing vehicles to carry the warheads that Iran has said it won’t make.

So pleased is Obama with the Iran deal that he’s hoping it might serve as a model for a nuclear deal with North Korea. As he reminded Pyongyang this past October, all North Korea’s Kim has to do is demonstrate that he is as serious as the Iranians about giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons; in which case, “I think it’s fair to say we’ll be right there at the table.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly aired the same offer to North Korea, punctuated by such white noise as Kerry’s statement during a visit last May to Seoul: “So, I think never has the international community been as united as we are now that, number one, North Korea needs to denuclearize.”

My favorite entry in this genre of moonshine foreign policy is a remark last October from Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who warned North Korea that while celebrating the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party, it should refrain from any rocket launches or nuclear tests. Any such activities, warned Blinken, “would be reckless, irresponsible and a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

So what? North Korea, like Iran, has been violating U.N. Security Council resolutions for years. By now there’s a ritual to it. North Korea conducts a nuclear test. The U.N. Security Council convenes, denounces the test and approves another sanctions resolution. North Korea evades, adapts and maybe dangles just enough interest in negotiations so that the U.S. hesitates to get tough about sanctions. North Korea’s chief patron, China, denounces the test, and is widely described by the media as deeply upset with North Korea. Except, somehow, China is never quite upset enough to choke Kim’s supply lines and stop the next test.

Perhaps it’s tempting by now to hope, or even try to rationalize, that because no North Korean nuclear bombs have yet gone off outside of North Korean test tunnels, they never will. That is an increasingly risky calculus. Way back in the early 1990s, when the U.S. had just won the Cold War and occupied a position far more secure in the world, Bill Clinton considered it a major crisis that North Korea might be producing even one functional nuclear weapon.

Today, North Korea openly makes nuclear bomb fuel, amasses an arsenal, parades its long-range missiles and brags up its nuclear tests. In the news right now — think about this for a moment — the big question is whether the Jan. 6 detonation was really a test of a North Korean hydrogen bomb, or a test of what has become the usual North Korean atomic bomb.


There is also the alarming likelihood that North Korea, which has long made a practice of selling every lethal creation it comes up with — from guns to missiles to nuclear technology — will share the fruits of this latest test with its longtime customer, ballistic-missile-testing Iran. Or perhaps North Korea will peddle its wares for mass murder elsewhere in the terror vats of the Middle East.

Obama has waited-and-talked himself into a very tight corner with North Korea. It’s quite possible that this latest test was in part an opening gambit by Kim Jong Un for a North Korean return to the nuclear bargaining table. A hydrogen bomb, whether real or an imaginary embellishment on the usual atomic bombs, would be a nice bargaining chip for Pyongyang.

But no nuclear deal is going to fix this mess, especially with the Iran nuclear deal as the current model of what a rogue state can expect in the way of U.S. capitulation. And while sanctions might hamper some of North Korea’s malign activities, which is all to the good, there is no sign that they are going to stop its nuclear program. Nor is outright warfare with heavily armed North Korea an attractive alternative; Seoul sits under the guns of the North Korean military, which fields chemical weapons as well as the nuclear arsenal now under lively construction.

The only real answer here is to actively seek and fully commit to ways of bringing down the Kim regime. That’s highly risky, and would need the full backing, and backbone, of America’s commander-in-chief. But after all the time and opportunities squandered over more than two decades, by three American presidents who have kicked the can down the road, first with feckless nuclear deals, then with “strategic patience,” it would be riskier still to let Kim carry on, exemplifying on the world stage a brand of rogue-regime survival that could ultimately kill millions.

Shortly after North Korea announced its new nuclear test, I received an email from Seoul. It came from Robert Collins, a 37-year veteran of the Department of Defense and a widely respected analyst of the behavior of North Korea’s regime. Collins got right to the point, observing that while Obama is focused elsewhere, North Korea’s nuclear attack capability, “specifically targeting the U.S. and its allies advances without pause.” Who will stop it?

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter @CRosett


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