North Korea’s test and its implications

By Beenish Altaf

North Korea’s claim of having successfully tested a thermonuclear device that have serious implications for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula. While a 5.1 seismic event from near the country’s nuclear testing site was reported by international seismic stations, there is no clarity as yet on whether the test was indeed a thermonuclear one and, if so, a successful one.

North Korea is unlikely to have mastered the technological capability to make highly sophisticated thermonuclear weapons, and therefore the device tested may well be a “boosted fission weapon”, more sophisticated than an atomic (or fission) bomb but not as powerful as a hydrogen bomb.

Happymon Jacob an Indian professor elaborated very rightly in that the country has been on the nuclear path for some time now. Having declared its plans in 2003, it tested its nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009 and finally in 2013. Moreover, the country has been conducting submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests, a weapon system that when perfected could add great value to North Korea’s nuclear delivery capability while, of course, increasing the insecurity of its neighbours. South Korea, which is routinely threatened with invasion or even nuclear destruction by its neighbour, denounced the latest test as a “grave provocation”. President Park Geun-hye called an emergency meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council, accusing the North of a “direct challenge to world peace and stability”.

Regional balance of power

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have undeniable consequences for the stable balance of power in the Korean peninsula and beyond. For one, this will make Japan and South Korea deeply insecure, especially at a point in time when a rising China is perceived as a challenge by them, and the US’ ability to be the security provider for its allies in the region is in serious doubt. Secondly, with the breakdown of the six-party talks with Pyongyang, both the US and China have lost their traction within North Korea. Finally, the only country with some influence in Pyongyang is Russia, with whom the West has no meeting of minds on a variety of geopolitical issues, particularly after the conflict over Ukraine. It also shows that China, the rising superpower, does not enjoy much political and strategic influence in its own backyard.

North Korea’s nuclear tests, whether or not their thermonuclear claims are valid, pose serious challenges to the global non-proliferation regime even as this order is under immense stress, particularly after the failure of the NPT Review Conference last year.

Moreover, if Pyongyang continues to develop more sophisticated, and miniaturized nuclear weapons and advanced delivery mechanisms, it could potentially force South Korea and Japan to follow similar paths.

This also calls into question the efficiency of the global non-proliferation regime to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and technology. Recall how Pakistan, when the AQ Khan nuclear black market was flourishing, had given nuclear technology and weapon designs to North Korea.

Failure of nuclear diplomacy

While the Obama administration was able to successfully defuse the Iranian nuclear impasse, it has summarily failed to address the North Korean nuclear challenge. The so-called six-party talks, as part of which China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US negotiated with North Korea to terminate its nuclear weapons program, collapsed in 2009 after six years of fruitless efforts to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

For the talks to begin again, the Obama administration and the West would need to re-engage not only North Korea but also Russia.

North Korea came into lime light when it announced its withdrawal as signatory of Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). By testing its nuclear devices, Pyongyang has not really violated any treaties: It had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, and had never signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). However, given the potential implications that the recent North Korean test has for the global non-proliferation regime, the international community needs to immediately re-engage Pyongyang.

In a recent article by Huma Rehman appeared at Daily Pakistan, identified correctly that nuclearization of North East Asia raises two points: one North Korea’s unwillingness to abide by the international regulations and law bindings. Second; international community including the US could not streamline North Korea at both diplomatic and strategic level. Now to deal with North Korea’s periodic nuclear detonations and concerns would be more challenging. The problem of nuclear proliferation is global, and any effective response must also be multilateral.

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Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf is working as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad based think tank. Her areas of research are nuclear non-proliferation and strategic issues of South Asia. She has a masters degree in Defence and Diplomatic Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University.

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