North Korea’s latest nuclear test — whether or not it was a successful hydrogen bomb blast that the reclusive state claims it was — deserves strong condemnation as a grave threat to regional security and nonproliferation efforts that flies in the face of international sanctions. It comes as no surprise that government officials have indicated they would consider stepping up Japan’s sanctions — which were partially lifted two years ago as Pyongyang promised a fresh probe into the fate of Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s.
The underground nuclear test, the fourth since 2006 and the second since Kim Jong Un became the country’s supreme leader in 2012, will make any progress on the abduction issue — the resolution of which the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given high priority — even more difficult, although the process was already viewed as effectively stalled.
It is widely believed that the Kim regime — which has been consolidating its power through a series of purges — has embarked on the latest test in defiance of international sanctions against its nuclear weapons and missile programs to ratchet up regional tensions and corner the United States into resuming long-suspended dialogue. Japan needs to keep in step with other countries involved to let Pyongyang know its gamble won’t be rewarded.
A few hours after the blast was detected Wednesday morning by international seismology monitors as a magnitude-5.1 temblor originating in the country’s northeast, near its nuclear test site, North Korea’s official news agency said it detonated its first hydrogen device “safely” and “perfectly” in an act of “self-defense” from its enemies. The Korean Central News Agency broadcast declared that with the “H-bomb test,” the regime “has joined the ranks of advanced nuclear states.”
Kim’s suggestion last month that North Korea had developed a hydrogen bomb was met with skepticism by international experts, and many expressed doubts that Wednesday’s explosion was an H-bomb given the scale of the blast. The development of a thermonuclear weapon — which uses fusion in a chain reaction to produce a much more powerful explosion than the fission blast generated by uranium or plutonium alone — would significantly raise the stakes over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But even if the blast was not the hydrogen bomb that the regime claims, the repeated nuclear tests are believed to contribute to improvements in its nuclear capability, such as miniaturization of warheads so they can be carried on longer-range missiles.
If Kim’s intentions behind the latest blast was to demonstrate an advance in his regime’s nuclear capability and to use it as a tool to gain international political and economic concessions, the international community needs to be united to make sure that such an attempt won’t pay off. One reason behind the blast may have been to solidify Kim’s grip on domestic power, but his regime should realize this act will only push North Korea deeper into international isolation, with its economy suffering under even tighter international sanctions. North Korea has been under U.N. Security Council sanctions since its first nuclear test a decade ago. In an emergency meeting later Wednesday, the Security Council condemned the latest blast and said work will begin on additional measures against Pyongyang.
While the detonation may be aimed at provoking the U.S., China, as North Korea’s traditional ally and benefactor, should play a principle role in crafting an effective international response. Convincing North Korea to change its ways will be a challenge even for China, however. The test flies in the face of pressure that it has so far exerted over Pyongyang to halt its nuclear and missile programs, and symbolizes a decline in Beijing’s leverage over the rogue regime.
China’s relations with North Korea have been strained in recent years, partly because Pyongyang has clung to its nuclear and missile programs despite the international outcry and sanctions. Xi Jinping in 2014 became the first Chinese president to visit South Korea before the North after taking office, a clear sign of the distance that Beijing now keeps in its ties with Pyongyang. The frustration that Kim’s regime apparently feels toward China may have been another factor behind Wednesday’s test — of which Beijing reportedly was not informed in advance.
China said it “firmly opposes” the latest nuclear test and urged Pyongyang to “remain committed to its denuclearization commitment and to stop taking any actions that would make the situation worse.” Earlier Beijing had been wary of stronger international moves to stop North Korea’s nuclear programs, reportedly due to fears that they could cause a regime collapse, which would have a massive impact on the region. North Korea’s latest provocation shows that China’s approach has not done much to dissuade Pyongyang from maintaining its nuclear ambitions. Beijing must now carefully consider how it can take more effective action.