Special Alert - 12 February 2013
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North Korea flexes its nuclear muscles

As feared after its December 2012 rocket launch (see our January 2013 issue of Courcy’s Future Threats), North Korea has conducted its third nuclear test, in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, and the international community at large.

At 1157 local time on Tuesday morning (0257 GMT / 2157 Monday EST) seismic activity was detected by monitoring agencies from several nations. The US Geological Survey announced that a shallow earthquake with a magnitude of 4.9 was recorded.

Satellite photos have shown that the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility has been under repair. Analysis of recent images appeared to show that North Korea had repaired flood damage at the site and could conduct a quick atomic explosion if it chose, though water still streaming out of a test tunnel led analysts to believe that the test was not absolutely imminent.

Confirmation of the test came three hours later in a statement from state-run KCNA news agency.

“It was confirmed that the nuclear test, that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously, did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment,” it said.

North Korea said the nuclear test was “to protect our national security and sovereignty against the reckless hostility of the United States”.

The test was not a complete surprise, as Pyongyang carried out each of its 2006 and 2009 tests just weeks after receiving UNSC condemnation and sanctions for conducting long-range rocket launches similar to the one on 12 December.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry hinted on the day of the rocket launch that a new nuclear test remained an option, although nothing was said at the time that committed North Korea to that course of action. The spokesman told state media that a hostile US response to the failed April launch had forced Pyongyang “to re-examine the nuclear issue as a whole.”

The blast appears to have been larger than in the earlier tests, suggesting the latest device could have been uranium based. Both previous tests used plutonium as the fissile material.

If Pyongyang wanted to construct a small enough warhead to attach to a long-range missile using plutonium, a recent paper by Frank Pabian of Los Alamos and Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University suggests at least one more test would be required before it could have any confidence in the design.

North Korea’s small plutonium stockpile is sufficient for four to eight bombs, they wrote, but it may be willing to sacrifice some if it can augment information from the previous tests.

However, Pabian and Hecker predicted that Pyongyang may simultaneously test both plutonium and highly enriched uranium devices. Whether the latest test involved both materials or just uranium, the presence of the latter is a point of significant concern.

If the latest test device proves to be uranium based it will confirm that North Korea, which would need months to restart its shuttered plutonium reactor, has a viable alternative source of fissile material based on uranium enrichment. North Korea unveiled a previously secret uranium enrichment plant in November 2010.

North Korea has claimed that the new device is smaller than those in previous tests, and the blast was certainly larger. If Pyongyang’s claims that they have managed to reduce the size of the bomb are to believed (and at this point it is anyone’s guess as to whether they can be), it would put North Korea a large step closer to acquiring a viable weapon to use against its enemies. In combination with the December launch, this is particularly worrying. The launch was, supposedly, to put a satellite in orbit, but most analysts have viewed it as a thinly veiled test of ballistic missile technology. The satellite that was put into orbit is apparently tumbling out of control, but the launch phase appears to have been a success.

A small, viable, uranium based device combined with a demonstrated ballistic missile capability will force a threat reassessment by the US. Most of North Korea’s tests are viewed as working up to creating a weapon that can strike North America.

Rhetoric and response

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, led the barrage of condemnation of the test calling for a “robust response” from the UNSC. President Francois Hollande has said France will support firm action by the UNSC.

President Obama, who will not be ignorant of the fact that the test has come on the eve of his State of the Union address, said the test was a “highly provocative act” and called for “swift” and “credible” international action in response.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the test as a “clear and grave violation” of UN resolutions and a “deeply destabilising” provocation.

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, said of the test “It is a grave threat to our nation’s safety and cannot be tolerated as it will significantly damage international society’s peace and safety.”

South Korea’s presidential national security adviser Chun Young-woo said “This is an unacceptable threat to the security of the Korean peninsula and north-east Asia, and a challenge to the whole international community.”

Both South Korea and Japan convened emergency meetings of their national security teams, and diplomats have disclosed that the UNSC will meet at 1400 GMT / 0900 EST to discuss the test and its ramifications.

Condemnation across the board is to be expected, but the key response to watch will be from China. North Korea’s only regional ally has already expressed “firm opposition” to the test, but what is important is what it does next.

China provides North Korea with vast amounts of aid, including food and fuel. Despite counting itself as an ally of the pariah state, China is growing increasingly exasperated with the nation’s actions.

China has the power to censure North Korea by cutting aid, yet while China (and the rest of the world) recognises that North Korea is reliant on Chinese goodwill, the rogue nation sees things differently. Although many of its people are starving, Pyongyang nevertheless believes it can manage without China’s food aid. But the real pressure would be applied by cutting supplies of fuel. Cutting the food aid will hurt the poorest in North Korea’s society without seriously inconveniencing the ruling elite, but cutting fuel would affect the decision makers much more quickly.

That Kim Jong-un, only in his late twenties, decided to conduct the test is not entirely surprising. He is facing some trying times domestically and desperately needs to appear strong in the eyes of North Korea’s military. He may need to engage in a certain amount of posturing to shore up his position and maintain the support of his generals, and a rocket launch followed swiftly by a nuclear test goes a long way toward meeting this end.

Nevertheless, regardless of the young leader’s concerns about his position and what he may be trying to achieve domestically, the international community cannot ignore North Korea’s progress towards becoming a true nuclear-armed, belligerent, nation.

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