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13:07 30 January 2016

OPINION: N. Korea's nuclear test and int'l community's response

By Tetsuya Endo
TOKYO, Jan. 30, Kyodo

On Jan. 6, North Korea followed up its nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 with a fourth nuclear test that caused quite a shock to the international community. Unlike these previous occasions, not even China was provided with advance notice, and the Chinese government made clear its extreme displeasure at this development.

North Korea termed this latest test a hydrogen bomb test employing deuterium-tritium (D-T) fusion, but doubts have been voiced about the validity of this claim. Given that North Korea had announced in May 2010 that it had successfully triggered a nuclear fusion reaction, it was believed that a small and light boosted fission warhead utilizing this technology had been under development, and that North Korea would eventually test this new type of nuclear weapon. It seems that this recent test was just such a test or its equivalent and, since both use nuclear fusion, it may be that North Korea has exaggeratedly labeled this boosted nuclear weapon a hydrogen bomb.

Even if we presume that this latest test was not of a genuine hydrogen bomb, it would nonetheless be true that, if North Korea has succeeded in developing a boosted weapon, a small bomb capable of being carried by a missile is now within its grasp, posing an increased threat.

Lagging far behind South Korea in both economic strength and in conventional military forces, North Korea regards nuclear weapons and missiles (the two are inseparable) as a trump card in rectifying its inferiority in North-South relations. With the precedents of Iraq and Libya in mind, North Korea has also pursued nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the United States, working as a matter of urgent necessity on developing a nuclear missile able to reach the U.S. mainland. Domestically as well, nuclear weapons are deemed critical by the regime for solidifying its hold on power and shoring up the military's support for the regime. Denuclearizing North Korea will be no easy task.

Knowing that a nuclear test would heighten tensions with the international community and that its key backer China would be opposed, why did North Korea choose this time to carry out the test? One reason may be that it needed to conduct a verification test of a technologically new type of nuclear weapon. Another, and perhaps even more significant, factor was domestic politics.

Kim Jong Un has been in power for nearly four years and, having no real economic development or any other particular accomplishments to its name, the regime wanted something tangible to claim as a success. With the 7th Workers' Party Congress scheduled to convene in May, the first such gathering in 36 years, the regime may have felt the need for a dramatic boost to national prestige. Thus it would seem that domestic elements played a greater role than international considerations.

The international community has heretofore responded to North Korea's nuclear testing and development of nuclear weapons through the United Nations, through cooperation among concerned parties, and through sanctions by individual countries, but these have not necessarily proven effective. What is to be done about North Korea's steadily improving nuclear capabilities?

Diplomatically, a combination of carrot and stick is needed, but for the moment greater emphasis should be given to the stick by stepping up and expanding economic sanctions. The carrot of negotiations should be set aside as an issue for the future. The key to successful sanctions lies with China, so Japan, the United States and South Korea should team together in urging China to cooperate.

The abduction issue puts Japan in a difficult position. While intensifying its own sanctions is essential, of course, Japan should also endeavor to leverage its status as a member of the U.N. Security Council to have greater weight placed on tightening collective sanctions via the United Nations.

(Tetsuya Endo, a senior adjunct fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, is a former representative of Japan to the Japan-North Korea normalization talks.)




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