North Korean Nuke Test Less than It Appears

North Korea is reportedly preparing for its third nuclear test. Here’s why I’m not worried about it.

My reaction is not dictated by complacence about nuclear proliferation, which I consider about the most serious problem there is in the field of war and peace. North Korea’s ability to master nuclear weapons technology and share it with others for a price is a serious danger. Also, I worry about the North Korean regime in general since it is unpredictable, bellicose, and prone to acts of aggression — like sinking a South Korean warship two years ago, killing 46.

But let’s put a third nuclear test in perspective. First of all, it’s anomalous and just marks North Korea as a rogue, outlier state (as if we needed further evidence). That’s because the north’s two (about to be three?) nuclear tests are the only nuclear explosions set off in the current century, 11+ years. Even though the USA hasn’t ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty might as well be in effect in terms of behavior. Nobody is testing anymore. Except North Korea.

The first nuclear test in 2006 did not surprise me. North Korea had operated a nuclear reactor and extracted plutonium, reportedly enough for something like 8-10 bombs. But would the bomb design work? One thing about dictators is that they’re somewhat paranoid about the people who work for them, so I can imagine Kim Jong Il wanting to know if the thing worked. They tested one and it fizzled. So the second test in 2009 was also not a surprise. They had to see if they’d corrected whatever was wrong. They had, and the explosion had a force about equivalent to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Since then, since North Korea had destroyed its reactor during one of the peace deals, it’s plutonium supply has been quite limited, and western governments would be happy to see it used up in tests, leaving a smaller arsenal each time.

Then it turned out North Korea had a separate program to enrich uranium for a bomb. They showed it off to a U.S. scientist in 2010, and he was impressed. But here’s the thing: Getting plutonium is easy but making a plutonium bomb is quite difficult, whereas getting enriched uranium is hard but making it into a bomb is easy. So having mastered a plutonium bomb, the North Koreans hardly need to test a uranium bomb to know it will work, if they have the uranium. As a matter of fact, when the United States invented atomic bombs in 1945, it tested the first plutonium bomb in New Mexico and dropped the second one on Nagasaki. U.S. leaders dropped the first uranium bomb on Hiroshima¬† without testing it. They knew it would work.

And North Korea knows their uranium bomb will work. So either they test it just for show, or they test another plutonium bomb while reducing their plutonium stockpile (albeit developing a smaller weapon more ready to mount on missiles). Either way, who cares?¬† It’s sabre-rattling.

As for long-range missiles, North Korea definitely broke agreements including UN Security Council resolutions when it test-fired one recently. But the test failed, as have previous ones. It still moves their program forward to test a missile and have it crash (lessons learned), but it’s not exactly a clear and present danger to the USA.

North Korea’s real threat is not its nuclear or missile programs but its artillery massed within range of Seoul. In the first hours of a new Korean War, the south’s capital would be flattened. However, in the next few days the north would be overwhelmed, invaded, and its regime overthrown. The new young leader Kim Jong Un would probably be dead. Dictators don’t like that. So it just seems very improbable that the north would go beyond smallish provocations and slip into a real war.

The international community should not freak out about the north’s behavior, especially if there is a nuclear test soon. Nobody will die in that test, it won’t lead to a war, and it’s irrelevant to the real problem of proliferation. Six-party talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear problem are still the best hope, and we should be probing whether, beneath the bluster, the new leader may want to play Let’s Make a Deal.

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