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What North Korea’s ‘hydrogen bomb’ means for Asia and the world

North Korea’s claim of having successfully tested a thermonuclear device, if true, could have serious implications for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula.

analysis Updated: Jan 07, 2016 01:48 IST
North Korea

Officers from the Korea Meteorological Administration point at the epicentre of seismic waves in North Korea, at the National Earthquake and Volcano Centre of the Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea said it conducted a powerful hydrogen bomb test Wednesday. (AP Photo)

North Korea’s claim of having successfully tested a thermonuclear device, if true, could have serious implications for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula.

This claim comes barely weeks after the country’s leader Kim Jong-Un stated his country is developing the capability for a thermonuclear device, or hydrogen bomb, as it is popularly called. 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 on Tuesday may well be a “boosted fission weapon”, more sophisticated than an atomic (or fission) bomb but not as powerful as a hydrogen bomb.

Read | Japan sends planes to collect radioactive matter from N-Korea’s H-bomb

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.

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.

Read | No clue about ally North Korea’s nuclear blast: China

Moreover, if Pyongyang continues to develop more sophisticated, and miniaturised, 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 programme, 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.

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 have for the global non-proliferation regime, the international community needs to immediately re-engage Pyongyang.

Happymon Jacob is associate professor of disarmament studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Read | North Korean nuclear test condemned as intolerable provocation