(Corea del nord) North Korea Ups Ante (Andrei Akulov, Strategic Culture Foundation, 19 febbraio 2013)

19.02.2013 05:48

On February 12 North Korea conducted a successful underground test at the Punggye-ri nuclear site (the north-western part of the country). It was a third test after two failures conducted in strict defiance of UN resolutions. The event is linked to launching a long-range rocket in December 2012. Back then it triggered U.N. sanctions, backed by Russia and China. North Korea described the test as a «preliminary measure» and threatened «stronger» actions unless the US ends its «hostility». The move brings it closer to developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile and possibly bringing Guam, the Hawaii and even the US West Coast within the striking range… It comes at a time of political transition in China, South Korea and Japan and right at the time US President Obama begins his second term. The action was timed with his State of the Union address. 

Test assessment

The North Korean nuclear tests produced relatively weak nuclear blasts of one kiloton or less and 2.4 kiloton in 2006 and 2009 respectively. For comparison the Indian and Pakistan’s nuclear detonations produced a yield of eight kilotons. In the case of South Africa the yield was five to nine kilotons. Therefore, it would be logical to guess the North Korea's nuclear warhead designs are faulty or inefficient. The inaccuracy of its current missiles as means of warhead delivery makes the potential useless against military targets. In case a nuclear warhead is produced and installed, the weapon would be useful only against large populated areas (a warhead could be chemical, the damage to population substantial). Still the explosion appeared to be an important step toward developing a nuclear bomb capable of fitting to a long range missile. It is surmised that the test involved the latest version of a plutonium-based prototype weapon. On February 12 Reuters reported (1) «the United States uses WC-135 Constant Phoenix «sniffer» aircraft to collect samples to identify nuclear explosions. These would need to be deployed quickly to detect whether highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium was used because uranium decays to undetectable levels within a matter of days. Plutonium takes much longer to decay. If it turns out the test was of a new uranium-based weapon, it would show that North Korea has made more progress on uranium enrichment than previously thought». It is not clear whether the device was small enough to be installed on a missile and whether it was fueled by plutonium or highly enriched uranium. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization said the «explosion-like event» was twice as big as the 2009 test, which was in turn bigger than that in 2006. 

According to nuclear experts, the North is believed to be some years away from developing a functioning nuclear warhead although it may have enough plutonium for about half a dozen nuclear bombs - rudimentary nuclear devices. Pyongyang is not yet believed capable of building warheads small enough to mount on a missile. No tests of re-entry vehicles that can withstand the heat of the atmosphere have been conducted. There are other technological breakthroughs still to achieved (miniaturized warheads, reentry vehicle). But a solid foundation has been laid for further progress. Apparently the test makes North Korea join the club of non-NATO possessing long-range missile technology. The technological breakthroughs may be shared with Iran, Pakistan and other countries (Scud, Nodong, Musudan). The non-proliferation regime is in clear danger; the chain reaction is just at the corner. 

International response

The international response has been universal condemnation. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York on February 12 to «strongly condemn» the most powerful North Korean underground blast to date as a «clear threat to international peace and security». It called the test a «grave violation» of earlier resolutions and warned that it would further strengthen sanctions (three weeks after the previous ones went into effect). But new binding international sanctions are still to be worked out. US State Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about it on the phone on February 17. 

China is the Pyongyang's primary trading partner. Its position is crucially important, because tougher global sanctions are dependent on its participation. So far it has resisted North Korea's complete economic isolation. But this time around it was different. China expressed firm opposition to the test, though called for a calm response by all sides. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was «strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed» to the test and urged North Korea to «stop any rhetoric or acts that could worsen situations and return to the right course of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible». 

The South Korea president-elect, Park Geun-hye, will take office on February 25. She had campaigned on a pledge to seek increased dialogue with the North, now the prospect has become dim. The country raised the level of its military alert upon the news. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a «grave threat» that could not be tolerated. South Korea staged large military drills near the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom in Paju and disclosed a new cruise missile capable of hitting any target in North Korea along with a similar naval drill off the western coast. It also staged a joint exercise with US South Korea-based Air Force units. On February 14 the South Korean Defense Ministry offered a rare glimpse of its military capabilities by releasing a 50-second video clip showing tests of two cruise missiles launched by a submarine and destroyer. It was the first time the South Korean military has disclosed the recently deployed missiles believed to have a range of 620 miles. It reflects the tension on the divided peninsula. The disclosure of the fact that the country possessed the missiles came the same day that Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin of South Korea visited his military’s rocket command, as well as its Agency for Defense Development, which is in charge of developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching any target in the North. South Korea's armed forces number nearly 700,000 and they are backed by about 28,000 US troops.

The United States President  vowed to take «swift and credible action». He said the test threatened U.S. security and international peace. The reaction from the White House was significantly stronger than after North Korea's long-range missile test in December. Back then Obama only promised «appropriate action» along with the allies. The US options for a response are limited, but it is committed to protecting South Korea and Japan. America already maintains tough unilateral sanctions. US commerce with North Korea simply doesn’t exist. Technically the United States remains at war with North Koreans. But military action is unlikely. The South Korean capital of Seoul is situated just 40 miles south of the border with North Korea’s army of about one million strength, so the risk is great.

Russia’s stance

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed indignation toward North Korea's stance. He urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program and return to talks. While on a visit to South Africa, he pointed out, «Increasing military tensions in the region is extremely dangerous». According to him, «North Korea should abandon it nuclear arms program». The Russian Federation Foreign Affairs Ministry’s statement said, «We condemn this move of North Korea and view it in the context of the earlier test launch of a ballistic missile carrying a satellite as a breach of UN Security Council resolutions.» It added, «We insist that the DPRK must stop the illegal activity, strictly comply with every directive of the UN Security Council, abandon its missile and nuclear programs and return to the NPT and IAEA guarantee regime.» The statement pointed out that this was the only way North Korea may break free from the actual international isolation and get access to international cooperation projects in various areas, among them peaceful uses of atomic energy and space. According to the Russian stance, Pyongyang «has once again ignored international legal norms and showed disrespect for UN Security Council resolutions» by conducting the nuclear test. Actually Russia and China see eye to eye on the issue. 

(to be continued)

1. https://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/12/us-korea-north-idUSBRE91B04820130212