The North Korean government has claimed that it successfully tested a “hydrogen bomb” on January 5. It was the fourth underground nuclear test conducted by North Korea and the first since 2013. Pyongyang used to threaten that it would test a nuclear device more potent than the ones it had tested earlier if political and economic concessions were not forthcoming from the West. The North Korean government has been feeling increasingly threatened with the United States and its allies in the region adopting an ever more militarily bellicose attitude. “This is the self-defensive measure we have to take to defend our right to live in the face of nuclear threats by the United States and to guarantee the security of the Korean peninsula,” said the statement issued by the government in Pyongyang after the latest nuclear test. An announcer on North Korea’s official radio said that the U.S.’ hostile policies made it impossible for the country to give up its nuclear option. The announcer said that “it would be foolish for a hunter to lay down his rifle when he is being pursued by a wolf”.
While the international community has harshly criticised North Korea, it is conspicuously silent on the nuclear activities of other countries. The U.S. continues to conduct subcritical nuclear tests and to test nuclear-capable missiles. It has not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is spending $1 trillion on modernising its nuclear arsenal. The other countries that also have nuclear weapons are also busy upgrading their arsenals—among them are India, Pakistan and Israel. The nine nuclear-armed states and the 29 countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella continue to believe that nuclear weapons are essential for their security. “We have banned biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions because of their inhumane impacts, but the biggest bomb of them all is yet not prohibited,” said a statement from the North Korean government after the latest nuclear test.
“Brink of war” The U.S. and South Korea concluded massive war games in September 2015 on the Korean peninsula to intimidate North Korea. Some of the joint military drills were held just 20 km from the border with North Korea. “In terms of ammunition and personnel mobilised, this is the biggest live fire exercise the South Korean troops have staged independently or jointly with the U.S. troops,” a statement from the South Korean Defence Ministry said. Around that time, the U.S. also announced plans to deploy three nuclear capable B-2 Stealth bombers on its military base in Guam to further threaten North Korea. The military base was used by the U.S. during the wars it waged in Korea and Vietnam. After the January nuclear test, the U.S. has announced the deployment of even more strategic assets on the Korean peninsula. An American B-52 bomber accompanied by fighter jets flew at a very low altitude near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. Top North Korean officials have warned that the deployment of nuclear capable missiles and planes have pushed the Korean peninsula “toward the brink of war”.
The 2015 joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises were known as OPLAN 5015 and were part of the U.S.’ new war strategy to counter alleged North Korean provocations. The plan includes “pre-emptive strikes” against military targets in the North and “decapitation strikes” against the leadership based in Pyongyang. According to reports in the South Korean media, the U.S. is preparing to further strengthen its military presence by stationing additional B-52 bombers and a nuclear submarine in the peninsula. More than 25,000 U.S. troops are permanently located in 15 military bases in the Korean peninsula. The U.S. is now putting pressure on South Korea to install Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAD) Batteries on the peninsula. China is opposed to the idea because THAD Batteries would strengthen the U.S.’ military presence in the East.
Border tension There was much tension along the border between the North and the South in August 2015 after two South Korean soldiers were seriously injured in a landmine blast in the demilitarised zone. The South retaliated by launching a full-scale propaganda blitz along the demilitarised zone using giant loudspeakers. North Korea threatened to demolish the loudspeakers by using its artillery. Later in the year, following talks between their military leaders, both sides agreed to defuse tensions. But after the latest nuclear test by the North, the South has decided to resume its propaganda barrage. North Korea has described the resumption of the propaganda broadcasts as “an act of war”.
China’s reaction China has strongly criticised the latest nuclear test. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that China “will firmly push for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”—which also happens to be the U.S.’ stated aim. After North Korea carried out its 2013 nuclear test, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that world peace should not be affected by the actions of one nation. But a commentary in the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily said that the U.S. bore “inescapable responsibility” for the current tensions in the peninsula. The Barack Obama administration has been critical of China’s role and said that it is China’s responsibility to rein in the North Korean government. The Chinese leadership does not have any exceptionally warm relationship with North Korea, but it has reportedly refused to join the economic blockade of the country and is North Korea’s largest trading partner. But Kim Jong-un has still not received an official invitation to visit China, which has signalled on many occasions that it remains opposed to North Korea’s ambitious missile and nuclear programmes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded to North Korea’s claim of having exploded a hydrogen bomb by saying that China’s attempt to rein in the country had failed. The Chinese side, however, felt that the actions of the U.S., Japan and South Korea had stoked nuclear tensions in the region. Way back in the 1990s, North Korea had agreed to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for guarantees that the economic sanctions it was subjected to would be lifted and a peace treaty would be signed. In 1994, it signed “a denuclearisation” agreement with the U.S. For many years, as relations with the South improved, North Korea halted its nuclear programme.
The downward spiral in relations with the U.S. started after President George W. Bush included North Korea in the so-called “axis of evil” and earmarked the country for regime change. In 2003, North Korea walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Relations with the South deteriorated after the right-wing government that was elected in the middle of the last decade gave up the “sunshine policy” that was introduced by Kim Dae-jung in the late 1990s. The sunshine policy encouraged the much more prosperous South to invest in and trade with the North and at the same time step up diplomatic contacts and family reunions. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, after its relations soured with the U.S. and South Korea. The second test was conducted in May 2009. Kim Jong-il was in power at the time of both the tests. After his son, Kim Jong-un, took over, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013.
Case for diplomacy Many senior U.S. officials have been urging their government to engage North Korea through serious diplomacy. Stephen Bosworth, who was President Obama’s first special envoy to North Korea, said recently that there was no point in continuing with the policy of “strategic patience” and that there should be meaningful talks instead.
President Bill Clinton had sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang towards the end of his presidency in an attempt to secure a diplomatic breakthrough in relations. North Korea signalled at the time that it was willing to give up its nuclear option if it was allowed to honourably enter the international mainstream. “Pyongyang has sent a consistent message during direct talks with the United States that it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programmes, put them all under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ ceasefire of 1953. We should consider responding to this offer. The unfortunate alternative is for the North Koreans to take whatever actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had written.
In 2005, North Korea reached an agreement with the U.S., China, South Korea and Russia to suspend its nuclear programme in exchange for diplomatic concessions and energy assistance. But it walked out of the deal in 2008 after the West refused to give any meaningful concessions. Now, many disarmament experts say that North Korea has reached a point of “no return” as it has considerably expanded its arsenal of sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons.
Though many Western experts have dismissed the claims of the North Korean “hydrogen bomb” test being a “complete success”, there are many nuclear scientists who believe that it may have succeeded in testing a boosted fission bomb. It may take weeks for the scientists to come to a definitive conclusion on whether or not it was a hydrogen bomb.
Weapons designers have said that it is not difficult to boost the destructive power of an atom bomb. According to reports in the Korean media, the South Korean military “did not rule out the possibility” of a boosted fission bomb test by the North while downplaying the possibility that it was a hydrogen bomb.
According to many observers, North Korea will keep on testing until it gets the U.S. back at the negotiating table and a peace treaty formally ending the Korean war is signed. Technically, the two countries are still at war. North Korea has repeatedly stated that a formal peace treaty will give it the security it needs. Regime change in the North is also anathema to China as such a development will bring the U.S. army, along with a potentially hostile neighbour, to its doorstep.