THE impression I get from the kilometric volume of analysis and commentary that followed the latest apparent nuclear test by North Korea last Thursday is that the entire world is once again completely flummoxed about how it should react this time to the misbehavior of the bizarre little hermit kingdom.
Up until now, the pattern in these kinds of episodes has always been consistent: North Korea does a provocative thing. The enlightened world led by the US imposes or at least threatens some kind of “sanctions” as punishment for the provocative thing. After a suitable interval, North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing and not do it again in exchange for some small concessions, such as food aid, or having South Korea stop blaring K-pop songs and propaganda across the border with giant loudspeakers, and the situation returns to a more or less normal state. Until North Korea decides to do some other provocative thing, and then the whole cycle repeats itself.
The only difference this time is that China, who is North Korea’s only ally of any consequence, seems extraordinarily annoyed at its wayward client state. In the past, China has worked to moderate the punitive actions taken against North Korea, something it has for the most part been able to accomplish because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This time, however, China’s rhetoric about the nuclear test was unusually harsh, and following as it does a strange incident a few weeks ago in which North Korea’s all-girl “Moranbong Band” abruptly canceled a performance in China and returned home (reportedly because their Chinese hosts were offended by a video display the band uses which feature footage of North Korean missiles), the sense is China has lost patience with its neighbor.
All that will accomplish is to make the imposition of sanctions a little smoother; unless there is a drastic change in policy on the part of China on the one hand or the US, South Korea, and their UN colleagues on the other, the pattern as it has played out in years past will simply be repeated. One would think that at some point, the unresolved state of affairs would become intolerable. It has persisted, however, for more than 60 years – ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate – and by all appearances a solution will continue to elude political minds on both sides of the conflict for another generation or more.
In order to try to sort things out, or at least understand what is happening and why, we need to make a few assumptions that may run against the grain of conventional diplomatic thought:
- Kim Jong-Un knows precisely what he is doing.
One of the common viewpoints towards North Korea’s leading Kim dynasty, especially in the case of Kim Jong-Il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, is that they are reckless, crazy, or both (North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was also thought to be a dangerous nut, but not quite to the same degree as his son and grandson). That is almost certainly not the case, which becomes apparent when we consider a couple obvious factors.
First of all, North Korea is essentially a monarchy, one whose existence is justified by the complicated (and actually rather clever) political philosophy of Juche, or in very simple terms “self-reliance,” which was developed by Kim Il-Sung in the years after the foundation of North Korea, formally adopted as national policy in the mid-1950s as the country worked to recover from the devastation of the Korean War, and intensely strengthened as a set of guiding principles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s-early 1990s. At the core of Juche thought is a rejection of Marxist-Leninist relations of production in favor of the primacy of the people’s will; this permits, or rather requires, the emergence of a “great leader” to organize and guide the people.
Since the Juche philosophy has become an actual political and legal framework, the major objective for the leader is to justify his place. One of the easiest ways to do that is to maintain a constant state of tension with real or perceived external enemies. It is no accident that the Korean War never actually ended, because it was not in Kim Il-Sung’s best interests that it should; so long as he had the lingering threat of America and its South Korean puppet state (and to a lesser extent, those other US puppets, the hated Japanese) that he could ‘lead a defense’ against, his position was that much more secure. Likewise, it is no accident that every move towards an easing of tensions between the two Koreas is shortly followed by some provocation by the North that causes the situation to deteriorate again.
To the Kim way of thinking – and there is some validity to the perspective – there is no greater defense, no greater deterrent to an external threat, than nuclear weapons, the more powerful the better. By maintaining a strong military presence surrounding North Korea, the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies are playing right into Kim’s hands.
The best evidence of who the ‘message’ of the “hydrogen bomb” (it probably wasn’t one, but we’ll get to that in a moment) was really intended for – i.e., the North Korean people, and especially the military and bureaucratic establishment whose cooperation is vital to Kim’s retaining his position – was his comments linking the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to the thwarting of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear ambitions. Kim is not so stupid as to be unaware that his key officers and ministers understand what a dictatorship is and realize they are serving one, and so the message is, “The strong leader who gives up his nuclear goals is weakened, and will eventually be overthrown, but I have successfully pursued that goal, and so what befell Saddam and Gaddafi won’t happen to me. So don’t screw with me.”
- North Korea presents virtually no significant military threat to South Korea, the US, or Japan.
A prospect that gives Western policymakers and military planners the heebie-jeebies is that North Korea, if not held in check, will escalate its actions from the long-running low-intensity conflict that it has perpetuated since the end of the Korean War to a major attack – something like an invasion in force across the border into the South, a missile attack against Japan, or a strike with either conventional or nuclear weapons against Hawaii or Alaska, which are plausibly reachable with North Korea’s current missile technology (and a lot of luck, presumably).
Although North Korean aggression has been frequent and sometimes quite serious – incidents like the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 are among the worst – Pyongyang seems to have mastered the art of pushing its enemies to the limits of their patience without going too far. Despite having one of the world’s largest armies, the Kim regime realizes that its comparatively unsophisticated forces would not last long in the face of American firepower; the Korean War was a painful object lesson for Kim Il-Sung, and it is a lesson that his son and grandson clearly took to heart. A massive attack across the border might spring enough of a surprise to wreck Seoul and cause a huge amount of damage, but would result in the utter destruction of North Korean forces – and in any case, North Korea is watched so closely by the nervous South that any attempt to amass the forces necessary to carry out such an attack would set off alarms long before it was prepared to strike. Likewise, a stand-off attack against Japan or the United States would almost certainly provoke a brutal response that the regime might not survive.
The constant aggression carried out by North Korea is simply part of the policy of maintaining a constant state of tension in order to keep the ruling order intact; and in order for the tension to be maintained, some aggressive reaction from the other side is necessary – when it is not forthcoming on its own, North Korea simply provokes it. The aggression also serves as a sort of safety valve. The country cannot maintain such a large military and keep it inactive indefinitely, and so it occasionally allows it to see some action. But only enough to maintain a proper level of alertness and discipline – the myth of “defending the country” would be shattered and the Kim dynasty would come to a quick and unpleasant end if the military was ever put in a position to be defeated and weakened.
- It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb (and there’s still a possibility that it was).
The assumption that North Korea’s latest nuclear test was not the explosion of a hydrogen bomb seems to be accurate; seismic data indicated an explosion with a yield of 6-9 kilotons (some estimates say 6-15 KT), which is only one or two percent of the power of even a modest thermonuclear weapon (the common US W88 warhead, which is about as small as a legitimate hydrogen bomb can be made, has a yield of about 475 KT). Yet the North Korean announcement of the test and Kim Jong-Un’s later statement made a point of referring to it as “a hydrogen bomb.” So what’s the real story?
There are three possibilities. The first, and the easiest to believe, is that the North Koreans are simply lying, and that the bomb tested was a regular fission weapon, similar to the three previous weapons the country has tested. If that was the case, it would be a bit smaller in terms of yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (which had estimated yields of 15 and 20 KT, respectively), and given what is known or surmised about North Korean technical capabilities, would probably be a fairly large, unwieldy weapon – manageable perhaps as an air-dropped bomb, but almost certainly too large and heavy to mount on a missile.
The second possibility, which is much more alarming, is that it was a boosted fission weapon. In a ‘normal’ atomic bomb, the fissile material (usually plutonium) is in the form of a hollow sphere – the shape keeps it from going critical before it’s supposed to – with a “neutron reflector” (usually a sphere of beryllium, although some other materials can work) suspended in the void at the sphere’s center. High explosives surrounding the plutonium core uniformly compress the sphere, releasing neutrons to begin the chain reaction; some of the neutrons are reflected back by the beryllium pit at the center, increasing the speed of the reaction. However, the reaction can only last while the compressed core is at critical mass; once it explosively flies apart – which takes only milliseconds – the nuclear chain reaction is ended. Thus the fission efficiency of early atomic bombs was rather low, something on the order of 20 percent or less (meaning only 20% of the core material actually underwent fission, the rest being blown away in the resulting explosion).
In a boosted weapon, a small amount of fusion fuel – typically tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, in a gaseous form, which could account for North Korea referring to it as a “hydrogen” bomb – is placed in the void at the center of the core, replacing the “reflector.” When the implosion occurs, the early stage of fission in the plutonium core exerts enough pressure on the gaseous fuel to cause a fusion reaction, which releases a large amount of fast neutrons, speeding up the fission process and consuming the fuel much more efficiently. The fusion reaction is so small that it doesn’t really contribute much to the overall power of the bomb, but it can improve the fission efficiency by a great deal, raising it to perhaps 50%, which results in a larger explosion. The benefit of a boosted fission weapon is that a higher explosive yield can be obtained from a smaller amount of fission fuel, which means the bomb can be made smaller – small enough, perhaps, to fit on a rocket or be configured as an artillery shell. It is also not quite the large technological leap from conventional fission bombs that a true H-bomb is, requiring only the additional ability to produce and handle tritium and deuterium.
The third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb, a true thermonuclear device, which simply failed to explode properly. A hydrogen bomb is actually two bombs in one: A fission bomb (the ‘primary’), the explosion of which compresses a second bomb consisting of a heavy casing (usually of uranium, which can be made to fission, or sometimes an inert material such as lead, which reduces the yield and is a cheaper option for testing) containing the fusion fuel (usually lithium deuteride) and a hollow plutonium rod (the ‘sparkplug’). Radiation pressure from the exploding primary compresses and then heats the fuel of the secondary stage, which begins a fusion reaction that releases an enormous amount of energy.
The basic concept of a hydrogen bomb is not terribly complicated, but actually building one that works requires a degree of engineering capability and precision that most observers doubt North Korea has. Nevertheless, since the basic design is not a mystery (the configuration is called Teller-Ulam after its first inventors, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam working in the US, but it was eventually independently worked out by scientists in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), it is at least remotely possible North Korea attempted to build one, but that it simply “fizzled” – i.e., the atomic primary stage of the bomb, a powerful weapon of several kilotons’ yield in its own right, exploded, but failed to ignite the secondary fusion stage.
The assertion that it was a “hydrogen bomb” seems likely to be intended for the North Korean people and the military establishment, an assurance that efforts are being made to increase the strength of the country’s defenses. Whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not doesn’t really matter to the outside world – the real point is that any remaining mystery about whether or not North Korea has or is capable of producing functioning nuclear weapons is now resolved. Even if the country’s capabilities have only risen to the point of being able to manufacture relatively simple atomic bombs, a 6 to 9 KT explosion could level a medium-sized city (for reference, that explosion would be three or four times the power of the second and larger of the two explosions in this video). Whether or North Korea has tried to advance beyond that level of technology or is simply aspiring to, they have apparently gotten basic atomic weapons pretty much figured out. That presents a challenge to the US and its allies, and even China, a challenge which is much more complicated than that posed by Iraq’s or Libya’s abortive attempts to get a nuclear program off the ground, or even Iran’s much more advanced program: None of those potential ‘nuclear threats’ ever resulted in actual weapons, and as the history of disarmament efforts has demonstrated so far, it is far easier to compel a country to stop trying to build a bomb (those efforts have so far all been successful) than it is to force a country to give it up once it has actually produced it (the only country that has obliged was South Africa).
- China doesn’t want a collapse of the Kim regime or a unified Korea that would potentially put US troops on its border.
That first assumption is probably true – keeping in mind, of course, that trying to figure out the subtle contradictions of the Chinese mind is tricky at best – because a disorderly collapse of the Kim regime would result in an as-yet unknown outcome. As far as the worry about “millions of refugees” crossing into China, as many analysts have suggested, that concern might be overblown; one should probably presume it would be a bigger problem for South Korea than it would be for China.
The other assumption, that China would not want a US-allied, unified Korea on its border, is true so long as one presupposes that a unified Korea would look exactly like South Korea, and that China would not be able to exercise any sort of positive influence on it at a level that at least fairly matches US influence. There is no reason that any of that would necessarily be the case. For one thing, the reunification of Korea, which would spell the definitive end of the Korean War, removes the reason for the US being there.
Unlike Japan, where the continuing US military presence is ultimately the result – many generations removed – of an original US occupation, South Korea did not start out under US administration; the US presence there is a result of the war, and, it is important to remember, began under sanction of the UN. Once that sanction ends – and bear in mind, China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – the US cannot unilaterally justify its continued presence; at least not at the level it is now present in South Korea. Any agreement to unify Korea would probably involve Chinese participation anyway – which it rightfully should, since the country borders China – and would almost certainly stipulate a US withdrawal. The political and economic relationship would certainly continue, but that wouldn’t present any more of a problem for the Chinese than the US relationship with any other country in the region.
All of this, however, is a moot point: Unless the US and its allies take the virtually unthinkable step to actually reach into North Korea and remove Kim Jong-Un, the Kim regime – and as a result, the current, unsatisfying status quo – will exist for at least as long as he does.