North Korea's latest nuclear test, as captured by seismic monitors in South Korea. Image: Lee Jin-Man/AP
North Korea has been on a bit of an aggressive bent lately, and the country just pushed things to a new level by reportedly conducting its third nuclear test. Pyongyang has been expected to conduct a test to follow up on its previous tests in 2006 and 2009, and last night a magnitude 5.1 earthquake in northeast North Korea signaled that the country had indeed gone ahead with detonating a new bomb.
Some previously argued that a test wouldn't be a bad thing as we'd get a chance to see how far North Korea's nuclear tech has progressed. The 2009 test, which created an earthquake of similar magnitude, was estimated to have a yield of two to six kilotons, and early estimates for the current test are a yield at the high end of that range, if not a bit higher. For comparison, the Times notes that the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. So, while basing the yield on the magnitude of a 'quake is inexact and dependent on geology, it doesn't appear that North Korea has made a huge leap forward in their nuclear arsenal.
But there is one worrisome note: North Korea's KCNA state news agency reported that the bomb used was a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.” Now, KCNA reports should be taken with a grain of salt, and saying "smaller, lighter, and more powerful" could apply to an incremental or large change. But one thing has changed since 2009: North Korea, which has long been held back as an aggressor by not having the missile tech to deliver a payload very far, Pyongyang has now sent a rocket into space. It's rocket program appears to be fairly robust, and even if its nuclear devices aren't world-crushingly powerful, "smaller and lighter" means that the country is closer to having actual ICBMs.
A KCNA report announcing the test. I don't speak Korean, and unless you do, we'll have to trust the narrator until otherwise noted. The commentary does jive with other reports, however.
Now, even if North Korea's business model relies on a constant game of saber-rattling and acquiescing to outcry in order to scare up international aid, long-range nuclear missiles are hardly something to bluff with. Pyongyang's leaders knew that such a test would piss off the rest of the world, and apparently they tried to head off some of that steam by notifying China and the U.S. of the test sometime on February 11th. That, of course, didn't work, as the UN Security Council, South Korea, and just about everyone else is not pleased.
The UNSC, which includes occasional NoKo ally China, is already promising actions on top of the sanctions handed down following the rocket test:
UNSC: #DPRK nuke test "grave violation" of SC resolutions ... & therefore there continues to exist a clear threat to int'l peace & security.— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) February 12, 2013
The U.S., Britain, Russia, and South Korea have all already condemned the act, and expect all the other major powers to do so. Really, the test shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Tensions were already high after the rocket launch, and North Korea wasn't happy that South Korea conducted its own rocket launch without receiving sanctions. Plus, President Obama is supposed to deliver his State of the Union address today, so why not give a huge middle finger to the leader of the Western world? That's pretty much SOP for Pyongyang.
The real question at this point is what more can be done by the UNSC and others looking to punish North Korea. The stakes are high, as while a nuclear and angry Pyongyang isn't a good thing on its own, its sort-of friend Iran, which has its own nuclear ambitions, is going to be watching hard to see how harshly North Korea is dealt with.
The reported epicenter of the recorded earthquake, aka the site of the test.
The issue is what to do. The international community is very wary of restarting any conflicts with the country, which leaves truly painful sanctions like a supply chain-eliminating naval blockade pretty much off the table. It's a truly fine line to walk; Pyongyang must expect sanctions, and probably isn't going to invade South Korea if some are handed down.
But if the reaction from the UN or the US is too light, it might encourage Iran's own activities. And if it's too strong, we've got a crisis on our hands. It will be a while until we figure out what the international community will do aside from saying "You're bad!" (and it will take time to even know how successful the test was), but expect things to get more tense before they calm down.