The world was stunned by North Korea’s self-proclaimed successful hydrogen bomb test. It has caused complex reactions from the international community ranging from consternation and fear to suspicion. Consternation came from its immediate neighbors and afar who see a successful test as a threat to world peace.
Evidence of anxieties generated by the test range from its alleged impact on recent volatility in regional stocks and shares trading to security fears of North Korea’s enhanced capabilities to construct weaponized missile warheads with a smaller hydrogen device.
The lifecycle of nuclear weapons development generally begins with the more primitive fission atomic weapons which North Korea has succeeded in building. The next stage of evolution is the development of hydrogen bombs which are fusion weapons that can produce bigger explosions and are smaller than atomic devices, making them ideal for weaponization. The yield of heat, light, and other energies are destructive forces released by a hydrogen bomb, making them deadlier than fission weapons.
The next stage of development following this lifecycle of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) efforts would be the development of neutron bombs which can fit into battlefield artillery shells. All these hold frightening prospects for North Korea’s neighbors including Japan.
Just as memories of the test are fading, questions remain if North Korea really detonated a hydrogen bomb. The only evidence thus far is the magnitude 5.1 earthquake that was triggered by the bomb blast underground which was detected by the international community.
Here is where Japan plays an extremely important role in the international community. Its sophisticated monitoring devices make Japan the premium site for determining if North Korea is genuinely closer to having hydrogen bombs.
Japanese military aircraft have already reported back that no radiation was detected from the underground test. On January 6, 2016, the airborne samples collected by Japanese military jets did not reveal or shows signs of radiation detection. The US flew their own WC-135 Constant Phoenix planes for the same detection mission. Up to the point of writing of this article, there has been no news about radiation detected by the aircraft of either country.
Another Russian facility in Ussuriysk detected a fainter footprint of the particles in 2013. But even land-based detection has its own limitations. A caveat is that if the recent underground test was well-sealed off, then particle releases are quite unlikely. Another limitation is that, in the 2013 test, the Japanese monitoring station was unable to detect if plutonium or uranium was used.
Questions remain if North Korea really detonated a hydrogen bomb. The only evidence is the magnitude 5.1 earthquake that was triggered by the bomb blast underground which was detected by the international community.
The world has to wait a little more before the verdict emerges from the land-based monitoring station in Japan. In the meantime, some believe the bomb that North Korea developed for the recent test may be a hybrid device with a small nuclear fusion device in a larger fission bomb, accounting for the small quake generated by a H-bomb test.
While waiting for the test results, the Abe administration in Japan has condemned the test, citing it as a threat to peace. It is also an important opportunity for Japan to rally together with South Korea against a common threat, in view of recent improvements in relations. Both sides can also share intelligence.
Japan also has common interests with China in stopping nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. The H-bomb test may then end up as a common rallying point that can bring Japan, China, and South Korea together facing a common threat.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s proposal of holding five-party talks is a productive idea because there are few issues that Northeast Asian states can rally around and North Korean denuclearization is one such common rallying point. Therefore, if the 6-minus-1 can agree on some common points for a united front, it would help in confronting a basically unpredictable North Korean regime. Besides the Northeast Asian states, the US is also an important and integral component of any Northeast Asian initiative to confront North Korea.
Japan plays an exceptionally important role in this because its detection of the North Korean test is crucial in persuading China, North Korea’s key ally, to act. China is caught between a rock and a hard place. It does not want to destabilize North Korea yet it clearly understands the dangers of co-existing with an unpredictable nuclear-armed regime. An important piece of evidence to present to China is proof of a hydrogen bomb test if indeed there is one. It took 2 months for Japan to determine if the last 2013 North Korean test was nuclear. Patience is needed. A hydrogen bomb may raise stakes in this regional brinksmanship (e.g. warhead miniaturization prospects, a deadlier fusion bomb that emits greater heat and light energies). At this point of writing there is no conclusive evidence about the nature of the bomb but North Korea subsequently carried out displays of land-based and submarine-launched missile trials and claimed to have a weaponizable small warhead.
In the meantime, a breakthrough seems unlikely unless an acute crisis happens. All stakeholders in that region’s security are likely to want to opt for gradualism and pragmatism in using economic means and persuasion (hard or soft). The most immediate item on the agenda before deciding any further action is confirming whether the recent test was indeed of a hydrogen bomb. China may eventually join the UN and the US in imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea for the test. In the most updated news about North Korean nuclear weapons development on May 7, 2016, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, declared at the Workers’ Party of Korea’s 7th Congress that his country would not use nuclear weapons unless the sovereignty of North Korea is under threat. Kim has made nuclear development a cornerstone of his Byongjin or twin-goaled policy of improving the livelihood of his people and becoming a self-reliant nuclear power.