North Korea startled the world in general and some leaders present at the BRICS summit in China in particular by successfully carrying out its sixth nuclear test on Sunday (Sep 3) and claiming that this was a hydrogen (H) bomb test. The technical parameters are yet to be confirmed independently by global agencies but preliminary estimates suggest that the latest test measured 6.3 on the Richter, thereby lending credence to the claim being made by Pyongyang.
The fusion of the atomic particles is at the heart of the H bomb, as opposed to fission that involves splitting the particle – the technology of the A or atomic weapon used in Hiroshima-Nagasaki in August 1945.
North Korea Can no Longer be Referred to as a Nuisance Nuclear Power
If one presumes that North Korea has indeed acquired the necessary technological capability to master the fusion process – then it has many regional and global strategic implications. For a start, North Korea can no longer be disparagingly referred to as a nuisance nuclear power or a dwarf or Pluto N power – turn of phrase that has been used interchangeably, depending on the political filter through which the country is viewed.
One could assert that Pyongyang will now have to be dealt with through the well-tested template of deterrence and containment, and that the politico-military framework of engagement will become more salient.
For the USA and its allies in Japan and South Korea – however distasteful – from now on, North Korea will have to be treated as a nascent but credible H bomb capable nation with a certain proven degree of long range missile capability to boot.
Greater Dilemma will be for Beijing and to an Extent Moscow
Consequently, the major powers at the UN Security Council will have to temper their ire and intimidating tone in bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and for the US in particular, there will be a sense of déjà vu going back to the early 1990s and the Bill Clinton experience.
The greater dilemma will be for Beijing and to an extent Moscow – both of whom are currently meeting under the BRICS banner (Sep 3-5), with President Xi Jinping playing host. The emergence of a defiant Pyongyang that will not pay heed to the strategic signals from its close ally cum partner in Beijing is a worrisome development, for both Russia and the USA, expecting more from China in restraining North Korea.
Concurrently, the domestic political debates in Japan and South Korea about embarking on more assertive and autonomous steps to ensure their own security, and not be dependent on a fickle and feckless ally as represented by the US, will become more animated.
In all fairness to President Trump – it must be noted that North Korea’s nuclear imbroglio had confounded his illustrious predecessors in the White House since the end of the Cold War in December 1991. Thus, expecting him to come up with a magic tweet or policy-wand that would swiftly resolve the issue would be invalid.
The more disturbing exigency is whether Prime Minister Abe in Japan will decide to cross certain self-imposed red lines and if South Korea will seek greater levels of proven military assurance to its security, shaped as it is by the close proximity to its estranged cousin.
Will Pakistan Benefit from North Korea’s H-bomb Know-how?
These are imponderable for now – linked in a complex manner – and hence the old adage that East Asia’s strategic contour is akin to six scorpions of different size and potency trapped in a glass bottle, with each eyeing the other warily to make the first move. The Sunday H bomb test has just added to the perception of its primary interlocutors that in the WMD (weapons of mass destruction ) matrix, Pyongyang is now more potent than it was on September 2!
North Korea’s WMD relevance for India is often framed in the China-Pakistan-North Korea covert WMD cooperation context, also symbolized by the AQ Khan network. The linkage between covert nuclear capability and supporting terrorism has been cynically exploited by Rawalpindi. This strand has been conveniently swept under the carpet by the major powers (read USA, Russia and China ) and it is unlikely that the BRICS summit will even acknowledge this reality – notwithstanding the reservations of Brazil, India and South Africa in the matter.
Will Pakistan benefit from North Korea’s H bomb know-how, given that their May 1998 nuclear tests did not go down that path?
The probability of this exigency is best illustrated in a personal conversation that I am tempted to recount – for the first time.
At a recent WMD related conference held in East Asia, the focus predictably was on Pyongyang and the anxiety among the regional participants was palpable. In the informal conversations that often provide the greatest value at such events, a North American diplomat shared the following vignette – The Korean speaking diplomat was in Pyongyang for ‘quiet’ consultations on the day that Pakistan carried out its nuclear test in end May 1998. This was a pre cell-phone/Whatsapp period and the foreign diplomat walked into the North Korean meeting room, only to be greeted by his host – a high ranking general who remarked gleefully: “Our Pakistani friends have successfully tested their nuclear weapon…”, the unstated conjecture being that the covert nuclear explosive design had been successfully proven.
North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in October 2006 and the rest is history – including the H bomb test now being asserted by Pyongyang. It will be instructive to note how Beijing and the BRICS leaders frame this challenge in their final document.