There’s plenty we still don’t know about the underground explosion — presumed to have been a nuclear test — that shook North Korea on Tuesday, February 12. We don’t know if it was a plutonium-based nuclear test (like North Korea’s previous two tests in 2006 and 2009) or a uranium-based test (the apparent bomb fuel of choice for North Korea’s partner in proliferation, Iran, as well as a dual bomb track for North Korea).
Sticklers for certainty can even cavil over whether it was a nuclear test, since there have been no reports yet of any nuclear signature — though it was certainly a large explosion.
But here are some things we do know. We know that North Korea felt free to telegraph last month to the entire world that it was planning another nuclear test, and to issue an in-your-face notification to China and the U.S. when it was imminent. We know that immediately after the explosion, North Korea rushed to advertise it as a nuclear test, and held a televised rally to celebrate (though festive does not quite describe the tenor of the occasion). North Korea also felt free to to threaten that if there is any hostile response from the U.S.:
We will be forced to take stronger, second and third responses in consecutive steps.
How shall we count the dangers of this event?
North Korea is a totalitarian state, in which the regime, to ensure its own survival, not only clung to its brutal ways while an estimated one million or more people died of famine in the 1990s, but orchestrated the distribution of food to starve those deemed least politically loyal. This is a regime that does not hesitate to condemn its own people to be beaten, frozen, and worked to death in its Stalinist slave labor gulag. That’s the character of the Pyongyang government — and when North Korean officials arrive at negotiating tables to seek aid and concessions from the U.S. and its allies, as they periodically do, that is the basis of the power with which they presume to speak for their country.
North Korea has been a vendor of weapons for decades, especially to the Middle East (among the clients: Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Qaddafi’s Libya. Some details of this appear in my article on “North Korea’s Middle East Webs and Nuclear Wares“.) Nor does Pyongyang draw the line at nuclear proliferation. North Korea blew past that one years ago, signing up not only as a dealer within Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, but also collaborating with Syria’s Assad regime on the construction of an entire clandestine nuclear reactor — apparently built to serve as a plutonium factory — on the Euphrates (destroyed in 2007 by the Israelis, who deserve the world’s thanks for that).
North Korea’s closest partnership in proliferation is with Iran, one of their most avid longtime missile customers. Iran has sent officials to North Korea’s previous two nuclear tests. There are serious questions about whether this latest test was chiefly for the benefit of North Korea, or Iran — whether a proxy test for Tehran, or a display of North Korea’s newest generation of nuclear wares.
What has the world done about all this? There has been a great effusion of words.
North Korea’s test has been condemned by the United Nations Security Council as a “grave violation” of resolutions that were issued in response to previous “grave violations.” The U.S. president has called it a “highly provocative act” and said America will “lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.” China has censured; Japan has said it cannot be tolerated. Dozens of countries have chimed in. In the newspapers and online, there has been a profusion of op-eds: credible warnings that North Korea will sell its nukes; observations that it cannot yet land one on the U.S. mainland; debates over whether to try more talks, more sanctions, or some of both; and suggestions that we just learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.
If that’s all there is, it’s all been done before — and here we are, with Iran spinning its centrifuges and North Korea celebrating its latest nuclear test.
North Korea and Iran have plenty of reasons to conclude that they may, with relative impunity, proceed to the goal of stocking their arsenals with nuclear weapons and the vehicles to deliver them. As North Korea has just demonstrated, it is possible these days for one of the world’s worst rogue regimes to broadcast in advance that it plans to conduct a nuclear test, and the basic response of the leaders of the Free World is … to watch, and to talk about it.
The direct dangers should be obvious, though perhaps, as with the rumbles that preceded September 11, 2001, there is a failure of imagination at work here — not because we can’t see this one coming, but perhaps because the effects could be so horrific that a lot of people choose not to imagine quite that far.
The further fallout of these continuing North Korean nuclear tests: a message to other regimes that it is open season for pursuing nuclear weapons.