The timing could be straight from a Hollywood thriller. It’s the first Tuesday of the New Year. In Washington, fresh from a holiday on Oahu, President Obama steps to the podium to talk about gun control, wiping away his own tears as he describes the urgency with which he’d like to disencumber Americans of their guns. Meantime, on the far side of the earth, goose-stepping enemies of America are working on bigger weapons. North Korea is counting down to its fourth nuclear test. That evening Pyongyang announces it has just tested a hydrogen bomb — a thermonuclear weapon that carries far more explosive force than the atomic bombs Pyongyang has been testing since 2006.
Unfortunately, these scenarios are not fiction. This is what played out in the real world on Tuesday, though amid the news of the latest White-House-manufactured domestic crisis, it took a while for most of the TV news channels to catch up with the late-evening news out of North Korea — which was genuinely earth-shaking. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded a sizable tremor, 5.1 on the Richter scale, centered near the Punggye-ri site where North Korea has carried out three previous underground nuclear tests. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency released a story headlined “DPRK Proves Successful in H-Bomb test.”
Quite likely it was a nuclear test, though whether it really was an H-bomb as North Korea said, or an atomic bomb, remains to be confirmed. North Korea’s regime knows no bounds in its devotion to hype and manipulation, and the text of the KCNA announcement was crammed with such phrases as the “eye-catching miracles” performed by the North Korean people in their “all-out charge to bring earlier victory of the revolutionary cause of Juche, true to the militant appeal of the Workers’ Party of Korea.”
Whether it was an H-bomb, or an A-bomb, or something else (but what?) is now a topic of debate, pending whatever facts various authorities might discover and decide to share with the public. The Obama administration tends to be less than generous in disclosing whatever its officials actually know about North Korea.
But there are some things we know for sure, right now. One of them is that North Korea’s regime evidently calculates that it may, with relative impunity, announce that it has tested a hydrogen bomb. In principle, Kim Jong Un should be terrified that advertising such a project could rouse the ire of the U.S. and its allies to an extent that would bring down his regime and leave him hiding in a spider hole.
Any kind of nuclear weapons test by North Korea is a brazen violation of a stack of binding United Nations Security Council resolutions and a boot in the face to the “international community.” It sends the message that whether or not this explosion was the real McCoy, North Korea’s regime feels free to pursue, no matter how taboo, whatever weapons of mass murder its supreme leader might fancy.
North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un evidently believes that far from imperiling his rule, bragging up an H-bomb could strengthen it. Clearly he’s not worried that the U.S. or anyone else will seize upon his weapons projects as a reason to take him down. Nor, apparently, was he worried as North Korea prepared for this test that anyone might seriously try to stop him. As I note in a column on “North Korea’s Nuclear Advance — With Or Without The Hydrogen Bomb,” North Korea, following its first three nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009 and 2013 — has been telegraphing its plans for this test since at least early 2014, including references to an H-bomb.
And why shouldn’t Kim believe he can get away with it? Led from behind (if at all) by Obama, whose presidency has now witnessed three of North Korea’s four nuclear tests, the so-called international community (whatever that is) has developed a ritual response out of Kafka. The test is officially condemned and deplored. The violations are noted. The UN Security Council holds an emergency meeting, and eventually grinds out another sanctions resolution. In this case, following the emergency UN meeting on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power promised “further significant measures.”
What next? Assorted facilitators of sanctions-violating traffic, salted around the globe, but with a special preference for China, set up some more front companies. They make some money, courtesy of the same North Korean regime that funnels its country’s resources into weapons and pleasure palaces for the elite, while ordinary citizens go hungry. North Korea carries on.
Which brings us to the global danger rising from this scene. It is quite perilous enough to let North Korea carry on building and testing nuclear bombs, plus the missiles to deliver them. But the trouble does not end there. If North Korea gets away with this, if Kim Jong Un keeps power, and his regime survives, the message broadcast to every part of the globe is that it is open season on nuclear weapons. In the 21st century, to date, North Korea is the only country known to have tested nuclear weapons. With each test, with each display of impunity, North Korea in effect offers a tutorial to others on how it may be done.
Surely North Korea’s weapons clients in Iran are watching closely, even as they benefit from a nuclear deal struck just last year — which they are already violating, and can scrap entirely at a time of their choosing. So are others in the Middle East, where the feckless Iran deal has already fueled interest in a nuclear arms race. The world is watching. And learning. Whether it was an H-bomb or an A-bomb is an important question. The bigger question is what must now be done to ensure that North Korea is stopped. Entirely. And who will do it?