Fiddling While North Korea Gives Global Tutorials on How to Get the Nuclear Bomb

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.