As President Obama was wrapping up his 10th and final presidential trip to Asia and Air Force One was on its way back to Washington, Pyongyang conducted its fifth and most powerful test of a nuclear bomb, the second this year and fourth on the U.S. President’s watch.
The very same day, the White House issued a statement, “in the strongest possible terms,” condemning Pyongyang’s Sept. 9 nuclear test as a “grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability.” “To be clear,” the statement declared, “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”
“It is a vow, however,” says John Power, a journalist based in Seoul, “that appears increasingly hollow in light of Pyongyang’s impressive advancement of its nuclear ambitions, forcefully demonstrated by September 9’s detonation.”
This year alone, the Hermit Kingdom has tested two nuclear weapons and launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The most isolated country in the world has also launched more than 30 ballistic missiles of 200km range or greater – more than the total number of ballistic missiles tested since the founding of North Korea in 1945.
And since its first nuclear test in 2006, as Power noted, “Pyongyang has detonated progressively more powerful devices, in 2009, 2013 and twice this year, with its most recent weapon thought to have been more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. At the same time, it has made major strides in developing its delivery systems. Last month, it successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine. Experts now consider plausible the once fanciful idea that North Korea could soon be capable of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead, possibly within a decade.”
Is North Korea finally a member of the nuclear club? The answer most likely is “yes.” While many people will have trouble accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, this little backward Stalinist state really is building its nuclear weapons.
The seismological observatory NORSAR in Kjeller, Norway, has calculated the size of North Korea’s fifth underground nuclear test: the magnitude of the explosion was recorded to be 5.2 mb and the explosive yield is estimated to be approximately 20 kilotons TNT. “The explosion resembles the previous North Korean nuclear tests in characteristics, but is larger in size,” reports NORSAR’s Anne Lycke, “and the explosive yield has a comparable size to the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”
And the most recent nuclear test is different from the previous tests. “One seemingly oblique but constructive way to assess Kim Jong-un’s progress,” writes Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, “is to look at the fifth nuclear tests of other countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. These five fifth tests are a fairly telling set. By their fifth tests, all five countries had demonstrated the technologies to reduce the size of first-generation weapons, and were well on their way to building thermonuclear weapons. So why hold North Korea to a different standard? Viewed through the lens of these past tests, it’s hard to escape the reality that North Korea is, indeed, a real nuclear power.”
Even with the nuclear clock ticking loudly on the Peninsula, the Obama administration has, according to Power, “essentially reaffirmed the status quo, calling for the further isolation of the regime – even though a decade of censure and sanctions, punctuated by bursts of diplomacy, has not brought the Kim family’s regime to heel.”
Most North Korea watchers are now pessimistic about the prospects for stopping North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. “Two pathways to a non-nuclear North Korea: disarm them by force, or revolutionary change within,” says Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul, “unless one of those two things happens, they will work on their nuclear and missile programs every day.” In reality, however, neither scenario is likely to happen.
All past and current strategies, including diplomatic isolation, military pressure, economic sanctions, so-called Six-Party Talks, and Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” have failed to rein in Pyongyang from its nuclear development.
A direct talk between Washington and Pyongyang seems to be the only way left to halt North Korea’s nuclear buildup.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.
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