North Korea Bomb Claim Disputed Ahead of UN Security Meeting

China's U.S. Fears Prevent N. Korea Pressure: Haass
  • Ban Ki-moon joins international condemnation of nuclear test
  • Kim Jong Un's actions likely to provoke biggest ally China

North Korea’s claim to have joined an elite group of countries capable of detonating a hydrogen bomb was met with skepticism from weapons experts as Pyongyang heaped more pressure on the United Nations and tested the patience of its biggest ally, China.

Analysts said the blast, which occurred at 10 a.m. local time and triggered a magnitude 5.1 earthquake, was unlikely to have been a hydrogen device and cited evidence including the yield and seismic wave they said were similar to earlier North Korean atomic bomb tests. It drew condemnation from nations including South Korea, Russia, and the U.S., while Japan and NATO called it a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Whether proven to be a hydrogen bomb or not -- and North Korea has a history of exaggerating its technological prowess -- a second nuclear test since Kim Jong Un came to power four years ago will embarrass China, which has led recent efforts to bring the regime back from the diplomatic wilderness. It also reopens the debate about the effectiveness of sanctions meant to bring North Korea back into line, ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday.

“This act is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. “I condemn it unequivocally.”

Discussions at the UN will be focused on whether North Korea did test a thermonuclear device and whether that would prompt China to toughen its stance toward Kim’s regime, said Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation.

‘Displeasure’

"Until now, China has been willing to use sanctions to express displeasure and to constrain the access of the North Korean nuclear program to outside support. What China hasn’t been willing to do is endanger the stability of the North Korean regime,” he said. “That line is what keeps sanctions from having an impact on North Korea, from triggering a change in its behavior to avoid sanctions.”

Kim has in the past used provocations to try and win economic and political concessions. Financial markets usually have a muted reaction to the repeated tactic, which involves the ratcheting up of tensions with atomic tests and rhetoric that haven’t led to war. While Asian stocks and the Korean won did fallon Wednesday, most of the declines came before the detonation.

The timing, though, took some analysts by surprise: In a new year message last week Kim pledged to “actively” work to improve ties with South Korea. It also risks angering Chinese President Xi Jinping, who sent a high-ranking envoy to Pyongyang in October carrying a handwritten letter seeking deeper cooperation.

China wasn’t informed in advance of the test and is “steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.

China still has some pull with North Korea but is worried about using it, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said on Bloomberg Television. “I would argue that the real goal for American foreign policy is to bring about a sea change in Chinese thinking,” he said. “That it’s riskier to tolerate a nuclear North Korea than it would be to put pressure on a nuclear North Korea."

Tougher Sanctions

The most likely response to North Korea’s test will be more economic sanctions, IHS Country Risk said in an e-mailed statement. South Korea may also temporarily close the Gaeseong industrial complex it jointly runs with North Korea, IHS said.

“From a domestic point of view, this is another way that Kim Jong Un asserts his power at home and his independence from Xi Jinping and China,” said John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul. “What have they got to lose? There will be some hustle and bustle at the UN Security Council. There will be more sanctions, but they are already sanctioned to death.”

If the test was of a hydrogen weapon, North Korea would join a small group of nations, including the U.S. and China, known to possess the capability. U.S. officials have previously said it was unlikely the regime could have developed a hydrogen bomb, and have also challenged its claims it was capable of miniaturizing a nuclear device to mount it on a missile. North Korea says its rockets can reach parts of the U.S.

North Korea’s claims of putting a satellite in orbit in 1998 and again in 2009 were also disputed by South Korea and the U.S., before the nation achieved the feat in December 2012. Image experts have also accused North Korea of doctoring photos of military drills or floods before releasing them to the world.

“North Korea may be claiming a successful hydrogen bomb test because it’s not grabbing much attention with atomic bombs,” said No Hee Cheon, a professor at the nuclear and hydrogen system laboratory of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon. “Today’s magnitude falls short of what we would see if a hydrogen device indeed was detonated. The magnitude today is even below the level of an ordinary atomic bomb.”

Proof that North Korea has been able to develop a thermonuclear device would help Kim further emerge from the shadow of his father, Kim Jong Il, who died suddenly in December 2011 with little time to groom his son for the leadership. Kim is believed to be in his early 30s.

"Either way, it means Pyongyang has advanced its nuclear game," Li Bin, a senior associate focused on nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "North Korea has been working on the militarization of its nuclear warheads for many years. The test marked their latest step."

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