It appears that second-time around worked for the North Koreans:

SEOUL (AFP) — North Korea carried out a second and more powerful nuclear test, defying international pressure to rein in its atomic programmes after years of six-nation disarmament talks. The hardline communist state, which stunned the world by testing an atomic bomb for the first time in October 2006, had threatened another test after the UN Security Council censured it for a long-range rocket launch in April. The North “successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way,” the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. “The current nuclear test was safely conducted on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology,” it said. The force of the blast was between 10 and 20 kilotons, according to Russia’s defence ministry quoted by news agencies, vastly more than the estimated one kiloton blast three years ago.

While the Russians have historically over-estimated yields in their previous assessments, it is probably safe to say that the yield will fall around 10kt, more than surpassing 2006’s fizzle @ 1/2 kt. Better refinement should come with independent verification by US and other international sources in the coming days.

And now all the chips are on the table. China has been vocal about not desiring to see North Korea armed with nukes and it has been the principal intermediary at the Six Party talks on behalf of the North Koreans. By far, it is the major supplier of energy resources to the North, keeping them from literally going dark. What will China do besides verbally condemn? Support full sanctions against the DPRK or block such a move? What about the Russians? Push-back expected on any measures beyond strong verbal condemnation in the Security Council? To be sure, expect one or both to forward the argument that harsher penalties will be “unproductive” and lead to greater instability in the region (read: China is afraid of provoking collapse of the DPRK government and subsequent rush of refugees across its borders into China). What of South Korea and Japan? The DPRK’s on-gong missile tests, which have continued in the face of similar vocal condemnation and in spite of international agreements like the Missile Technology Control Regime or the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, have energized Japan’s missile defense efforts – will a successful DPRK nuclear test now result in a Japan that feels it must either develop its own nuclear weapons as a counter? Undertake a more offensively oriented military? How assured can/should the Japanese be about any U.S. guarantees via extension of its nuclear umbrella?

Unstated in the initial uproar is this little gem — with a demonstrated proclivity towards proliferation whoring, particularly with Iran, what does this say about the future of nuclear arms control and non-proliferation? Were the parallel tests of an alleged new SRBM today demonstration of a nuclear capable missile? How close to a weaponized form was today’s test? What are the implications for increased instability in other regions that are faced with their own issues of nuclear proliferation (viz. Israel-Iran)?

It’s 0300 and somewhere there’s a phone ringing…

Update: More yield estimates coming in based on seismic activity. Looking like yield may have been between 4-5 kt. More here.

Posted by SteelJaw in Foreign Policy
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  • Natty Bowditch

    It is unhelpful to link NoKorean and Iranian nuclear programs. It’s popular to do so in the extremist blogs but it ignores reality.

    That said, China isn’t particularly enamored of seeing a nuclear NoKorea but it’s bigger fear is seeing the collapse of NoK (more on this). Were NoK to collapse, a number of bad things would happen, in China’s perspective. First, South Korean investments in China would likely dry up as South Korea would be coping with a unified state. Second, China owns a virtual monopoly of NoK mineral rights; that goes away if NoK collapses. Third, and less important, China would now have another US-friendly nation on its border. Fourth, NoK spins up Japan which China is perfectly happy to see.

    Re nukes, what can the US do about NoK? The answer is not much. I understand this answer will infuriate those like Newt Gingrich who are demanding we attack NoK–but Newt is acting like the guy on the barstool who thinks he can knock out Mike Tyson; that is, it’s easy to say so long as you’re not actually in the ring. Even Bush, despite his ‘axis of evil’ nonsense, understood this.

    The solution, therefore, is to manage NoK. NoK’s nuclear capability is extremely limited–each test they do limits their capability further. And they aren’t getting more nuclear material.

  • The solution, therefore, is to manage NoK. NoK’s nuclear capability is extremely limited–each test they do limits their capability further. And they aren’t getting more nuclear material.

    Really? DPRK Foreign Ministry statement of 29 Apr 2009 (extract):

    The UNSC should promptly make an apology for having infringed the sovereignty of the DPRK and withdraw all its unreasonable and discriminative “resolutions” and decisions adopted against the DPRK.
    This is the only way for it to regain confidence of the UN member nations and fulfill its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, not serving as a tool for the U.S. highhanded and arbitrary practices any longer.
    In case the UNSC does not make an immediate apology, such actions will be taken as:
    Firstly, the DPRK will be compelled to take additional self-defensive measures in order to defend its supreme interests.
    The measures will include nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
    Secondly, the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel as its first process without delay.

    So – managing by what? More UNSCR resolutions that say a lot on paper, but absent Chinese (in particular) and Russian insistence on strong measures, have little effect? Or managing by stepping up measures like stricter enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative on items inbound to North Korea and hitting (again) the shadow international banking system NK uses for proliferation abroad? South Korea evidently thinks so now (finally) as it is joining the PSI. Saying it is “unhelpful” to link Iran and DPRK nuclear programs ignores the linkages, direct and indirect, established by the likes of A.Q. Kahn. True, there may not be a 1:1 link right here, right now today, but there is evidence of associated linkages. And to be sure, there is close cooperation on the ballistic missile front. China surely isn’t happy at the prospect of a nuclear-capable DPRK – but what about a nuclear armed Japan? How much more of the DPRK’s push in its nuclear program will occur before critical mass is reached in South Korea and Japan for their own nuclear programs?

    I never called for military action and doing so at this point would be harmful beyond the immediate effect of the tests. Fankly, as stated, all the chips are on the table and the ball is squarely in China’s court. China has lost considerable diplomatic face and may be amenable to more stringent sanctions that will have a direct and lasting effect on the two aforementioned programs – I’ve recommended two reasonable COA’s in that regard that also seem to have traction elsewhere. Hopefully there is work underway behind the scenes to put such a condominum in place, which itself will require extraordinary and nuanced diploamtic effort. My point is that we can’t continue ‘business as usual’ and management by watered down resolution.

  • Natty Bowditch


    Citing NoK press releases is almost worse than citing Gingrich; a lot of gas, no substance. What else is NoK going to say? Did you really think they’d issue a press release saying they’ve seen the error of their ways and they promise to do better in the future?

    China hasn’t lost any ‘face,’ they’re happy with the status quo. I also deeply suspect China has a much better picture of things in NoK than we in the West. That’s why they’re not too spun up. I think you’re missing the fact China controls virtually all the levers of influence in NoK. China has its hand on the valve keeping the feeble life support of NoK going. As such, were China really taking a hit, they’d have put the screws to NoK by now.

  • No – thy could have said nothing, spouted more rhetoric or laid out future COA, which is what they did on the 29th – and thus far they’ve been on script.

    And of course re. China, they are the paragon of open government so what we see in public maps to what goes on behind closed doors and what screws, if any, were being put to nK…
    – SJS

  • RickWilmes

    @ Natty,

    How is China keeping North Korea(a totalitarion dictatorship) on life support and also engagimg in capitalism as Tom Barnett and Galrahn claims in a previous blog?