Earlier Tuesday, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test which fulfills Pyongyang???s threat last month to conduct a ???higher level??? test of a nuclear warhead ???targeted at the U.S.??? This threat to the American homeland coincides with President Obama???s State of the Union address this evening posing a stark challenge for the administration.
The promised ???higher level??? test refers to the size of the nuclear device, estimated to be a six-to seven-kiloton yield, which is larger than past North Korean tests. It demonstrates the regime???s intent to develop a viable nuclear weapon for its successful long-range missiles, such as the one tested in early December 2012.
Last month the U.N. slapped new sanctions on the North for its December rocket test and demanded Pyongyang cease further launches and end its nuclear weapons program in a ???complete, verifiable and irreversible manner??? or face ???significant action.???
At the time North Korean authorities responded by rejecting the resolution, promising to conduct more nuclear tests and launch more long-range rockets, but most important, they refused to join talks on the ???denuclearization??? of the Korean peninsula, Washington???s two decades old goal. Today, Pyongyang followed through with that threat.
What does the maturing North Korean threat mean?
First, it means Kim Jong-un decided that confrontation is a better strategy than economic reform ??? reform which that country desperately needs.
Kim assumed power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il and used the December rocket launch to consolidate his authority and to gain future diplomatic leverage especially vis-à-vis the U.S. and South Korea. Now, the third nuclear test consolidates the dictator???s authority at home in spite of chronic economic problems caused by frequent crop failures, a failed industrial base and large-scale military spending that draws off resources from the civilian sector.
Second, it means Pyongyang is confident in its rudimentary ability to target the U.S. and given time it will field a credible intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat. The December launch showed North Korea has the capacity to deliver a rocket that could travel 6,200 miles, potentially putting San Francisco in range.
Mark Fitzpatrick, director for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the significance of the North???s December launch was the ???successful separation between the three-stages of the rocket???this certainly furthers their ICBM ambitions.???
Staging, however, is only part of the challenge that the North must overcome before it can deliver a weapon on American cities. ???You need a warhead that is small enough to fit on top of the missile ??? and you need shielding to protect the warhead ??? during re-entry into the earth???s atmosphere,??? according to Fitzpatrick.
China is helping Pyongyang???s ICBM project overcome some of these technological challenges. A South Korean military official said that some of the parts used in North Korea???s December 2012 rocket launch appear to have been made in China and in ???some European countries.??? The South Korean military analyzed missile debris from the North Korean launch that fell into the Yellow Sea, according to a Japanese broadcaster.
Third, it means North Korea will continue to test nuclear devices until it has a weapon suitable for an ICBM and the next test could happen soon.
The third nuclear test was expected. Pyongyang followed missile launches in 2006 and 2009 with nuclear tests but the North promised this test would be different. What does the North mean by the statement the next effort will be a ???higher level??? test?
The North could mean a breakthrough regarding miniaturization for a missile warhead. But more likely it means this will be the first test of a uranium device, created from Pyongyang???s newly revealed uranium-enrichment program. Prior nuclear tests used plutonium fissile fuel, harvested from a now-closed nuclear reactor. We should find out very soon whether the air samples indicate the fuel was plutonium or enriched uranium.
Fourth, it means North Korea will share its weapons technologies with Iran, which makes them more dangerous than if they acted alone.
The North Korea-Iran military weapons technology cooperation dates back to the 1980s and explains why Tehran???s missiles are based on North Korean designs. That cooperation took on a formal relationship last fall.
Open Source Intelligence suggests as many as 100 Iranian nuclear weapons technicians and scientists are now in North Korea, following a September 2012 North Korea-Iran agreement. Iran???s leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that agreement helps the countries cooperate to reach their unstated goals despite the pressure and sanctions from others, namely the West.
That relationship explains why North Korea???s next nuclear test may be based on uranium, an expertise heretofore associated with Iran. But there is reason to believe Iran and North Korea already jointly tested uranium-based devices, according to Fox News.
Last year, the Swedish Military Research Agency argued that radio isotopes coming out of a suspected North Korean nuclear site in 2010 were evidence of nuclear tests based on enriched uranium. These incidents were not widely reported in part because underground explosions are difficult to detect.
Fifth, North Korea???s nuclear war threats are overblown for now but it means there will be military action. Yes, the latest threats are more specific than ever before. While the North is years away from having the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear warhead, it has a robust conventional capability which it will likely use soon.
North Korea???s tough talk is an attempt, as before, to bolster its bargaining position in diplomatic negotiations. Last Friday North Korea threatened to take ???physical countermeasures??? against South Korea if it helps enforce tightened U.N. sanctions against the North, calling the un-endorsed penalties a ???declaration of war.???
The South Koreans understand Pyongyang is not joking, but it will go ahead and enforce the U.N. sanctions. North Korea followed through on similar threats in 2010 by shelling a border island and sinking a South Korean warship. Those episodes brought the two Koreas closer than ever in recent times to full-scale war.
Finally, the latest threats mean our past policies to eliminate North Korea???s missile and nuclear threats totally failed. We should expect Kim to continue the cycle of intrigue established by his father ??? provocations like rocket launches, U.N. condemnation, Pyongyang???s warnings of ???physical countermeasures,??? and Western efforts to draw the North back to talks. Unfortunately, President Obama appears set on his naïve status quo policy called ???strategic patience,??? hoping to lure North Korea back to talks that lead to denuclearization.
Unless there is a radical change in our policy, North Korea will acquire nuclear-tipped missiles capable of targeting our homeland and then America will face a Cuban missile-like crisis with North Korea and/or Iran.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union and this time once again, America faces possible nuclear war with two less predictable, radical regimes. We avoided war with the Soviets because we had strong leadership and a clear-headed, tough policy, but this time all we have is President Obama and his status quo policy of ???strategic patience.???
???Patience??? is nothing more than appeasement as understood by Iran and North Korea. It is the very policy of Europe and America toward Hitler that led directly to World War II.
Tuesday evening President Obama has an opportunity to respond to North Korea???s latest provocation. He should outline a forceful response or, should Obama naively demure, we risk the unthinkable as Pyongyang completes testing its long-range nuclear tipped missile arsenal.