NORTH KOREA'S REPORT THAT IT TESTED A HYDROGEN BOMB this week set off alarm bells around the world. Though analysts are casting doubt on the nature of the detonation, Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test is a reminder of the regime's unpredictability. How serious is this action and how should foreign powers respond? Belfer Center experts Graham Allison, Jieun Baek, Matthew Bunn, Nicholas Burns, Olli Heinonen, John Park, Gary Samore, and William Tobey weigh in on the significance and implications of North Korea’s latest nuclear test. 

Graham Allison

Director, Belfer Center

A vivid reminder of a ticking time-bomb. While North Korean claims are generally not to be believed, what is clear is that it has developed nuclear weapons that pose a grave threat to the world. North Korea has also demonstrated a special knack for irresponsible surprise—including selling Syria a factory that would have produced enough plutonium for Syria’s first nuclear bomb—had the facility not been destroyed by Israel in 2007. If one imagined American, Chinese, and South Korean leaders standing back from the rush of events and thinking about each nation’s national interests, it would be crystal clear to each that North Korea poses a grave threat to all three. That the U.S. and China are not coordinating on actions they could take now to limit risks from North Korea is symptomatic of larger problems in relations between these two countries. 

Jieun Baek

Fellow, Belfer Center

What we know for sure is this is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. The best reprisal is with the kind of 21st century offensive the regime fears most: information fracking. When hit with sanctions, the Kim regime does not flinch. But when South Korea turned on its propaganda loud speakers at the DMZ as their response to North Korea’s planting mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, North Korea rushed to the negotiating table. Ideological warfare is North Korea’s Achilles' heel, and the United States should attack its weak spot.

Traditional Western information campaigns have so far failed to generate much impact in the famously secretive state. But the fracking revolution in the energy field could point the way to a new and successful strategy. Fracking combines advanced technology and clever tactics to liberate large reserves of oil and gas within rocks previously beyond the reach of man. To help convert or collapse the oppressive regime, the U.S. must mobilize an analogous mix of knowledge, innovation, and radical techniques to frack North Korea with pressurized bursts of foreign information and democratic ideas.

Matthew Bunn

Professor of Practice; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom

North Korea’s nuclear test is a further escalation by the confrontational regime of Kim Jong Un, and a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Security Council action to further toughen sanctions is clearly needed. Unfortunately, a new sanctions resolution is only likely to provoke more North Korean misbehavior in response, as it has in the past.

The new test is no bigger than the 2013 test, raising serious doubts about North Korea’s claim to have mastered thermonuclear weapon technology, though the specifics are still in doubt. For now, the United States should be careful not to overreact.  While pushing through the resolution and moving to reassure its allies in the region, the United States needs to work closely with China to get past the coming cycle of tit-for-tat responses, making clear to the North that a path that serves its own interest better is open if it is willing to cap and ultimately reduce its nuclear weapons program. Whether that can happen in the remainder of the Obama administration remains unclear. 

Nicholas Burns

Director, Future of Diplomacy Project

The North Korea nuclear tests remind us once more of the great danger its reckless, authoritarian leadership poses to the rest of the world. North Korea is an outlaw state and its irresponsible development of nuclear weapons threatens the security of the United States, our treaty allies South Korea and Japan, and friendly nations across Asia.

The Obama and Bush Administrations have been dealing with North Korea’s nuclear challenge for many years. It will be a major priority challenge for the next American president. Whether or not this week’s test is confirmed as a hydrogen bomb, it is an ominous development. North Korea currently has the capacity to threaten all of our allies and friends in Asia. During the next decade, it may develop the ability to threaten the United States homeland itself with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. That is why it is so critical that the U.S. Administration and Congress work together to develop a long-term policy to contain this threat and to eventually overcome it.

In the short term, there are four steps the Obama Administration can and should take to expand pressure on the North Korean regime.

First, the U.S. should lead an effort at the United Nations Security Council to secure universal condemnation of this reckless nuclear test.

Second, President Obama should make crystal clear the absolute determination of the U.S. to protect our treaty allies, South Korea and Japan.

Third, the U.S. and Asian countries should also pressure the government of China to act much more resolutely to restrain and contain the North Korean regime. This issue has to become one of our priority demands if China wishes to play a global leadership role and to enjoy stable and successful relations with the U.S. and its allies in the future.

Fourth, and finally, the U.S. should expedite and strengthen our missile defense program in order to develop a capacity to protect the United States and our allies from North Korean missiles in the future. 

Olli Heinonen

Senior Fellow, Belfer Center

The first question is: Was it a hydrogen / fusion bomb or a fission bomb with a “hydrogen” booster? When looking back to the history of states having or planning to have nuclear weapons, practically all of them invested in the design of more advanced, boosted nuclear devices. There is no reason to believe that North Korea, in its decades-long nuclear pursuit, does not have such aspirations. While complicated to master, North Korea has at the very least the technical know-how to develop a boosted bomb. How far are they down this road? Additional facts are needed. Analysis of seismic data obtained and samples of radioactive products still to be collected will provide clues. Additional information on North Korea’s ability to produce other necessary ingredients such as lithium isotopes, deuterium, and tritium for the boosters, are necessary but hard to obtain data. What is important is that Pyongyang is continuing its nuclear course. The 1994 Agreed Framework in the past failed to stop Pyongyang perfecting its first nuclear weapon design and metallurgical processes of plutonium. Going forward, with the long-held objective of a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by putting an irreversible end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will neither serve as a splendid benchmark. 

John Park

Faculty Affiliate, Project on Managing the Atom

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test is creating a moment of common ground among the U.S., China, South Korea, and Japan. Even if technical experts eventually ascertain that this was not a test of a hydrogen bomb (fusion device), the fact remains that the North is continuing to make progress with its atomic bomb (fission device). With the growing puzzle of an improving nuclear weapons program despite increasing sanctions, now is an opportune time to explore an additional path – encouraging and coordinating with China in sanitizing its trade with North Korea to halt Pyongyang’s acquisition of critical components for its WMD programs. Keen to pursue a long-term strategy of bolstering its fragile neighbor – in the hopes that it will divert North Korea’s attention to the development of its anemic economy rather than nuclear weapons – Beijing has gone so far as to provide North Korean regime elites access to its domestic markets. If U.S. leaders want to impede the growth of North Korea’s nuclear programs, they should explore discreet cooperation with Beijing on information sharing and training that can bolster the capabilities of Chinese government bodies tasked with curtailing the flow of sensitive components to North Korea via burgeoning bilateral commercial channels. (An important model is the discreet joint U.S.-Chinese law enforcement program aimed at halting the flow of narcotics on China's border with Afghanistan). Beijing’s release of a 236-page technical report in September 2013 on prohibited dual-use components earmarked for North Korea constitutes a missed opportunity for further cooperation. U.S. leaders, with friends and allies, can avoid letting a good crisis go to waste and build on this nascent foundation.

Gary Samore

Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center

The international response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test will repeat the pattern from the last three tests – a round of diplomatic condemnation and another UN Security Council Resolution imposing additional sanctions on North Korea.  In the past, these sanctions have been mainly targeted at North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The question this time is whether China is prepared to go further and support broader economic sanctions, for example limits on North Korean energy imports and exports. Probably not. Although Beijing is angry and frustrated with Kim Jong Un and would like to constrain North Korea’s nuclear program, Beijing is more afraid that harsh economic sanctions could provoke conflict or instability on the Peninsula. Nonetheless, we should try to take advantage of the nuclear test to nudge China closer to our opposition to North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. 

William Tobey

Senior Fellow, Belfer Center

The current DPRK government will never to give up its nuclear weapons; it must compensate for its incompetence and illegitimacy with an atomic arsenal. Moreover, it is apparently increasing both the size and quality of its arsenal. Soon it may believe it has enough fissile material to export it. It is time for the United States and China to stop talking past each other on North Korea. Peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula would be in the economic, political, and security interests of both countries, and only more so for the Korean people, North and South. Only the Kim dynasty and its cronies would lose. It is time for Beijing to stop propping up a barbaric, totalitarian regime and time for Washington to talk seriously with China about what political and security conditions would help to induce such a change in Chinese policy.

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