North Korea’s Latest Provocation

North Korea claimed on January 6 that it had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. If this claim is true, it would mean that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced beyond the production of the more basic atomic weapons it has tested in the past. At this point, scientists are still collecting data to try to determine what actually happened. Most seem to dispute the claim that North Korea successfully tested a true hydrogen bomb, although they may have succeeded in testing a “boosted” atomic weapon, which is far less advanced and far less destructive than an H-bomb. Experts currently estimate North Korea’s test had a yield of roughly 6 kilotons; a Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in 1961 produced a blast of 50,000 kilotons. (A yield of 1 kiloton is equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 tons of TNT. “Real” hydrogen bombs produce a staggeringly large explosion.) The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining the basic science behind the different types of weapons here.

Interestingly, North Korea also released footage last week claiming to show the recent successful launch of an SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts now claim that the video has been doctored with images from 2014, and that the heavy manipulation of the footage was an attempt to obscure the fact that the test seems to have been a failure.

These tests coincided with the January 8 birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It is not unusual for North Korea to launch provocative military displays around key calendar dates or for its leader to use such displays to try to shore up his own power. What is somewhat unusual about this latest provocation is the fact that China has joined the international community in condemning the nuclear test. China has also indicated that it would support punitive action by the UN Security Council—presumably, additional sanctions. China has been reluctant to break ties with North Korea in the past and tends not to be thrilled about Security Council sanctions in general, so this may be a significant development in the international campaign to contain the North Korean regime.

I am always struck by the extent to which news coverage and commentary on North Korea refers to the country and its leader as delusional, insane, or irrational. We have a history in the United States of labeling certain leaders of other countries as crazy and treating them as such—Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are two obvious examples. This has the unfortunate consequence of leading us to believe that such leaders do not respond to international pressure (convenient if you are trying to drum up support for a regime-change campaign), and to both over- and underestimate their competence. That is, we view such leaders as both possessed of the ability to wreak unparalleled destruction in the international community and incapable of responding to the basic strategic realities of international politics.

Since 2001, the United States has invaded or overthrown the regimes of several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—none of which possessed nuclear weapons. It has, however, refrained from invading North Korea, which has both one of the worst human rights records of any state on earth (far worse than that of Libya, which everyone was so eager to liberate in 2011), and (as of 2006, i.e., after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I certainly don’t think North Korea views it as one, either.  We may have a hard time viewing Kim’s behavior as “rational” in terms that fit with our own worldview, but it is a dangerous oversimplification to view him as a deranged clown and doing so can distort our long-term strategy for managing North Korea.