The US Geological Survey detected a 4.7 magnitude seismic event at 00:54 GMT on the 25th of May at Hwaderi, near Kilju City in North Harnkyung province in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK = “North Korea”) at 10 km (6 miles) below the surface. The nature of the seismic signals indicated this to be the second nuclear test carried out by the DPRK, and the yield of the device was between 10 kT and 20 kT (kT = kilo-tons of TNT explosive power, 1 kT = 4.184 x 10-to-12th-power Joules). The Hiroshima bomb was 13 kT, and the Nagasaki bomb was 21 kT. The DPRK also conducted three short-range missile tests on the same day, a few hours after their nuclear detonation.
The last paragraph summarizes the publicly available facts about the DPRK’s nuclear test #2 (see notes here and here for news accounts). Commentary on the meaning of this test was actually written three years ago, on the occasion of the DPRK’s nuclear test #1 of 9 October 2006 (see here and here).
My commentary of 2006 still applies because neither the policy goals of the United States and Security Council Nuclear Powers, nor the fears of the DPRK leadership have changed since 2006. In the simplest terms, world capitalism under the direction of the United States wants the North Koreans to dismantle their DPRK state and to integrate their economy and workforce into that of an expanded Republic of Korea (South Korea) in a manner similar to the dissolution of the East German communist state (Democratic Republic of Germany, 7 October 1949 to 3 October 1990). The foreign policy of the DPRK, of which its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are a part, is aimed at combatting the existential threat to the DPRK governing elite.
First, let us consider some of the physical aspects of DPRK test #2.
A yield up to 20 kT is clearly a “success” and indicates the verification of one design of an implosion system (discounting the possibility of a gun-type assembly as in the Hiroshima bomb). I presume, but do not know, that this bomb is an experimental device that is neither compact and light-weight enough, nor ruggedized enough to fit within the payload mass and space limitations of a slim missile body, and to withstand the forces of acceleration required of a ballistic missile nuclear warhead. Any program aimed at that goal will require another test (in perhaps three years?) of a militarized packaging of the “pit” (nuclear core and its surrounding blanket of high explosives) tested today.
The amazingly deep burial at 10 km will probably assure full containment of radioactivity from the DPRK test. US underground tests were often 0.3 km to 0.5 km down. Because of the rapid attenuation of the high frequency parts of an electrical signal with its travel distance along a cable, the US nuclear program engineered its underground tests with the minimum burial depth necessary to assure containment, so as to have the highest fidelity possible for the detection and recording systems relaying and storing experimental data from sensors near the device. Optimizing the burial depth for signal fidelity required a sophisticated arrangement of plugs and backfill to seal the emplacement shaft or tunnel. I wonder if the DPRK test program is satisfied with simple low-fidelity data (the simplest being the sensation of an artificial earthquake), or if they have an underground alcove with high-fidelity recording equipment in a cavern near the detonation point. It may be that the DPRK wished to avoid snooping by US intelligence satellites, so it buried the entire test operation. It is also possible to partially decouple the force of a buried explosion from the surrounding earth by placing the bomb in the center of a larger cavity; this will transmit a weaker seismic signal, and could spoof seismic measurements of yield by foreign powers.
Clearly, the DPRK nuclear program scientists evaluated the data from their test of October 2006, made new calculations, undoubtedly built new assemblies for hydrodynamic testing (perfecting the dynamics of the heavy-metal implosion driven by chemical high explosives), and settled on a design that produced sizable yield. It is equally clear that their nuclear materials program was able to produce sufficient weapons-grade fissile material for at least one new device since 2006 (perhaps 10 kg), and probably several times that amount.
All in all, it is evident they are now a full-fledged member of the nuclear weapons club. The most honest reaction the Security Council of the UN, and the leading world powers could offer would be: “congratulations!”
Now, let us speculate on the political fallout.
The DPRK has made the clearest possible statement that the best defense against domination by superior powers is nuclear weaponry. The greater care with which the U.S. and Security Council Nuclear Powers approach the DPRK confirms this argument. When observing the situations of Palestine, Iraq and Iran, most of the rest of the world would concede the validity of the argument.
The policy of the U.S. is to encourage other nations to abide by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and renounce nuclear weapons — while exempting itself from it; essentially “disarm that we may more easily rule.” The DPRK posture is a rejection of the US policy, and a pointed example of rebellion calling out to the rest of the world.
Another aspect of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons politics is to put its near neighbors on notice not to think of colonizing it. This message is particularly aimed at South Korea, seen as an extension of US capitalism, and to Japan. There are still Koreans living who remember being brutally enslaved by Imperial Japan, which forcibly annexed Korea during 1910 to 1945. Even more Koreans remember the 1950-1953 war between China and the U.S., on their peninsula. The casualties of that war, for the US-led anti-communist forces, were 474,000; the combined casualties for the communist Chinese and North Korean forces were between 1.19 million and 1.58 million; and the total number of Korean civilians killed or wounded is estimated at 2 million.
Today, Japan fustigates that it may have to build its own nuclear weapons (within one year!) to counter those of the DPRK, and South Korea issued similar statements to assuage domestic concerns about the nuclear developments in the North. There is little reason to fear aggression by the DPRK. While it may soon be true that it could launch a few nuclear warheads into South Korea, Japan and toward US bases and fleets in the Pacific, such attacks would ensure the swift destruction of the DPRK elite by retaliatory actions of the most modern military forces on this planet. Nuclear weapons would not be needed for this; waves of GPS-guided missile strikes with conventional high explosive warheads, followed by similarly guided airborne bombing would eradicate the DPRK nomenklatura and its entire military infrastructure. Also, it is very likely that missiles launched by North Korea would be immediately detected by US and allied nations’ radars and satellites, and countered by anti-missile missiles (today’s equivalent to the flak thrown up in WW2). Such defenses are more likely to be effective against long-range missiles since there is more time to react. The DPRK leadership knows from its own history that US-led military action has no regard for Korean loss-of-life, so they are fully aware that their nuclear arsenal is only a stratagem strictly limited to diplomatic gamesmanship short of actual war.
So, what does the DPRK leadership hope to gain by brandishing nuclear arms? The DPRK leadership’s deepest desire is that of all elites everywhere: a long-term guarantee of its privileged position within the undisturbed extent of its domain. The DPRK wants to interact with the rest of the world in a way that sustains the physical and economic existence of their state but without introducing any ideas or social forces that weaken the control of the DPRK leadership, and the fealty of the population to that leadership. Clearly, the present DPRK regime is skeptical it can follow the Chinese example of introducing a state-directed form of capitalism while maintaining ideological control and sufficient popular obedience, so it is resistant to allowing the population wider exposure to foreign influences. The DPRK nuclear arsenal is the equivalent of a 10 foot (3.3 m) high wall topped with glass shards surrounding an estate with Pit Bulls and Doberman Pinschers running loose. It is a shield built with pride and motivated by fear.
Unfortunately, urging the DPRK leadership to engage in nuclear disarmament is equivalent to urging it to dissolve; the nature of their brittle power structure could not withstand the corrosive effects of the psychological, cultural and economic forces within world capitalism. They know this, hence the obsessive defensiveness. The most humane policy toward the DPRK would be to leave it alone. Over the long term, if it is neither harassed nor provoked, it will slowly relax many of its fears. Once the apprehensions of the DPRK are reasonably lowered because it is no longer being pressured and hurried to fit into a foreign capitalist agenda, then it is likely the society of the DPRK will evolve into greater harmony with the world consensus on many issues. Such a policy would be one of respecting the integrity of another society, and of non-interference. It is definitely not the policy with the highest expected return on investment (ROI), nor the earliest expected payoff, but it is the policy with the least likelihood of harming the Korean people and their neighbors. One has to imagine the possibility of arriving at nuclear disarmament as the inevitable consequence of the disuse of nuclear weapons: they are no longer maintained and rust away because their owners have moved on to other activities.
Internationally, patient respect will ultimately soften the fearful pride of an otherwise unaggressive state. The real solution to nuclear proliferation is the expansion of social and economic justice within our own nations, because nuclear arms are primarily a symptom of economic class warfare coupled with racism. Let the people of North Korea deal with their economic elite, and let us reform ours; and in that way we can eliminate the nuclear weapons squeezed out of the world’s popular collective labor by our various ambitious and parasitic ruling classes.