By Andreas Lorenz
The earth shook on Tuesday for about a minute, but it was very clear to North Korea's Chinese neighbors in the Jilin province that is wasn't an earthquake they were experiencing. It was another nuclear test undertaken by Pyongyang.
The detonation took place at about 12 p.m. local time around 1 kilometer beneath the surface of the Punggye Ri testing site only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from the Chinese border.
Tuesday's test was the third nuclear detonation to take place in North Korea, but the first to happen under dictator Kim Jong Un. The country's official KCNA news agency said it had been carried out in a "safe and perfect manner" and that a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously" had been used. North Korea had conducted earlier nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The test immediately prompted angry reactions around the world -- in Germany, Europe, the United States and beyond.
'A Blatant Attack'
In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called for further sanctions to be imposed against North Korea. He called the test a "blatant attack" against United Nations Security Council resolutions. He said the international community must now find a "clear position." "Further sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang must also be considered," he said. Westerwelle said the issue would also be addressed at a meeting next Monday of EU foreign ministers.
In Brussels, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, condemned in the "strongest possible terms" the action. "This nuclear test is a further blatant challenge to the global non-proliferation regime and an outright violation of (North Korea's) international obligations not to produce or test nuclear weapons." Ashton said the EU will work with its global partners to "build a firm and unified response" aimed at demonstrating to Pyongyang there would be consequences if it does not abandon its nuclear weapons program.
And in Washington, President Barack Obama called it a "highly provocative act" that "undermines regional stability" and called for "swift and credible action" from the international community. A response could begin to take shape on Tuesday in the course of an emergency session of the UN Security Council in New York.
A Thorn In Side of Beijing-Pyongyang Relations
China, one of the few countries that supports the regime in Pyongyang, also criticized the underground bomb test. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a statement expressing its "staunch opposition." It also urged its ally to "honor its commitment to denuclearization and not to take action that may worsen the situation."
Chinese officials had already responded critically to a North Korean rocket test in December, even supporting additional UN sanctions against Pyongyang, although it only did so after forcing other Security Council members to weaken them. Tuesday's detonation threatens to strain relations further.
China's steps on Tuesday suggest that new Communist Party boss Xi Jingping's position on North Korea isn't likely to differ considerably from that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who also criticized North Korean missile and nuclear tests but at the same time sought to soften international sanctions and called for "wise and measured" reactions in order to "prevent the situation from escalating."
North Korea is an important provider of natural resources for China. The isolated country also provides a strategic buffer between China and the remaining East Asian countries as well as the United States.
"China has a dilemma," an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing Communist Party English-language newspaper that is often nationalistic in tone, stated in late January. "We are further away from the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and there's no possible way for us to search for a diplomatic balance between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the US."
It added that Beijing "will not hesitate" to reduce its assistance to North Korea in the event of a nuclear test, the paper predicted at the time. But if the US, Japan and South Korea back extreme UN sanctions on North Korea, "China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions." Let them "grumble about China," it continued. "We have no obligation to soothe their feelings." "China hopes for a stable peninsula, but it's not the end of the world if there's trouble there," it concluded.
In addition to tensions with China, the testing is also likely to further worsen relations with neighboring South Korea, where the country's new president, Park Geun-hye, is to be inaugurated in two weeks. In contrast to his predecessor Lee Myung-bak, Geun-hye has said he would consider opening a dialogue with North Korea, but Tuesday's test won't make this any easier.
'Most Damaging Results'
Pyongyang is claiming the bomb had a force of 10 kilotons, much greater than the two to seven kilotons that US scientists had earlier assumed.
"If the North Koreans can explode a device with a yield in that range, then they most likely can produce a Nagasaki-like bomb with a yield of 20 kilotons," former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker, one of the few foreign experts who has been provided with access to nuclear facilities n North Korea, recently wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
It appears that North Korea has succeeded in building a bomb that is small enough that it could be mounted on a mid- or long-range missile. This could also make the world, particularly Asia, more unstable because it has the potential to spark an arms race. Analysts believe it is highly likely that the United States, Japan and South Korea will respond by strengthening their missile defenses in the near future.
It remains unclear whether the bomb detonated on Tuesday was a plutonium bomb or one created using enriched uranium. The Americans, South Koreans and Japanese will first have to measure the radioactivity in the surrounding area before knowing for sure what kind of bomb it was.
Force and Deterrence
But that information will be important. Nuclear experts do not believe that Kim is in possession of large quantities of plutonium. If it was a uranium bomb, then the North Koreans have succeeded in secretly producing enriched uranium with the help of numerous centrifuges. A detonation would be technically possible with either material.
US expert Hecker fears that one of the "most damaging results" of the test is that North Korea could sell its knowledge of nuclear bomb technology -- to Iran, for example, which wouldn't need to conduct any nuclear tests on its own if it had access to Pyongyang's expertise. "Sharing Pyongyang's nuclear test experience with Tehran similarly to how it has shared missile technologies will greatly increase the Iranian nuclear threat," Hecker noted.
Pyongyang later announced on Tuesday that it planned further measures and that the latest nuclear test was merely its "first response" to what it called US threats. North Korean officials said the country would continue with unspecified "second and third measures of greater intensity" if Washington maintains its hostility.
It appears clear that Kim is continuing to focus his country's policies on force and deterrence and, as Hecker argues, like his father, "has chosen bombs over electricity." The development is likely to make negotiations between North Korea and Obama and the new South Korean government more difficult now -- and deliveries of food and energy to Pyongyang are likely to get pushed back even further.
The consequence of all this is that North Korea has become a serious nuclear power, but one whose people are condemned to remain poor.
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