February 07, 2016

North Korea's “Hydrogen Bomb”

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE North Korean government has claimed that it has successfully tested a “hydrogen bomb” on January 5. It was the fourth underground nuclear test conducted by the North Korean government and the first since 2013. Pyongyang has been threatening for some time that it would be testing a more potent nuclear device if political and economic concessions were not forthcoming from the West. The North Korean government has been feeling increasingly threatened as the US and its allies in the region have adopted an even more militarily bellicose attitude. “This is the self defensive measure we have to take to defend our right to live in the face of nuclear threats by the United States and to guarantee the security of the Korean peninsula”, said the statement issued by the government in Pyongyang after the latest nuclear test. An announcer on North Korea's official radio said that Washington's hostile policies made it impossible for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear option. The announcer said that “it would be foolish for a hunter to lay down his rifle when he is being pursued by a wolf”. While the international community has come down heavily on North Korea, it is conspicuously silent on the nuclear activities of other countries. The US continues to conduct sub critical nuclear tests and test nuclear capable missiles. Washington has not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is spending $1 trillion modernising its nuclear arsenal. The other countries which also have nuclear weapons are also busy upgrading their arsenals, among them India, Pakistan and Israel. The nine nuclear armed states and the 29 countries under the US nuclear umbrella continue to believe that nuclear weapons are essential for their security. “We have banned biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions because of their inhumane impacts, but the biggest bomb of them all is yet not prohibited”, said a statement from the North Korean government after the latest nuclear test. ROLE OF THE US The US and South Korea had concluded massive war games in September last year on the Korean peninsula to intimidate Pyongyang. Some of the joint military drills were held just 20 km from the border with North Korea. “In terms of ammunition and personnel mobilised, this is the biggest live fire exercise the South Korean troops have staged independently or jointly with the US troops”, a statement from the South Korean defence ministry had said. Around that time, Washington had also announced plans to deploy three nuclear capable B-2 Stealth bombers on its military base in Guam to further threaten Pyongyang. The military base was used by the US during the wars it waged in Korea and Vietnam. After the January nuclear test, Washington has announced the deployment of even more strategic assets on the Korean peninsula. An American B-52 bomber accompanied by fighter jets flew at a very low altitude near the de-militarised zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. Top North Korean officials have warned that the deployment of nuclear capable missiles and planes have pushed the Korean peninsula “toward the brink of war”. The joint US-South Korean military exercises last year was known as OPLAN 5015. It is part of the new war strategy being adopted by Washington to counter the alleged North Korean provocations. Included in this military blueprint are “pre-emptive strikes” against military targets in the North and “decapitation strikes” against the leadership based in Pyongyang. According to reports in the South Korean media, the US is preparing to further strengthen its military presence by stationing additional B-52 bombers and a nuclear submarine in the peninsula. More than 25,000 American troops are permanently located in fifteen military bases in the Korean peninsula. Washington is now putting pressure on Seoul to install Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAD) Batteries on the peninsula. China had strongly objected to their presence as it would serve to boost the American military pivot to the East. There was a great deal of tension along the border between the North and the South in August last year, after two South Korean soldiers were seriously injured in a land mine blast along the DMZ. The South had retaliated by launching a full scale propaganda blitz along the demilitarised zone using giant loudspeakers. Pyongyang had threatened to demolish the loudspeakers by using its artillery. Both sides agreed to defuse tensions later that year after talks between the two militaries. But after the latest nuclear test by the North, the South has decided to resume its propaganda barrage. Pyongyang is once again threatening military retaliation saying that resumption of the propaganda broadcasts “are an act of war”. A commentary by the Chinese newspaper, Peoples Daily, said that the US bears “inescapable responsibility” for the current tensions in the peninsula. The Obama administration has been very critical of Beijing's role, stating that it was China's responsibility to reign in the North Korean government. The Chinese leadership, according to reports, while not having an exceptionally warm relationship with Pyongyang, has refused to join the economic blockade of the country and is North Korea's largest trading partner. But Kim Jong-un has still not received an official invitation to visit China. Beijing has signaled on many occasions that it remains opposed to Pyongyang's ambitious missile and nuclear programmes. China has strongly criticised the latest nuclear test. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that China “will firmly push for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. That is also the stated aim of Washington. After Pyongyang carried out its 2013 nuclear test, the Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned that world peace should not be affected by the actions of one nation. The American secretary of state, John Kerry, speaking after North Korea claimed that it had exploded a hydrogen bomb, said that Beijing's attempt to rein in Pyongyang had failed. The Chinese side on the other hand feel that the nuclear tensions in the region were stoked by the actions of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. The North had agreed to halt its nuclear programme way back in the 1990's in exchange for iron clad guarantees that the economic sanctions it was subjected to would be lifted and a peace treaty would be signed. In 1994, North Korea had signed “a denuclearisation” agreement with the US. Pyongyang had halted its nuclear programme for many years as relations with the South improved. DOWNWARD SPIRAL IN RELATIONS WITH US The downward spiral in relations with Washington started after President George W Bush included North Korea in the so-called “axis of evil” and earmarked the country for regime change. In 2003, Pyongyang walked out of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The relations with the South deteriorated after the right wing government that was elected in the middle of the last decade gave up the “sunshine policy” that was ushered in by Kim Dae-jung in the late 1990's. The policy encouraged the much more prosperous South to invest and trade with the North and at the same time increase diplomatic contacts and family reunions. After relations with Washington and Seoul went further downhill, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October, 2006. The second test was conducted in May 2009. Both the tests happened when Kim Jong-il was in power. After his son, Kim Jong-un took over, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February, 2013. Many senior American officials have been urging their government to engage the North Koreans diplomatically in a serious way. Stephen Bosworth, who was President Barack Obama's first special envoy to North Korea had recently been urging for meaningful talks with Pyongyang, arguing that there was no point in continuing with the policy of “strategic patience” expounded by the current administration in Washington. The last democratic president, Bill Clinton, was on the verge of securing a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, after he dispatched his secretary of state, Madeline Albright to Pyongyang in the waning day of his presidency. Pyongyang had signaled at the time that it was willing to give up its nuclear option if it was allowed to honourably enter into the international mainstream and become a normal country. “Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programmes, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the 'temporary' cease fire of 1953. We should consider responding to this offer. The unfortunate alternative is for the North Koreans to take whatever actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime”, the former American president Jimmy Carter had written. In 2005, North Korea had reached an agreement with the US, China, South Korea and Russia to suspend its nuclear programme in exchange for diplomatic concessions and energy assistance. North Korea walked out of the deal in 2008, after the West refused to give any meaningful concessions. Now, many disarmament experts say that North Korea has reached a point of “no return” as it has considerably expanded its arsenal of sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons. Though many western experts have dismissed the claims of the North Korean “hydrogen bomb” test being a “complete success”, there are many nuclear scientists who believe that it may have succeeded in testing a boosted fission bomb. It may take weeks for the scientists to come to a definitive conclusion on whether or not it was a hydrogen bomb. Weapons designers have said that it is not difficult to boost the destructive power of an atom bomb. According to reports in the Korean media, the South Korean military “did not rule out the possibility” of a boosted fission bomb test by the North while at the same downplaying the possibility that it was a hydrogen bomb. According to many observers, North Korea will keep on testing until it gets the US back on the negotiating table and a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War is signed. Technically, the two countries are still at war. Pyongyang has repeatedly stated that a formal peace treaty will give it the security it needs. Regime change in the North is also anathema to Beijing as such a development will bring the US army along with a potentially hostile neighbour to its doorstep.