Vol. XLI No. 37 September 10, 2017

North Korea's Hydrogen Bomb: Will it lead to Negotiations or Descend into a Dark Nuclear Void?

Prabir Purkayastha

ON September 3, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea, as it is usually called by the media – tested a hydrogen bomb, with a yield estimated to be around 120 kilotons, eight times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. This, combined with the recent ICBM tests that show North Korea can reach the western shores of the US with its missiles, is not just a game changer between the US and North Korea stand-off . It is virtually game over. The US has failed in its attempts to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programme.

The only way forward is to re-start talks between North Korea, the US and other countries. Continuous threats of annihilation by US military leaders, and Trump's tweets of fire and brimstone, are not helping to move away from the nuclear brink.

The latest nuclear weapons test by North Korea is much more powerful than what it tested a year back. It is either a full-fledged hydrogen bomb, or a boosted fission device. A hydrogen bomb uses a two-stage explosion – a first stage involving a nuclear fission trigger that in turn leads to the fusion of hydrogen isotopes in a separate compartment. In a boosted fission device, a standard fission stage is seeded with heavy isotopes of hydrogen, increasing its yield significantly. 

In either case, North Korea's nuclear capability has taken a quantum leap. For those who might remember India's nuclear tests, there was a lot of doubt whether India's hydrogen bomb test was a boosted fission device or a hydrogen bomb. It matters little. What matters is its yield – and at 120 kilotons, the world will have to accept that North Korea has indeed entered the nuclear “club”.

A day before the test, Kim Jong Un visited the Nuclear Weapons Institute. The pictures released by the North Korean state TV shows a warhead that has the shape of a two-stage hydrogen bomb, and is small enough to be mounted on Hwasong-14, the North Korean ICBM. North Korean tests in July and August have shown that it can reach the West Coast US cities with its missiles. With this test, it has demonstrated its ability to miniaturise its warhead, and inflict a much bigger damage than estimated earlier. The only remaining question is whether it has developed the necessary heat shield to protect the warhead from being destroyed on re-entry. The US can scarcely gamble on North Korea not having a proven heat shield in a nuclear exchange with North Korea. In geo-strategic terms, North Korea has now reached a “deterrence stage” with its nuclear and missile programme. The problem of course lies in this crazy theory that believes the only way to mutual peace lies through stock-piling enough weapons to destroy each other, and the rest of the world.

Both China and Russia have argued that North Korea should stop its provocative acts of missile and nuclear weapons tests. But they have also asked the US not to engage in equally provocative military exercises like the one the US carried out recently near North Korea's borders with hundreds of thousands of troops. They have asked both sides – North Korea and the US and its allies – to step back and engage in talks.


While the US presents North Korea as a “rogue state” with a “mad” leader, the fact remains that the US has engaged in invasions, regime changes, wars and military occupations over the last 70 years – including the only use of nuclear weapons. There is also no example in history of a small nation attacking a militarily far bigger one, and risking certain annihilation.

And after Bush's declaration of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the Axis of Evil, North Korea regards itself as a US target for regime change. With Saddam and Gaddafi, having given up their nuclear and chemical weapons, and subsequently suffered the consequences, it is unlikely that North Korea will give up either its nuclear weapons, or its missile options.

A number of analysts have argued that to protect itself, North Korea is taking the only rational course. Senator Dan Coates, the director of National Intelligence, said in July 2017 in the Aspen Security Forum, “And there is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country, and he has watched I think what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability. The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes is unfortunately if you had nukes, never give them up. If you don't have them, get them...”

North Korea sees itself under threat of US and South Korean invasions. The frequent military exercises with live ammunition and mimicking invasion of the north on its border is recurring irritant. The only agreement that exists between North Korea and the US, is a temporary truce, the 1953 armistice. The US has turned down any effort to reach a permanent peace with North Korea.

The US, and the global corporate media suffers from complete amnesia, when it comes to the 1950-53 Korean War. The US dropped more bombs on North Korea than it did in the entire Pacific arena during the Second World War. The US killed an estimated of 4-5 million Koreans during this War. Not a house was standing in North Korea after three years of carpet bombing. General McArthur, who was relieved of his command for wanting to use 50-100 atom bombs in Korea, in his testimony said, “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited …” (Hearings before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, and Foreign Relations, Eighty-Second Congress, 1951)

The US claims, which Trump has recently tweeted, is that there is no point in negotiating with North Korea, as it does not keep its promises. It is the US that has repeatedly reneged on its promises to North Korea. North Korea not only kept its side of the bargain, it allowed its nuclear reactors capable of producing significant amounts of plutonium to become junk. It is these agreements starting with the 1994 Agreement that delayed North Korea's nuclear programme by at least a decade.

Jeffrey Lewis, writing in 38North.org, a website on the Koreas, writes, “The fundamental logic of the Agreed Framework was sound. North Korea had a small, unknown stockpile of plutonium in 1994. It was on the verge of having much, much more. The United States successfully froze that stockpile – a freeze that lasted eight years...when the Bush Administration chose to “shatter” the Agreement...”

Clearly, UN sanctions without any desire to talk to North Korea is not working. Can the US now walk back to the negotiating table and restart the process? Not just of missiles and nuclear weapons but of the whole of gamut of issues. Including that of permanent peace in the Koreas. A nuclear war in the Koreas will take down not only North Korea but also South Korea and Japan. North Korea is clearly not blinking with Trump's bluff and bluster. The US has to not only to speak to China and Russia about North Korea, but also listen to them. Something it still refuses to do.

William R Polk, a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor, served in the State Department’s Policy Planning Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his recent two-part article in ConsortiumNews.com, Polk concludes,

I am convinced that it will not be possible in the foreseeable future to get Kim Jong Un or any conceivable successor to give up deliverable nuclear weapons. Thus, there can be no “success,” as described in current policy statements by the Trump administration. But, arrangements can be created – by enlisting China and Russia as partners in negotiations and by renouncing threats and such damaging (and ineffective) policies as sanctions – to gradually create an atmosphere in which North Korea can be accepted as a partner in the nuclear “club.”

Failure to move in this direction will leave us, at best, in the limbo of fear and the possibility of stumbling into war. This is obviously a gambit that may fail. What is clear, however, is that none of the alternatives has worked or is likely to work. To embark on this path will require a degree of statesmanship, which we may not have.

Will the US and its president be willing to tread the difficult path to peace? Or are we, as Polk says, in the danger “of falling off the edge into the dark void of nuclear war.”