North Korea joins the club —or does it?

As of this writing, some 12 hours after North Korea announced its first test of a nuclear weapon, at an underground site in North Hamgyong province, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has still not moved the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock, which last moved forward in February 2002 and now stands at seven to midnight—just as it did at its unveiling in 1947. Has North Korea indeed now joined the elite “nuclear club,” heretofore consisting of the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel?

Some words of caution via Bloomberg, Oct. 10:

The U.S. government is unable to confirm North Korea’s claim that it detonated a nuclear device, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence agencies detected a blast of less than a kiloton, a U.S. intelligence official said on condition of anonymity. Scientists said that would be unusually small for a nuclear device.

“An explosion of TNT that was sufficiently large would look the same on a seismograph as a nuclear explosion if the TNT were exploded all at once,” said Arthur Lerner-Lam, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which helps the U.S. monitor compliance with nuclear test ban treaties.

The Bush administration first learned of the explosion in a call to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from Chinese officials yesterday, Christopher Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said in an interview. While Hill said on CNN that it may take “a couple of days” to figure out what happened, scientists said it may take weeks or even months of seismographic studies and comparison of air samples and other data. Meanwhile, Hill said U.S. officials are proceeding as if North Korea did what it said.

‘Lots of Questions’

“There are lots of questions about this test,” said Jim Walsh, a nuclear weapons expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who visited North Korea last year. While the tremors detected were within the range of nuclear tests, they were on the lower end, he said.

“It’s very unusual for countries that are testing for the first time to have such a small test,” Walsh said. “People are going to ask whether this was a failed test — in other words, a fizzle — of a much larger bomb that only half went off, or a fake.”

And more via AFP:

No excessive radioactivity was detected in South Korea after North Korea announced it had successfully carried out an underground nuclear test on Monday, experts said.
“No radioactivity has yet been detected from the alleged nuclear test,” said Han Seung-Jae, director of the state-run Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Department (NEPD).

“It might not be detected at all if the alleged nuclear testing was conducted in a tightly sealed atmosphere such as a deep tunnel, and all radioactive rays and fallout are contained,” he said.

The NEPD operates 37 observation posts across South Korea to detect radioactivity, including one on the southeastern island of Ullung, 150 kilometers off the coast.

Prevailing winds might have carried radioactivity in that direction, if any had escaped from the supposed test site.

North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the underground test was carried out safely and successfully and there was no radiation leak.

“Had there been a radiation leak, it would depend on the direction and strength of wind for the radioactivity to be detected here,” Han said.

A South Korean defence ministry official said the test was carried out at Hwadaeri near Kilju in North Hamgyong Province on the northeast coast, at 10.36 am.

A regime as wacky as Kim Jong-il’s might just be capable of trying to counterfeit a nuclear test with a few tons of TNT. Or so we can hope until all the facts are in. And if you don’t think the regime is wacky, take another gander at this now-infamous text:

The field of scientific research in the DPRK [North Korea] successfully conducted an underground nuclear test under secure conditions on October 9, Juche 95 [2006] at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation.

It has been confirmed that there was no such danger as radioactive emission in the course of the nuclear test as it was carried out under a scientific consideration and careful calculation.

The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100%. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the KPA [Korean People’s Army] and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defence capability.

It will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the area around it.

“Juche 95”? Whatever, dude.

The “international community” (as it likes to call itself) has been reacting in all the predictable ways. After meeting in emergency session, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the test and began talks on imposing tougher sanctions against Kim Jong-il’s regime, including a possible naval blockade. One glimmer of hope is that China, the only government that has any hope of exercising non-hostile influence over North Korea, condemned the test as a “flagrant and brazen” disregard of world opinion, and stated that it “firmly opposes” Pyongyang’s conduct. (The Guardian, Oct. 10)

Another glimmer of hope is the fact that the test comes just as Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Beijing for a fence-mending visit with President Hu Jintao. The joint communique the two leaders issued was uncharacteristically lovey-dovey, barely alluding to the historical greivances between the two nations which have resulted in angry protests on either side of the Sea of Japan over the past year and change. (People’s Daily Online, Oct. 6)

This is especially comforting given that Abe is perceived as a pro-remilitarization hardliner who has even equivocated on the legitimacy of the 1946-8 War Crimes Trials. AFP, Oct. 2:

Questioned by the opposition, Abe stressed that Japan — but not necessarily he personally — accepted the trials.

“There are many interpretations as to where the main responsibility of the war lies. So I believe it is inappropriate for the government to declare its stance,” Abe said.

But he added: “Our nation has accepted the San Francisco Peace Treaty, through which we accepted the outcome of the Tokyo tribunal. We are not in the position to argue against it.”

The 1951 San Francisco treaty ended US occupation of Japan, during which Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was jailed but not tried as a war criminal for his role in the wartime cabinet.

A note on the trepidation with which his election was met by Japan’s traditional anti-militarists, from Kyodo News, Sept. 21:

TOKYO — With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party electing Shinzo Abe as its new president on Wednesday, a former Japanese military pilot in World War II and a pro-Constitution activist expressed concerns over what they say is the hawkish attitude of the new party chief.

Tadakuma Iwai, 84, who served as a kamikaze pilot in World War II but survived the war, said, “Abe glorifies suicide bombers by saying they served for a big cause or that certain things must be protected even by giving your life. But the fact remains that the state forced them to die.”

Now, if the Sino-Japanese lovefest proves illusory, we could be in for big trouble. Japan needs China now to restrain North Korea without inducing a potentially disastrous bellicose reaction from the Bush administration. Meanwhile US nuclear aid to Egypt and even nuclear-armed India, and Washington’s continued recalcitrance on its own obligations to seek disarmament under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all undermine its self-appointed authority to police the world against WMD-seeking “rogue states.” The Independent also reminds us that it was not a “rogue state” but US ally Pakistan which helped provide North Korea critical nuclear equipment and know-how. And, as we noted, the US looking the other way on this affair was apparently a quid-pro-quo for Islamabad’s cooperation in Bush’s Global War on Terrorism.

In other words, maybe this appalling development will, even if briefly, scare some sense into regional leaders and cause cooler heads to prevail. If Japan can induce China to induce North Korea to chill out and keep Bush the hell out of it, maybe Einstein’s “unparalleled catastrophe” can be averted. Maybe.

One final oft-forgotten glimmer of hope: this is not the first time the “the club” has stood at nine members. Apartheid South Africa became a nuclear power in the 1980s—and then post-apartheid South Africa, under the true revolutionary Nelson Mandela, became the first and only nation on Earth to willingly dismanlte its atomic weapons, without any pressure from the outside world. In doing so, Mandela called on the world at large to pursue nuclear disarmament. (BBC, May 4, 1999)

Progress is, at least, possible.

See our last posts on North Korea, Japan and nuclear paranoia.

  1. More comforting news
    From the Times of India, Oct. 10:

    North Korea’s N-test: A bang or a fizzle?

    WASHINGTON: Was it a bang or a fizzle? North Korea’s self-proclaimed nuclear test was a minor hiccup, seismically speaking, but it’s US analysts who are choking with theories about what really happened.

    Some of them say North Korea might not have tested at all and may have pulled off a con, an assessment that might have gone into President Bush’s guarded remark that “We’re working to confirm North Korea’s claim. Nonetheless, such a claim itself constitutes a threat to international peace and security.”

    Throughout Monday, the Bush administration did not resile from that position and did not officially confirm a test.

    US scientists say the test, if it was conducted at all, was a sub-kiloton event, perhaps around 0.5 kilotons, the equivalent of 500 tons of TNT. One US official put the explosive yield as low as 0.2 kilotons.

    Just to get a sense of scale, the atomic bomb ironically called ‘Little Boy’ that was dropped by the US on Hiroshima had a yield between 13 and 16 kilotons. ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Nagasaki was 21 Kilotons.

    But a sub-kiloton yield does not automatically rule out a nuclear test.

    Two of India’s five tests in 1998 were sub-kiloton events aimed at testing tactical nuclear warheads. Whether Pyongyong has the expertise to fashion tactical weapons, which are said to be more difficult to make, is a question US experts are not sure about.

    For that matter, there is not a whole lot US experts are sure about, and they spent much of Monday bandying theories. They surmised three reasons why the North Korean test yield could be so small.

    1. It was deliberately kept small because North Korea is not aflush with plutonium and wants to keep stock for weapons.
    2. The test went wrong and only a part of the nuclear fuel was used up
    3. It was no test at all; North Korea used conventional explosives to fool the world into believing it tested.

    The last theory can be disproved if the US detects radioactivity in the vicinity of the test, a process that might take some time given the small yield and also North Korea’s inaccessibility.

    Pyongyang also said immediately after the test that there was no radioactivity in the region – a sign that it was either a very well-conducted test or that they were setting the stage for the con.

    But the United States also has a dubious record of exaggerating numbers or events or downsizing it depending on the administration’s agenda (as in the case of Iraq and Iran). American scientists to this day dispute Indian estimates of the yield from its thermonuclear test, and in fact, suggest it was a test gone dud.

    According to some accounts, the North Koreans told the Chinese shortly before they tested that it would be a four kiloton event. Initial reports from Russia estimated the yield at between 5 and 15 kilotons. Neither number fitted US estimates.

    But what North Korea may have failed to achieve seismically, it managed to do politically, convulsing the United States and its allies, and for a day at least, completely taking away the spotlight from the war on terror, Congressional follies, and school shootings.