The purported hydrogen bomb test carried out by North Korea has ominous implications not only for the Korean peninsula and much farther beyond in Asia; it has exposed the weakness of nuclear diplomacy and the non-proliferation regime in the 21st century. With Chi and Pakistan bound with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme over the last three decades, India too has much at stake regarding its security and strategic options. Doubts are being cast about Pyongyang’s claim of testing a thermo-nuclear device, with US experts saying that the seismic wave following Wednesday’s underground explosion was smaller than what would result from detoting a true thermonuclear weapon. Rather, they believe that North Korean scientists may have tested a ‘boosted’ weapon, using something like tritium to increase the yield of a traditiol atomic device. In 2013 too, North Korea’s atomic test had left experts puzzled whether the device tested was of plutonium or uranium. Such secrecy is line with the communist, heavily militarized tion that is North Korea, which has grown even more unpredictable under its present ruler Kim Jong Un. He had warned last December that his country ‘is ready to detote an H-bomb to defend its sovereignty and dignity’. While Kim’s rhetoric was dismissed as mere sabre rattling, the threat posed by North Korea is now outlined in clear terms — it claims it is capable of miniaturising the much more powerful hydrogen bomb and mount it on a long-distance missile. With its Nodong and Taepedong-2 missiles reportedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads, North Korea can potentially pose a serious threat to the US west coast and Japan. This in turn could force the US to position strategic nuclear missiles again in South Korea, raising tensions to a dangerous level in the Korean peninsula. Washington may also move to bring South Korea and Japan under its missile defence systems, which is likely to make Chi insecure in its own backyard.
It has long been common knowledge in the intertiol community that North Korea has got away with its nuclear weapons programme due to the hollowness of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It never signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. The six-party talks, as part of which Chi, Russia, the US, Japan and South Korea negotiated with North Korea to termite its nuke programme, collapsed in 2009 after getting nowhere. The UN Security Council has now gone into a huddle, ostensibly to expand sanctions against Pyongyang. But its earlier resolutions after North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 tests, and a satellite launch in 2012, failed to have much impact with their bans, embargoes and freezes on overseas fincial assets. It all now depends on how Chi and Russia deal with the Kim Jong Un regime in the next few months, particularly on whether the carrot-and-stick policy of bribing it or an all-out economic offensive is employed. But the fact remains that North Korea has long been a client state of Beijing; there has also been a quid pro quo between Pyongyang and Islamabad, with North Korea getting designs and technical help to build centrifuges for enriching uranium, and Pakistan in turn receiving long-range missile technology. The suspicion is that Chi and Pakistan have been using North Korea as a proxy country to project their own nuclear agendas. But the biggest worry is that North Korea has supplied its missile technology to countries in the unstable Middle East like Iran, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. With Pyongyang upping the nuclear ante now, what is the guarantee that terrorist groups in future will not get their hands on some nuclear tipped missile, or at least a ‘dirty nuke’ combining conventiol explosives with radioactive material? It will require serious strategic and diplomatic exercises to forestall such an alarming prospect, with India an important stakeholder in a dangerous neighbourhood.