(Yomiuri: January 7, 2016 – p. 13)
By Hideshi Takesada, professor at Takushoku University
North Korea’s “hydrogen bomb test” is a diplomatic and militaristic message targeted at the U.S. North Korea anticipates that once it plays up its success in conducting a hydrogen bomb test, the U.S. will acknowledge that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, work to normalize diplomatic ties to prevent it from using nuclear weapons, and eventually build up a bilateral relationship of trust.
Since the days of the Obama administration are numbered, Washington has been busy fence-mending with hostile nations, including normalizing diplomatic ties with Cuba and clinching a nuclear agreement with Iran. Pyongyang has been closely watching these movements. It might have thought that its conventional nuclear development was not sufficient to draw the U.S. to the negotiating table and concluded that it was necessary to successfully test a hydrogen bomb, which is more powerful and capable of reaching Washington and New York.
North Korea can gain a lot by playing up the success of its hydrogen bomb test. Its conventional nuclear programs, fueled by enriched uranium and plutonium, are easy to detect. On the other hand, it is difficult to detect a hydrogen bomb program. On the technological front, it is extremely difficult to develop a hydrogen bomb, but the development cannot be easily detected through explosive waves. So when North Korea pronounces its success in conducting a hydrogen bomb test, it is difficult to look for materials that can help deny its claim. That means the North can “say whatever it wants to say” and there is no evidence to negate the claim.
The hydrogen bomb test is of great significance to the regime led by Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang successfully tested nuclear programs under the leadership of his late father, Kim Jong Il. But the success in conducting a hydrogen bomb test will be a feather in the young Kim’s hat. It sends out the message that he has become independent from his father.”
The U.S. will consider imposing UN sanctions in collaboration with Japan and South Korea. The chances of Washington responding to North Korea’s call for direct dialogue are slim. Japan, for its part, must step up its alliance with the U.S. to raise the credibility of the “nuclear umbrella” provided by the U.S. The package of security legislation enacted in September will go into effect by the end of March, but steps need to be taken for its early implementation. North Korea may mobilize conventional military forces to attack South Korea by taking advantage of its “hydrogen bomb.” Japan must make preparations based on the scenario of a contingency in the Korean Peninsula, including the rescue of Japanese nationals by the Self-Defense Forces.
Meanwhile, China cannot be expected to play much of a role. It has no intention of working with Japan, the U.S., and South Korea to terminate North Korea’s nuclear development. The idea of forming an international coalition with China to contain North Korea is far-fetched. Japan, the U.S., and South Korea should keep this in mind and deal with the issue together. (Abridged)