Is North Korea Going to Blow Up the Planet?

It's unlikely right now, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be scared.

Photo by petersnoopy

World leaders spent much of yesterday grimacing at each other on Skype after news broke that North Korea’s authoritarian regime had built a new weather machine, one capable of shaking the very foundations of the Earth. Hours later, however, the South Korean authorities who initially reported the 5.1 magnitude “earthquake,” were relieved to discover that it was just a nuclear bomb. Good news.

At around 12AM local time yesterday [February 12th] North Korea defied stern international warnings by carrying out its third major nuclear test. But before fear of post-atomic societal breakdown has you ram-raiding the nearest Tesco, it’s important to understand that these latest tests are less about preparation for a nuclear war, and more about securing the country’s own precarious position in world politics.

One of the major motivations behind North Korea's most recent dry run of the apocalypse was almost certainly to deter other nations from launching a similar attack on the Hermit Kingdom. This is one of those things that sounds paranoid because it is – here's John Swenson-Wright, Senior Consulting Fellow of the Asia Programme at the Chatham House think tank, to explain: “North Korea is itself in a state of war with the United States, leftover from the Korean War. Therefore, a test is designed to enhance deterrent capability to boost its nuclear arsenal and to ensure that it is, in its eyes, more secure, because it has this asset in a position to guarantee its own security.”

Last month, the North Korean regime promised to conduct a “higher level” nuclear test to send a message to the United States, as the North Koreans believe that the Obama administration is attempting to exert imperial power through UN trade sanctions. The US, as was demonstrated recently in an endlessly creepy government propaganda video, is considered the “sworn enemy of the Korean people” for not letting them test their rockets, when all they've ever really wanted them for is exploring space.

“The test was to defend our country’s safety and sovereignty against the US’s aggressive behaviour that infringed upon our republic’s lawful right to peacefully launch a satellite,” said KCNA, the state propaganda machine that powers North Korea's media.

But by how much has yesterday’s test raised the stakes? Swenson-Wright doesn't think it makes a huge change: “Monitors in Vienna suggest that the bomb, if that’s what it is, is about 4.9 kilotons in magnitude. Which is significant, but not necessarily that much bigger than the bomb from the test of 2009.”

Crucially, he says, it depends on whether the test involved a plutonium or uranium-based nuclear bomb. “The past two tests were plutonium-based devices. If the North has been able to test a uranium device, it’s a significant enhancement in its chemical capabilities and it suggests that its nuclear programme is more advanced than we first thought.

“The North Korean official response has been to say that they tested a lighter bomb, one that they have been able to miniaturise. If that’s true – and that’s a big 'if' – it does materially enhance their strategic capability. It would allow them, if they so chose, to put a warhead on a ballistic missile and therefore deploy it.”

It's feared that if North Korea does successfully develop this smaller bomb, the West Coast of the US would fall within striking distance.

In spite of this growing threat from the North, residents of South Korea’s capital appeared remarkably unfazed yesterday morning. “Am I fearful? Not at all,” said 24-year-old schoolteacher Yujin. “This is the third time they have tested nuclear shit. Nothing really happened till now and nothing will happen. They just want to get attention from other countries.

“We think the media is exaggerating, and making us feel unsafe. I really don’t feel worried. It might be a false sense of security... but I don’t think so.”

For many South Koreans, this reaction is unsurprising. Like an estranged, yet patient older brother, South Korea has endured the North’s frequent tantrums for years. Thirty-five-year-old Jeachan owns a factory in Northern Seoul, less than 35 miles from the demilitarised zone separating North from South: “I haven’t got time for this, really. They are just stupid. Do you know how many times North Korea attacked South Korea after being divided?” he said. “It’s just one side reacting. The South Korean government says that they will do something about it, but they can’t because the public won’t let them.”

After a year of attempting to lead the world’s largest personality cult with what is, by all accounts, a rather uninspiring personality, the test also gave Kim Jong-Un a much needed opportunity to prove himself as a worthy leader. “Giving the military a resource that enhances their strength by extension bolsters the position of Kim Jong-Un, who at 29 years old is in some ways untried and untested,” Swenson-Wright explains.

Despite strong condemnations from NATO members and, more significantly, China, who provide 90 percent of North Korea's fuel and energy, this third nuclear test is unlikely to provoke any major reactions from world powers. The reason for this, explains Swenson-Wright, is because of the unique position that North Korea holds in the region’s geopolitical landscape.

“The only country that can truly exert real pain on the North Korean leadership – and it’s of course the leadership that should be the target of this intervention – is China. And China walks a delicate line where it on the one hand expresses its irritation with North Korea’s behaviour, and on the other hand is unwilling to do anything that might destabilise the government, because instability raises the prospect of a political vacuum emerging on the peninsula, which Americans and their South Korean allies could fill, in turn threatening China’s strategic interests.”

Ultimately, the most significant repercussions for yesterday's actions will be suffered by the ordinary people of North Korea. It’s likely that the UN Security Council will not only issue a resolution condemning the test, but also seek to impose new sanctions on a nation still recovering from a recent famine. And while this test won’t ignite a new military conflict, Kim Jon-Un’s opening nuclear gambit does provide a worrying sign that the current regime will not be willing to give up their nuclear arsenal any time soon.

Read more about North Korea on VICE:

The Vice Guide to North Korea

North Korean Labour Camps