Chinese soldiers patrol the North Korea-China border on April 5, 2009, one day after North Korea launched a long-range rocket
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea claims to have carried out a successful nuclear test May 25. Ever since its questionable 2006 test, the onus had been on Pyongyang to establish its nuclear bona fides. Outside confirmation of the north's claim will lag. The international community response will be strong in words but not in action.
The North Korean government claimed to have carried out a successful nuclear test May 25. Initial reports from South Korea suggest the detonation, originating near Kilju in North Korea — site of the country's first nuclear test in 2006 — registered 4.5 on the Richter scale. North Korea's first nuclear test created an explosion that registered 3.6 on the Richter scale. North Korea warned in late April that it would carry out a second nuclear test, along with additional tests of its long-range Taepodong missile (which the North Koreans call the “Unha,” or “Galaxy,” missile — which it used as a satellite launch vehicle, not a ballistic missile), in response to U.N. censure of its attempted satellite launch earlier that month. Only days before the nuclear test North Korea warned ships and aircraft to steer clear of its northeastern coast (near its nuclear and missile facilities), leading to some suspicion the North would be carrying out military exercises and short-range missile tests. Pyongyang has long used its missile tests and nuclear program as leverage to build up perceived strength prior to heading into negotiations with its neighbors and the United States. But while North Korea has held out both its nuclear and missile programs as bargaining chips, Pyongyang has also steadily eroded international commitments to stemming the North Korean developments, relying on differences of interests among its neighbors and the United States to limit international community action in response to North Korean actions. Ultimately, the programs are tools to give North Korean leaders assurances that their country will not be attacked and its leaders not overthrown by external forces. Thus far, this has proved effective. With Kim Jong Il working to shape the future leadership of the nation after his stroke in 2008, the regime has become more belligerent externally and isolationist, as it seeks to balance competing factions internally. The April missile test and the May nuclear test are both part of this pattern, as are North Korea’s more hard-line stance on joint economic projects with South Korea. Pyongyang is not likely to return to the negotiating table until after it sorts out its internal political issues — and in the meantime will continue to carry out actions that demonstrate its "independence" and strength — even while stirring up concerns in the international community. Details of the current test remain sketchy, but the initial reports suggest this was a more substantial blast than Pyongyang's 2006 test, which by some accounts was considered subcritical. North Korea's neighbors and the United States now will scramble to gather whatever information they can from seismic reports, air samples and other means to gain better insights into the progress of North Korea's nuclear program. They will also begin numerous consultations and meetings to figure out unilateral and multilateral responses, with plenty of criticism of North Korea now — but more cautious and delayed moves toward concrete action beyond additional censure and sanctions. It was important for North Korea to follow up its last 2006 test with another. Because the seismographic data was not simply inconclusive, but completely incompatible with a successful nuclear test, the burden of proof regarding establishing its nuclear abilities continued to rest on Pyongyang. While there were a number of reasons for North Korea to walk the line in 2006, the indecisive 2006 test means that the following test almost certainly would have been intended definitively to declare that Pyongyang is a nuclear power. That required a more decisive reading on the Richter scale. While final readings are not in (the results of atmospheric samples are generally classified and their implications take longer to emerge), Pyongyang has an incentive definitively to establish its nuclear capability. Only further analysis will decide North Korea was successful in this endeavor.