The North Koreans detonated a nuclear device in February, apparently their third. Based on seismographic measurements, its estimated yield was 10 to 20 kilotons, about that of the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. It’s unlikely that the North Koreans simply mass-detonated a great deal of conventional explosive. The seismic signals from such an event apparently would differ from those produced by a nuclear explosion because it would be nearly impossible to trigger all of the explosives simultaneously enough. The U.S. Air Force sent in a specialized nuclear “sniffer” aircraft to collect air samples after the explosion. They may provide evidence of the character of the device. Reportedly this explosion was double the magnitude of the last one, which in turn was much more powerful than the first. Pakistani and Indian nuclear tests also have produced only limited yields, enough to cause serious damage, but nothing on the scale produced by the declared nuclear powers.
It is doubtful that the North Korean device is small enough to be lifted by the long-range missile the country recently tested. With only three tests under their belts, the North Koreans are probably still learning how to produce viable weapons rather than devices. They may see nuclear tests more as a way of gaining respect and attention. Unless North Korea presents a viable threat to the outside world, why deal with it? The North Koreans have learned that it pays to flaunt violations of the rules the United States and others try to impose. Moreover, new leader Kim Jong-un must demonstrate assertiveness to his colleagues, many of whom undoubtedly would like to replace him.
Weapons and their technology are North Korea’s main exports. One report had Iranians present at the most recent North Korean test. Pyongyang’s latest offering may be plutonium extraction from used reactor fuel rods. According to recent reports, Iran has activated a heavy-water plant (steam from the plant is visible in commercial satellite photographs). Satellite photographs also show heavy air defenses arrayed around the plant, albeit using obsolete weapons such as the Iranian upgrade of the U.S. Hawk system. The only plausible purpose of such a plant would be to provide the moderator of a home-grown reactor, which could produce plutonium.
Presumably the Iranians do not expect to be able to process the fuel rods from the power reactor provided by the Russians, which is now either operating or about to go on line. A reactor could operate using moderately enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The Iranian program has probably already produced uranium enriched to the necessary point. That in turn would limit the effect of attacks (such as computer attacks) on the enrichment system. It should be pointed out that other moderators, such as graphite, can be used. The international sanctions may have made it difficult for the Iranians to obtain sufficient quantities of pure enough graphite.
The North Korean leadership has long seen the outside world as a threat. The threat includes military invasion, but the invasion of ideas and the demonstration that there is an alternative to the terrible condition of the country presents a much greater danger. This perception makes it unlikely that the current North Korean regime will ever accept a relaxation of tensions, which it would have to communicate to its own population. While the North Korean leadership would surely like access to Western resources, they would not welcome public access to Western ideas and realities.
A Different Threat
This is nothing really new. What is new is that China is nearly as much of a threat to the North Korean regime as we are. The Chinese have not truly accepted either capitalism or political freedom, but they have accepted a large enough measure of both for their example to be deeply unsettling in Pyongyang. The Chinese joined Western powers in warning the North Koreans against their third nuclear test, and a semi-official Chinese newspaper later wrote that North Korean defiance was destroying the Chinese connection that had kept North Korea alive. There was some press speculation that the North Koreans might now turn to the West, deserting China.
To some extent the Chinese may fear that by adopting nuclear weapons, North Korea will justify similar moves by Japan. The Japanese are uncomfortably aware that ultimately North Korea will have nuclear missiles capable of hitting targets in Japan. They are surely also aware that many Koreans hate Japan both because of its unpleasant colonial treatment of the country from 1904-45, and because of particular World War II atrocities such as forcing Korean women into prostitution for Japanese soldiers (as “comfort women”). The animosity is deep enough that one might wonder whether the North Korean rulers see their bomb as the dowry in a possible future marriage with South Korea, which could certainly deliver it. The Japanese may feel somewhat nervous that the South Koreans have announced development of a sea-launched Tomahawk-like cruise missile, to be deployed on board destroyers and submarines, and also ashore. Its range far exceeds what would be needed to hit targets in North Korea.
In contrast to North Korea, Japan has a massive civilian nuclear industry and great technological resources. It already builds satellite-launching rockets equivalent to ICBMs, though not used for that purpose. If Japan were to go nuclear, it could quickly create an effective deterrent against not only North Korea but also China. Beijing’s hopes for gaining preeminence in Asia would be crushed. Keeping Japan in check is probably a prime Chinese foreign policy aim. To further complicate the situation, World War II is a major theme used to justify the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese are reminded of Japanese aggression and atrocities, and they are also reminded that Mao’s Communist army resisted effectively. It does not help that the Japanese have not apologized credibly for their actions, including the horrific massacre in Nanjing. Nor does it help that the theme of the main Japanese war memorial, the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo (which is visited by Japanese prime ministers) is that Japan’s war was a noble attempt to liberate Asia from the West.
In the past, the Chinese government has backed North Korea despite its unpleasantness. It sees North Korea as a Communist bulwark against a capitalist government on its border. Vietnam is a similar bulwark. Although many Chinese citizens travel abroad, the prospect of the West a short railroad or car ride away is unsettling. That may seem odd, given how capitalist China has become.
Power or Prosperity?
However, there is another way of seeing China. Government has two rather different faces. One is the desire to stay in power; the other is to maintain the nation, which often means to maintain the national economy. Democracies like ours unite the two, which is why we miss the reality that they do not have to match up. That is, we generally vote for those we think will do their best for us. However, some governments use nationalism and hopes of national glory to stay in power. They behave in ways we may find irrational.
To remain in power the Chinese Communist Party relies mainly on two arguments. One is that it maintains prosperity. The other is that it has overcome more than a century of foreign humiliation, of which Japanese aggression in World War II was the worst. It has ignited passionate Chinese nationalism. The party’s problem is that with prosperity has come massive corruption, which in turn undermines support for it. It is increasingly pointed out within China that corruption is an inevitable feature of one-party government. Thus the prosperity on which the party relies to justify its power is very much a double-edged sword. The party may find itself forced to choose between power and national prosperity—and there cannot be all that much question as to which it would prefer. If it had to choose power through repression, it would want to be able to control its borders. Compatible regimes on those borders would matter a great deal.
This may seem very abstract. In 1950, as China emerged from a devastating civil war, Mao explained to his party why it was an excellent idea to put Chinese troops into the Korean War. It was not to preserve a friendly government on the border. Rather, a war would smoke out anyone not sufficiently enthusiastic about Mao’s regime. This conclusion comes from Chinese scholars trying to understand why Mao took the chance that he did. Why wasn’t he more interested in rebuilding China? He acted in much the same way when he ignited the Cultural Revolution in 1965. Again, when the choice was prosperity or political power, Mao chose political power. The current Chinese regime has never faced this rather unfortunate past.
In 2013, some writers are asking whether we are living through an eerie reflection of 1913: is the world about to explode into an irrational war that will destroy all of us? Is 2014 when the Chinese Communist Party will decide that prosperity is not worth losing power?