When the whimsical leader of a hermit state declares that he wants to start the new year with a bang, the jury is out on the scale of the fireworks on show. When said hermit state is North Korea and the leader Kim Jong-un, expect a signed document saying he wants to open “the year with [the] exciting noise of the first hydrogen bomb!” Wednesday morning, at 10 am Pyongyang time, the USGS detected a 5.1 earthquake close to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, prompting suspicion of an underground test. This was followed by a DPRK state TV announcement hailing the country’s first and “successful” test of a hydrogen bomb.
It will take a few days to confirm the claim. Given Pyongyang’s reported difficulties in developing a fission weapon since its first test in 2006, it’s not impossible this miniaturised fusion bomb is just a “fission booster” — a small-scale fusion that boosts the fission process — but isn’t a hydrogen bomb. Yet, global alarm is wholly justified. North Korea is a runaway nuclear-weapon state. If a thermonuclear device is added to that fact, the picture gets scarier. A hydrogen bomb is hundreds of times more powerful than an atomic bomb and its detonation involves two near-simultaneous nuclear explosions — one fission, the other fusion; the former triggering the latter. Thus, old nuclear powers
have shuddered at the hydrogen bomb. If confirmed, Pyongyang’s bomb would violate UN resolutions.
South Korea and Japan have underscored the existential threat posed to them. Unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem remotely eager to trade nukes for international legitimacy. Meanwhile, his stockpile has grown to at least a dozen — enough to devastate South Korea and Japan. The longer the time lapse, the bolder Kim’s regime becomes. China, North Korea’s only friend, will be called upon to use its leverage — if there’s any left — to bring Kim to the table. The advantage, certainly, is in the dictator’s hands.