Today, North Korea conducted (unconfirmed) its third nuclear test. This is significant for one main reason. This will prolong the Korean Cold War for some time to come. This Cold War that exists on the Korean Peninsula is a thorn that just won’t go away and in all honesty, unless The People Republic of North Korea has a change of heart. There is little we can do about it.
For the most part, North Korea is an enigma wrapped in state trappings, surrounded by lies. Very little information is gleamed for non classified use by the intelligence agencies and most of what is classified is spotty at best. Secrecy is paramount even amongst the North Korean command structure and their electronics are not as advanced as other countries so very little high profile traffic is received. That means that most of what is intercepted as to be analyzed and pieces of the puzzle assembled even when there is no idea what the final picture is supposed to look like. So the question easier to ask what we know than what we don’t know.
When it comes to the nuclear side of things we can pretty much bank on the fact that the nuclear detonation, if that is really what it is and there are doubts, was from a uranium and not a plutonium device. While I have no doubt the knowledge for a implosion device is there. The facilities and manufacturing base doesn’t seem to be all that far along. The facilities that worked with plutonium has only recently in the last few years been rehabilitated and even with stockpiled plutonium it would seem less prudent to use that to test since it is in limited qualities and when the facilities were up and running the production was small. Also, uranium is easier, relatively speaking, to extract and weaponize on a per bomb basis than plutonium. To put it in a nutshell, you don’t need a reactor to produce enough uranium for a bomb but plutonium needs a reactor to produce in large enough amounts. Further, uranium can be fashioned into a crude atomic weapon with out large industrial gas centrifuges if there is enough of the high grade ore to be used. This contrasts with Iran that has a cascading centrifuge facility that is at the heart of the issue with that country.
So if this is indeed a new test there are several things we can gleam from this fact. 1. It was a uranium device with something in the tactical yield range and not a strategic weapon system. By that I mean it is more than likely not a thermonuclear weapon that was tested with delivery components so that it can be placed in a delivery mechanism. It was probably a “dry test”. Where the bomb was not militarized for deployment. While it will help their scientists get to that point it will take them a good while to review the data, solve any issues and then they will have to repeat the test till they can develop the system to be married to a delivery system. Which as we have seen, the delivery system is also requiring more testing and development. At the outset we have several more years before the dangers of a full blown attack on either South Korea or the United States can be realized.
What is more important is the fact that as a combined coalition against North Korea there is very little we can do to stop them from proceeding along this path. China is more afraid of the United States having an ally on their border than they are of the North Korean’s being nuclear. This is why they would never allow nor support any military action that could threaten the downfall of North Korea. Also, China would never support any type of regime change that could change the nature of the Chinese/North Korean relationship. This does not mean that the Chinese support a unified Korean peninsula with North Korea in charge. As China discovered with Vietnam, having a country with a mind of its own on its border is not something they prefer.
Overall, this means that China is the reason why we can’t solve the problem with North Korea. What it does mean is that China will have to deal with North Korea soon or it will drag China into a war with either other Asian states or the United States. Therefore the response from China on this new atomic test will help indicate which way China is leaning. Either to solve the problem or once more paying lip service but maintaining the status quo. They have to do something, North Korea isn’t going to go away any time soon.