The pressing question the world is now asking is if North Korea did develop a hydrogen bomb, would they ever use it? Is Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un really that dangerous?
In what now seems a chilling New Year message, he threatened ‘a merciless sacred war of justice’ if North Korea suffered the slightest provocation from its several enemies.
Might ‘sacred war’ involve using nuclear weapons, and perhaps a hydrogen bomb (if North Korea really has one)? We just don’t know. What we do know is that in the space of a week the world is already a more dangerous place.
It is deeply worrying that North Korea has fission-based nuclear weapons, writes Britain’s former ambassador to the reclusive nation (pictured, North Korean state TV announcing bomb test)
North Korea today claimed it had conducted a ‘successful’ hydrogen bomb test, triggering a 5.1 magnitude earthquake
Right now, geologists and nuclear scientists will be poring over the seismic data from North Korea, desperately trying to work out whether the device that caused an explosion with a magnitude of 5.1 yesterday morning really was — as the North Koreans claim — a hydrogen bomb.
But to an extent, whatever they discover doesn’t really matter. It is quite worrying enough that North Korea has ‘traditional’ fission-based nuclear weapons. Although the blast from these is less than from a hydrogen bomb, would it really matter whether a city is blasted into rubble or into dust?
In any case, if the North Koreans don’t have an H-bomb yet, they will certainly keep trying to develop one.
And if it could be ‘militarised’ so that it can be carried by a missile launched from a submarine (and that’s a big ‘if’) then the unthinkable — such as an attack on one of the big cities on the Western coast of America — becomes a real possibility.
Test launches by North Korea of submarine-borne missiles have so far ended in failure, but they won’t fail for ever. If and when they do succeed, and if they manage to build a sufficiently small nuclear warhead to fit on a missile, then they might be able to threaten anywhere from Seattle to San Diego with nuclear attack.
We are probably not at that stage yet, but the North Koreans will continue to strive towards it.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (pictured) threatened ‘a merciless sacred war of justice’ if North Korea suffered the slightest provocation from its several enemies
North Koreans watch a news broadcast on a video screen outside Pyongyang Railway Station as the state confirmed that their detonation of a thermonuclear weapon had been a ‘perfect success’
As the former British ambassador to North Korea, I was in Pyongyang when they began their nuclear testing programme in 2006, in the face of almost total international opposition.
The North Koreans are a proud and patriotic people with a genuine sense of grievance against foreign powers that, they feel, never give them a fair chance. That first test was received with great excitement and pride in the country’s technical prowess. That, of course, was just what the regime wanted.
But then I saw how quickly this excitement turned to dismay as reports began to filter through — overcoming official censorship and media control — of just how much Kim’s nuclear programme was costing this still desperately poor country.
Three years ago, the programme’s cost was estimated at around $3billion, and it has obviously risen still further.
In a country where the capital’s scrupulously clean streets do now offer restaurants and coffee shops for a wealthy elite, but where the rural poor are often short of food, that sort of money would buy an awful lot of rice. I suspect that reactions to this fourth test will go through the same phases.
So why did Kim Jong-un carry out this test? The reasons will be complex, but in essence Kim Jong-un seems, at least for now, to have decided that confrontation is going to get him more of what he wants in terms of international leverage and status than diplomatic negotiation. As North Korean television said yesterday, ‘the way to peace does not lie across a dirty conference table’.
North Korea today conducted a ‘successful’ hydrogen bomb test at the Punggye-ri test site
Last month, Kim Jong-Un had suggested Pyongyang had already developed a hydrogen bomb – although the claim was greeted with scepticism by international experts
Footage from the Chinese county of Yanji (pictured), more than 100 miles away from where North Korea detonated the bomb, showed the highway shaking from an alleged earthquake
Pictures from the same area near China’s border with North Korea showed cracks developing on the ground as a result of the blast
There may, however, be good reason for his bellicose confidence. Pyongyang has nuclear shelters — just as Britain did during the tensest days of the Cold War.
Famously, Pyongyang’s deep metro system was built to double as just such a collection of shelters. Every now and then, the city’s obedient population are herded into them in yet another rehearsal for a nuclear attack.
Are these shelters for the general population big enough? Perhaps. More importantly, are they deep enough to survive a nuclear blast? Nobody knows.
What we do know, though, is that North Korea’s leadership have access to a deep tunnel complex that would make the Tora Bora tunnels of Afghanistan — where Osama bin Laden is said to have hidden after the 9/11 attacks — look like a winter sink-hole in the Home Counties.
The North Korean leadership has had years to prepare for an attack. These tunnels will almost certainly be big enough and deep enough for the country’s political elite to survive one or more nuclear blasts.
The truly worrying thing, then, is that if Kim Jong-un believes he can survive a nuclear attack or counter-attack, then he may well be willing to press his own nuclear button. That was bad enough when he just had a nuclear bomb; it would be worse should he now have access to the more powerful H-bomb.
South Korean soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fence in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, as tensions in the regions escalate over North Korea’s reported test of a hydrogen bomb
A laboratory employee from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety’s regional office in Gangneung, east of Seoul, checks for radioactive traces in the air in Gangneung
It seems that he is prepared to risk even his relationship with China, North Korea’s only ally and a vital economic partner, in order to develop ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction.
Only three months ago, relations between the two countries seemed warm and friendly, with China — which has always rather soft-peddled when it comes to international sanctions against North Korea — sending one of its most senior politicians to the celebrations in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Ruling Workers’ Party.
The Chinese went out of their way to sound supportive — making all the right noises about economic co-operation and increased levels of aid.
What was left unsaid, however, was the very clear political subtext — that in return for this increased economic support, China, a member of the UN Security Council and therefore opposed to nuclear proliferation, expected a level of control over North Korea’s behaviour, particularly when it came to its nuclear programme.
For two months, it seemed as if Kim Jong-un was happy to go along with this, even arranging for his favourite home-grown girl group, the Moranbong Band, to embark on an official tour of China.
But on the very day the girls departed, Kim Jong-un announced, albeit to a disbelieving world, that North Korea had developed an H-bomb. (Those shocked by yesterday’s test reports can’t say they weren’t warned.)
The nuclear test, which caused an earthquake that was measured by the United States Geological Survey, was ordered by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (pictured)
John Everard, a former British Ambassador to North Korea, says the country is dangerous whether it does or does not have a H-bomb (pictured, a mass rally in Pyongyang to mark Kim New Year Address)
Now, he has escalated tensions still further by claiming to have tested the bomb, again without giving the Chinese any advance warning at all (although the North Koreans had carefully given the Chinese notice of their previous tests).
In a terse statement, the Chinese confirmed this lack of notification yesterday, going on to pledge their co-operation with the international community in its efforts to rid the entire Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons (which means the North — there have been no nuclear weapons in South Korea for decades).
The Chinese are clearly and understandably very angry. They don’t want Kim Jong-un’s provocative behaviour to prompt the Americans to increase their military presence in South Korea.
They know that if a shooting war ever restarted on the Korean peninsula, the North Koreans would invoke their alliance with China to ask for Chinese military support. There would be no enthusiasm in Beijing for this.
Neither do the Chinese want North Korea’s policy of aggressive confrontation to disturb the already delicate political and military balance in this increasingly territorial part of the world.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at his official residence in Tokyo. He strongly criticised the actions of North Korea and Kim Jong-Un
It’s notable that relations between South Korea and Japan, both close U.S. allies, have grown notably warmer in recent months, which will not have pleased China, which hopes for a loosening, not a tightening, of ties between the Asian democracies.
It may be that this latest alarm will blow over, but we can be sure that Kim Jong-un’s scientists will continue to try to develop both a hydrogen bomb and the means to deliver it.
If they ever succeed, the world will immediately become a much more dangerous place.
n John Everard was British ambassador to North Korea from 2006-08 and is former co-ordinator of the UN Security Council committee on sanctions against North Korea.