Explosive developments: Waking up to the H-bomb

Pakistan is the only exception in the nuclear club which has not tested the thermonuclear device

Naveed Ahmad January 07, 2016
A man watches a news report at a railroad station in Seoul on January 6, 2016, after seismologists detected a 5.1 magnitude tremor next to North Korea's main atomic test site in the northeast of the country. PHOTO: AFP

North Korea has shocked its neighbours and the world alike by claiming to have tested a hydrogen bomb, or thermonuclear bomb. Though Pyongyang has conducted three plutonium nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent one ups the ante many fold. This two-in-one bomb signifies a technological niche earlier achieved by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, India, Israel and probably France.

Pakistan is the only exception in the nuclear club, which has not tested the thermonuclear device, but in the words of scientist Dr Munir Ahmad, “We can do so in three to six year once the executive decision is made.”

North Korea says conducted 'successful' H-bomb test

Simplifying the complex jargons a bit, one can say the H-bomb combines nuclear fission and fusion to result in explosive energy far greater than that of a nuclear device of the same weight. Though the scientific and intelligence community will take a couple of weeks to determine the test’s technical parameters, we know that an earthquake of 5.1 magnitude was detected near a secretive and heavily secured region of the country.

To the proliferation observers, the East Asian nation was long suspected for developing a thermonuclear weapon. There were speculations of device testing as well.

Though China and Russia have been long-time allies of North Korea, both have publically opposed the communist nation’s nuclear ambitions. The development is being seen as a snub to China, with whom bilateral relations have not been so smooth for about a year. However, symbolism of warmth for domestic and international consumption on the national days never waned.

North Korean leader Kim’s H-bomb claim draws scepticism

Since succeeding his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has ruled his country with an iron hand while unequivocally pursuing a more jingoistic stance on regional issues.

Though Bill Clinton pursued a pro-active policy with North Korea to avert development of a possible nuclear bomb, George W Bush’s administration is being largely held responsible for handling the matter with its signature hardline and confusion both.

On October 9, 2006, Pyongyang tested its first nuclear device followed by an apology by its ruler Kim Jong II, Kim Jong-Un’s late father, for violating the commitments of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The move soon led to resumption of six-nation disarmament talks. Later in the month, the US, China and North Korea reached an agreement. Despite being marred by global sanctions, poor economy and droughts, the isolated ruler did not budge on his plans.

China 'firmly opposes' North Korean nuclear test: Beijing

Notwithstanding global condemnation along with the imposition of more sanctions, the world system stands once again challenged. The limits of diplomacy and coercion stand exposed yet again.

The North Korean test has jolted its East Asian nation’s defense arrangements. Though, South Korea and Japan have been home to US nuclear arsenal for decades, the renewed threat will raise patriotic sentiments. Given the comfort level between the US and its allies in East Asia, there’s little likelihood of South Korea and Japan converting their capability of peaceful nuclear use to deterrence against their aggressive neighbour. It must be noted that Japan and South Korea are not quite friendly and remain wary of each other’s moves.

In July 2014, Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet reinterpreted the constitution to allow the country to exercise its right of "collective self-defense", a long overdue decision in the face of growing Chinese military might. It drew Seoul’s ire then. Now, Japan is jointly developing submarines with Australia while shoring up its defensive maritime hardware. Tokyo is still bound by its post-WWII sanctions.

UN Security Council to hold emergency talks on N Korea

Development of the H-bomb comes as a nightmare for the US whose capacity to act as a global superpower has diminished considerably under the Obama administration. With unprecedented upheavals and tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, managing precarious security balance in East Asia will become ever more challenging. Washington will have to work more closely with Beijing and Moscow.

North Korea is not the only one pursuing the H-bomb route. India claimed to have tested the H-bomb in May 1998 at Pokhran, Rajasthan. The country has developed an entire city called Challakere in the state of Karnataka for thermonuclear weapons. Experts have been quoted as saying that it will be the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic-research laboratories and weapons- and aircraft-testing facilities at completion next year.

Pakistan may not follow suit and stick to further refining its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. However, failure of the international system and defiant North Korea’s precedent may lead to countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and, of course, Iran to quit the NPT.

Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360


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