Pyongyang’s widely-reported hydrogen bomb test on Wednesday has unsurprisingly drawn flak from across the world. The response from the media in neighbouring South Korea was a combination of concern, denunciation, skepticism and ridicule. Here’s a sample:
Most Korean dailies including The Korea Times led with President Park Geun-hye’s statement, which referred to the test as a ‘serious challenge’. "The government will seek to get the North to face UN sanctions and firm counteraction from allied nations, including the United States,” she threatened and added, “If provoked, the South will firmly retaliate against the North's provocations.”
The newspaper also tapped into the sentiment of common South Koreans, who slammed North Korea and slightly less expectedly, also criticised Seoul and its National Intelligence Service (NIS) for their failure to anticipate the tests. The report quoted a variety of internet users, including one who said, “The North pours almost its entire national budget into the weapons development program while its people are starving to death in the streets”
Another user was quoted as saying, “What did the NIS do? How are we supposed to sit quiet and feel safe, when we can't be sure of the possibility of a bomb going off at any given moment?”
But were there any warning signs?
As it turns out, there were. The Chosun Ilbo had carried a report two days before the test in which it cited a 2 December, 2015 analytical piece by 38 North, a website under the purview of the US-Korea Institute at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. According to 38 North, satellite imagery strongly indicated that Pyongyang was in the process of ‘excavating a new tunnel for nuclear testing at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site’. This indicates that there may be more tests in the pipeline.
A Korea Herald report carried a broader critique of Seoul’s entire policy on Pyongyang.
“Seoul has not been active enough to tackle the nuclear issue so far,” Korea Herald quoted Park Won-gon, security expert at Handong Global University, as saying, adding, “Seoul has long called for Pyongyang’s sincerity. But the North cannot be a country from which we can anticipate sincerity.”
Reminding its readers that North Korea had in the past conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, the newspaper warned that it must now be viewed very differently. Park was quoted in another report as saying that the country must be seen as a ‘de facto nuclear power’ given its stockpiles and capabilities “although the international community does not recognise it as such”.
Despite this cautious stand, most newspapers questioned the authenticity of Pyongyang’s claims.
Citing the fact that a hydrogen bomb would have created a greater impact than the one caused by Wednesday’s test, The Korea Times cited a report submitted to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee by the NIS that stated, “The energy released during the North's last nuclear test in 2013 was 7,900 tons of TNT. Today's test was only 6,000 tons… If their claim was true, released energy from the test would be at least dozens of kilotons."
Meanwhile, Korea Herald also referred to the same report, and quoted intelligence officials who said that it was ‘difficult’ to tell for sure whether or not it was an H-bomb. They are quoted as saying though that while this may not have been the real deal, it’s a step in that direction: A ‘boosted fission bomb’ to be precise — which is also called a 1.5-generation nuclear bomb as opposed to the hydrogen bomb which is a second-generation bomb.
Some reports in the South Korean media are looking into the future, specifically, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland from 20 to 23 January. The Hankyoreh points out that this is the first time a North Korean official will be attending the forum in 18 years. A desperate need for foreign investment has Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong all set to make the trip to Davos. However, the report cautions that Pyongyang’s focus on nuclear weapons is likely to act as a major deterrent to any foreign investors.
The Chosun Ilbo, in the meantime, took a more oblique view of this development. Apparently, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s schooling in Switzerland — between the early 1990s and 2000 — led to him acquiring a certain taste for Swiss-made luxury goods, including the Movado watches reportedly sported by Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju.
The report concludes that Kim “also seems to have tried to persuade dairy producers to make Emmental-style cheese, but experiments failed and he now has to import the genuine article”.
Just what everyone needs on a day when North Korea reportedly tested an H-bomb: Imported cheese.