By Rajiv Nayan
On the morning of 6 January, North Korea stunned the world by announcing that it had conducted a miniaturised hydrogen bomb test or thermo-nuclear device test. This test was conducted at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Several monitoring stations recorded this ‘man-made seismic event at the 5.1 magnitude’. According to the North Koreans, the test was a response to an aggressive United States. North Korean Television also announced: “We will not surrender our nuclear arms, even if the sky is falling.”
Reactions ranged from disbelief to acknowledgement that this was a long time coming. Several experts expressed scepticism about the authenticity of the news. The basic argument of this group was that North Korea does not have the capability to manage fission or what is generally considered a nuclear weapon, leave alone develop a hydrogen bomb. Some leading analysts are of the opinion that it could turn out to be a lower-yield ‘boosted explosion’, not the real hydrogen test. In this kind of test ‘hydrogen isotope tritium undergoes partial fusion, allowing them to describe the device as a hydrogen bomb’. This expression may be just a case of optimism in an odd situation.
To an extent, we may tend to agree with the view point that North Korea on its own may not conduct this kind of test. However, it needs to be remembered that the same scepticism was expressed when the country threatened to develop nuclear weapons. Finally, in 2006, it conducted a verified nuclear test and subsequently, it performed two more tests, in 2009 and 2013.
The whole world knows that North Korea has benefited from the proliferation network. At that time, too, it did not have the capability to develop nuclear weapons on its own but the network provided it the required enrichment technology. Of the network countries, only China has demonstrated the capability to develop a thermonuclear device. Pakistan publicly admitted that it had not tested hydrogen bomb because it did not possess the capability to develop one.
If the announced test is of a hydrogen bomb, there is a great possibility that the proliferation network is still alive, and China is still the kingpin of this network. The proliferation network has become too sophisticated to be detected. The US has the greatest capability to really gather information on such sophisticated technology. But it seems to have lost the will to confront China directly. Even the western media is downplaying the role of China.
China’s condemnation of the test is being projected. The British media has reported that the British foreign minister and the Chinese leaders are seriously debating the mechanics of dealing with the situation in the wake of the test. The western leaders must run a reality check. The North Korean test could be a proxy exercise. As Pakistan does not want to come under pressure and China does not want to overtly appear a defiant country, they are using North Korea as a country to undertake tests for them. Such tests may continue in the future as well.
The global nuclear order will be tested. The international community may have to think about this extended deterrence which is going to affect the regional and at least extra-regional security arrangements. Some argue that as North Korea does not possess an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) it may not affect security or the deterrence structure of the US. Such an analysis is dismissive of extended deterrence, and China is a partner which possesses ICBMs.
India should not be a mute spectator to such a development. It must review its security and strategic options. The proliferation network that is feeding the weapons development programme of North Korea passes through India’s neighbourhood. A question mark on the success of its hydrogen bomb test has been raised. Even if India does not conduct nuclear tests immediately, it should weigh the options for doing so in the future.
Moreover, India must undertake serious strategic and diplomatic exercises with all important stakeholders affected by the test. It needs to ask the western world to pay more serious attention to the development. As of now, the western world seems to have outsourced the task of managing North Korea to China. It is a clear deception. China is using North Korea as its pawn and proxy in the great game. India may even propose South Korea and Japan to play a far more active role in the mediation and negotiations to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.
The author is senior research associate, The Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.