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North Korean H-bomb? Not yet, but time is not on our side

The world is alarmed by North Korea’s fourth test of a nuclear weapon, its first since February 2013. The detonation, which North Korea claims was a successful hydrogen bomb, is opposed with contempt by the international community including China, the Hermit Kingdom’s closest ally. This test demonstrates North Korea’s investment in improving its nuclear arsenal; the status quo of severe sanctions and tough talk has done little to deter this effort.

Did North Korea successfully test a hydrogen bomb? Not likely. The estimated yield and seismic magnitude are too low, somewhat smaller than the 2013 test, a blast too small to be an H-bomb. A successful two-stage hydrogen bomb, which uses atomic fission to trigger a larger nuclear fusion reaction, can be between several hundred and several thousand times more powerful than the test North Korea conducted.

{mosads}This does not mean North Korea’s test is insignificant. Every test advances its nuclear weapons program. Also, North Korea likely made progress in reducing the size of its warhead to fit on a missile, solving a key challenge of building a deliverable weapon.

It is difficult to define the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, since little is known about the operational capacity of its nuclear weapons or its capability to deliver those weapons accurately and reliably. Though specifics on its arsenal are unknown, some speculate North Korea has the nuclear material for as many as 16 nuclear weapons.

North Korea has yet to test an intercontinental range missile that could hit the U.S. Nor has North Korea demonstrated its ability to build an effective reentry vehicle or shrink a nuclear weapon to fit on a delivery system.

While the size of its arsenal is shrouded in uncertainty, it is apparent that North Korea is hell-bent on expanding its nuclear force, regardless of the economic and political costs. North Korea is restricted from conducting nuclear weapons tests by several UN resolutions, and each of its previous tests has yielded a new round of international sanctions. 

In response, the United States is already preparing new sanctions and the international community has widely condemned the latest test. But past such efforts have been futile; sanctions and harsh rhetoric have done little to influence North Korea’s calculus. Instead North Korea continues its march towards more powerful and dangerous weapons, and each step makes the prospect of denuclearization more challenging. This is not a problem that can be ignored; time is not on our side.

Experts felt similarly about Iran’s nuclear program, until negotiations between the United States and its negotiating partners produced a plan to halt Iran’s progress and roll back its nuclear infrastructure. As part of this agreement, Iran recently shippednearly all of its enriched uranium to Russia, and is destroying two-thirds of its centrifuges to enrich uranium for weapons, thereby blocking Tehran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. A similar approach should be applied to the North Korea case, and the framework is already there. 

China has called for a restart of the Six-Party Talks between the Koreas, United States, China, Russia, and Japan, which have remained dormant since 2008. But for the new talks to bear fruit, two key things must occur. First, China must stop protecting North Korea. The talks will not be effective if China utilizes its veto authority in the United Nations to insulate its ally. A stable non-nuclear North Korea is in China’s interest. This should motivate China to insist on an end to this destabilizing nuclear build up. With China’s support in applying additional sanctions and pressures on North Korea’s leadership, the pariah state could be pushed back to the negotiating table.

Second, the United States must eliminate its preconditions for restarting the talks. Currently, the United States demands that North Korea accept that the ultimate objective of the talks is denuclearization, before talks may resume. This precondition has smothered negotiations and prevented a restart. Instead, the United States should agree to engage diplomatically now, while there is strong international opposition to North Korea. To remove this precondition, the United States does not forfeit the ultimate goal of denuclearization and it does not reward bad North Korean behavior. The United States does not and should not accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state. Instead, removing this precondition eliminates the unnecessary barrier to diplomatic engagement and shifts pressure onto North Korea to rejoin the talks. 

Previous attempts to denuclearize North Korea have failed, including a bilateral agreement between the United States and North Korea that collapsed in 2003 after both sides reneged on their commitments. An earlier iteration of the Six Party Talks achieved a major breakthrough in 2005 when North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear program. These talks broke down, however, over verification specifics and a North Korean missile test.

Regardless of past failures, the international community must address North Korea’s nuclear program now, before it develops nuclear capabilities that no diplomatic engagement can disarm. Multilateral talks that feature a committed China and obstacle-free terms for reinstating the negotiations offer the best chance to roll back North Korea’s program and prevent Pyongyang from conducting future tests, or worse. 

Gard is chairman emeritus of the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation. Coyle is a former assistant secretary of Defense and secretary of the center’s board. Terryn is a policy analyst at the center.


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