North Korea’s second nuclear test was more successful than its first and shows that the country is on its way toward full membership in a club of unofficial nuclear weapons states, U.S. nuclear specialists said Monday.
Estimates of the size of the explosion — which triggered a measurement of 4.7 compared to 4.3 after North Korea’s first test in 2006 — varied from one or two kilotons to as high as 10 or 20 kilotons.
The higher estimate would match the power and potency of the bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. In 2006, North Korea’s first nuclear test did not reach one kiloton.
U.S. intelligence officials said they were still evaluating the test.
In 2006, the Bush administration estimated that Kim Jong-il’s regime wanted an explosion in the range of 3 to 4 kilotons, said Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asia on the Bush White House National Security Council.
“Kim is trying to prove they have the capability of a successful nuclear device,” Mr. Wilder told The Washington Times on Monday following the latest underground test.
“They’re learning and they’re getting there,” agreed David Albright, a former nuclear inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. “They’re not anywhere as good as Israel but they could probably deploy a weapon on top of a Nodong missile and be fairly confident that it would work.”
The Nodong, a single stage rocket with an estimated range of 600 miles or more, is capable of reaching all of south Korea and much of Japan.
Mr. Albright estimated that the North Koreans have about 30 kilograms of plutonium left — enough for many more tests or possible sale to other nations or organizations if, as the North Koreans claim, they are using 2 kilograms per weapon.
“It is important to take this as an urgent issue,” he said. “I think the Obama administration will now.”
The test served in some ways as North Korea’s full induction into a club of powers including Israel, India and Pakistan that have nuclear weapons but are not acknowledged as weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
North Korea signed the treaty as a non-nuclear state but became the first member to withdraw from the pact in 2003 following the collapse of a 1994 accord with the United States.
“With this test nobody can deny that North Korea can make a perfectly workable bomb and they are not about to disarm,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “This evidence flies directly in the face of our presumption that somehow we can hug these people into diplomatic submission and get them to give up their bombs.”
Mr. Sokolski was referring to six-nation talks started by the administration of President George W. Bush and hosted by China. North Korea has refused to return to negotiations for nearly two years and has also rebuffed U.S. requests for bilateral talks with a special envoy, Stephen Bosworth.
In April, responding to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning a North Korean ballistic missile launch, the Korean regime said it would “never again take part in such [six party] talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks.”
North Korea then expelled international arms inspectors and announced that it would restart a reactor dismantled under a previous accord.
Nevertheless, Mr. Wilder said that he considered the talks to be a success because it got five countries with distinct interests — the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan — to unite on policy toward North Korea, urging it to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
He acknowledged, however, that the talks failed to change North Korean behavior and said it was unlikely, following Monday’s test, that North Korea would agree to join any negotiations whose end point would be shuttering its nuclear program.
What Mr. Kim wants, according to Mr. Wilder, is de facto recognition that North Korea is a nuclear power.
“He wants the next round to be not about denuclearizing Korean peninsula, but about arms control,” Mr. Wilder said. “If you were in arms control negotiations, you would be talking about limiting proliferation as opposed to shuttering the entire program.”
Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former national intelligence officer for East Asia said the test could be explained in part by North Korea’s desire to look tough during a delicate transition from Mr. Kim’s leadership to that of his son.
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Seong-taek, is being groomed as a “regent” for Kim family interests to possibly pave the way for the Korean leader’s third son, Kim Jong-un, to take power. The elder Mr. Kim is widely reported to have suffered a stroke in August.
“This may be connected with the succession in ways we don’t understand,” Mr. Bush said. “The bureaucratic group that has the strongest desire to test is the military. Is Kim Jong-il trying to insure support for his son by moving forward with nuclear and missile testing?,” Mr. Bush asked. He added however that North Korea is the most opaque regime on the planet and it was next to impossible to divine the intentions and thinking of its leaders.