- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

North Korea’s surprise claim Wednesday that it detonated a miniaturized hydrogen bomb was the latest proof that regime leader Kim Jong-un is even less predictable than his unpredictable father, according to experts, who say the isolated, untested young leader poses a particularly difficult problem for the U.S. and its allies as he presses for an ever more menacing nuclear arsenal.

The Obama administration joined China, the European Union, NATO and other world powers in condemning the nuclear test, while raising deep doubts that the bomb represented the technological breakthrough Pyongyang claimed.

In an announcement that also prompted immediate denunciations from South Korea, which technically remains at war with the North, North Korea’s state television said “the republic’s first hydrogen bomb test” was “successfully performed at 10 a.m.” local time Wednesday. “We have now joined the rank of advanced nuclear states,” it said, adding the test was of a miniaturized device.

While there was confusion over exactly what the North Koreans had detonated, analysts generally agreed the preliminary evidence suggested the regime had carried out what would be its fourth significant nuclear test since 2006.

And just by advancing the claim of a hydrogen bomb test, North Korea left President Obama exposed to new criticism from Republicans on the campaign trail, who said the North’s declaration was in part a reflection of declining fear that Washington would retaliate in a serious way.

“This underscores the gravity of the threats we are facing right now, and also the sheer folly of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, told reporters at an Iowa campaign stop Wednesday, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the test reflected the “feckless” foreign policy of Mr. Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

SEE ALSO: North Korea says it has conducted successful hydrogen-bomb test

Pyongyang’s move also focused new attention on Mr. Kim, whose tenure since succeeding his late father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 has been marked by brutal purges at home and repeated provocations on the international stage.

Some argue the 32-year-old leader’s appetite for defying the international community is far greater than anything his father showed while presiding over Pyongyang’s opaque dictatorship from the mid-1990s until his death in 2011.

“I never thought I would see the day when people would look back on Kim Jong Il with fondness,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korean specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The unpredictability comes from Kim Jong Un’s risk tolerance. He’s younger and willing to tolerate risk much more than his father was.

“Under Kim Jong Il, there were theories about how maybe the North Koreans would trade away their nuclear ambitions for economic benefits,” Mr. Snyder told The Washington Times. “Well, the North Koreans themselves under Kim Jong Un have abandoned that. They want to be recognized as a nuclear state.”

With the younger Mr. Kim having eliminated many of his top advisers, including his own uncle, since taking power, “there’s just not an identifiable adviser who can speak truth to his power,” Mr. Snyder said.

“There’s much to be concerned about with this third-generation Kim,” added Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who headed the “six-party talks” begun under President George W. Bush in a failed bid to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

Mr. Kim is “an impetuous kid who doesn’t understand the issues he’s dealing with,” Mr. Hill said during an appearance Wednesday on CNN. “He’s not someone we want to rely on.”

International outrage

Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia fellow with The Heritage Foundation, said that prior to Pyongyang’s announcement, sensors had detected a 5.1 magnitude seismic event at the approximate location of a previous test carried out in 2013.

A former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency official, Mr. Klingner said that Pyongyang had “most likely carried out a boosted-fission test” of a device likely larger than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II — but smaller than a true hydrogen fusion bomb.

Despite the scientific debate over the power of the bomb, international outrage was swift. The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting in New York on Wednesday afternoon to consider new economic sanctions on North Korea.

“The international community must impose real consequences for the regime’s destabilizing actions,” said Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who added that the Security Council had begun working on a new resolution to impose “further significant measures” against North Korea.

But the North is already among the most sanctioned nations on the planet, and regional security analysts raised doubts Wednesday that further attempts by the U.N. to isolate Pyongyang will have much of an impact on Mr. Kim and his ambitions.

While White House spokesman Josh Earnest denounced the test as a “flagrant violation” of U.N. resolutions, he noted Pyongyang is already isolated and there is an “international unanimity of opinion that North Korea needs to end these provocations, needs to commit to a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

In one bit of irony, it was Mr. Obama’s own defense secretary who warned years ago of the growing nuclear threat from the North and once even called for preemptive U.S. military strikes to deal with the problem.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argued in 2006 — back when Pyongyang was first testing a long-range Taepodong missile capable of reaching U.S. soil — that Washington should derail the regime’s ambitions by hitting the missile before it was tested.

“This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead,” Mr. Carter wrote in an op-ed co-authored by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry. “There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.”

China’s role

The U.S. has some 30,000 troops, as well as sophisticated missile systems, stationed in South Korea. But the idea of engaging in preemptive military action has found little support, even among Mr. Obama’s sharpest critics.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump argued instead that the pressure should be applied on China — widely seen to be North Korea’s lone ally in North Asia — to be more assertive in containing Pyongyang.

“It’s about time that China now gets involved with the North Korea problem,” Mr. Trump said during an appearance on Fox. “China has total control. Believe me, they say they don’t, [but] they have total control over North Korea.”

Top Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders agreed, with Mr. Sanders saying on ABC that “China is North Korea’s closest ally” and should “push North Korea to start adhering to international agreements.”

But some analysts say Washington shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for Beijing to act.

“Sure, China has the ability to shut off North Korea’s economic oxygen,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. But the reality over the past decade, he said, is that “the Chinese have upped their economic support for North Korea and imposed no penalties.”

China has been providing a kind of diplomatic cover for Pyongyang,” he said. “Does this mean the Chinese government consists of diplomatic imbeciles? Or that we should perhaps be looking at what the Chinese government does rather than what it says to see what its true intentions are?

“Maybe,” Mr. Eberstadt added, “the Chinese government, on balance, is happy to have a North Korea state [that] causes more problems for the U.S. alliance in the region than it causes for China.”

Dave Boyer and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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