October 10, 2006
A Quasi-Failed Test?
The North Korean test appears to have been a nuclear detonation but was fairly small by traditional standards, and possibly a failure or a partial success, federal and private analysts said yesterday.
Throughout history, the first detonations of aspiring nuclear powers have tended to pack the destructive power of 10,000 to 60,000 tons — 10 to 60 kilotons — of conventional high explosives.
But the strength of the North Korean test appears to have been a small fraction of that: around a kiloton or less, according to scientists monitoring the global arrays of seismometers that detect faint trembles in the earth from distant blasts.
“It’s pretty remarkable that such a small explosion was promptly apparent on seismometers all over the world,” said Paul Richards, a seismologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. “The detection of this was really good. You can’t hide these kinds of things, even very small tests.”
A senior Bush administration official said he had learned through Asian contacts that the North Koreans had expected the detonation to have a force of about four kilotons. Because classified information was involved and there was lingering uncertainty, he would not let his name be used.
Philip E. Coyle III, a former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon and former director of nuclear testing for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a weapons design center in California, said the small size of the test signaled the possibility of what might be described as a partial success or a partial failure.
“As first tests go, this is smaller and less successful than those of the other nuclear powers,” he said.
Perhaps the North Koreans wanted to keep it small, he added. “But if it turns out to be a kiloton or less,” Dr. Coyle said, “that would suggest that they hoped for more than that and didn’t get it.”
That's probably about right, and of course North Korea's nuclear capability would have to be weaponized as well to pose a more severe threat (though, it is true, there are cruder delivery mechanisms)--a couple years away at very least, one would surmise--particularly given this wobbly first test. Still, the risk of nuclear proliferation through Asia has been ratcheted up, with nerves on edge (Japan's new PM Shinzo Abe said the treat represented a "serious threat [that] would transform in a major way the security environment of north east Asia") and North Korea itself proliferating surreptitiously remains a real threat. So while it is not far-fetched to believe Kim Jong's test was an act born of weakness (food shortages, dearth of foreign exchange, etc)--and it appears the test didn't go particularly swimmingly--the fact remains the test constitutes a dismal failure for Western policy, both putting the lie to the Bush Doctrine (preventing the world's most dangerous regimes from getting WMD, remember?) while putting the NPT under greater and greater stress (Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are watching, of course--even more keenly than they would have given the chaos in Iraq, and Iran's rising power and own nuclear ambitions).
P.S. In the heat of the moment, one shouldn't forget that Japan going nuclear is still a very low probability, all told, although other forms of renewed militarization become likelier.
The nuclear test may prove to be an even bigger shock to public opinion” than the 1998 missile, said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political and policy analysis at Keio University in Tokyo. “It will get a minority of people here calling for Japan to build nuclear weapons.”
The most likely result of North Korea’s actions, analysts say, would be to rally public opinion around Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his calls for taking Japan in a more assertive direction. The crisis may also increase Mr. Abe’s chances of revising the Constitution to allow Japan to possess full-fledged armed forces.
There have been no calls yet here to build atomic weapons. Still, that is not a far-fetched notion. Japan is known to have stockpiles of weapons-grade atomic material, used in its civilian nuclear power and research programs, and some studies have said it would be able to construct a bomb in a matter of months.
But Mr. Sone and other analysts say that despite North Korea’s claim of a weapons test, Japanese proponents of acquiring nuclear weapons will remain a minority on the far-right fringe. Analysts say going nuclear would face broad and emotional opposition in Japan, which remains the only nation to have suffered atomic bomb attacks.
The prospect of a nuclear Japan might also send shudders through the rest of Asia, where memories of Japan’s wartime aggression are still raw. Some fear it could even set off a new Asian arms race.
PPS: And on the Chinese reaction, don't miss this piece:
China’s punctilious Foreign Ministry reserves the word hanran, which translates as brazen or flagrant, for serious affronts to the nation’s dignity by countries that have historically been rivals or enemies.
When the previous Japanese prime minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which China condemns as honoring Japan’s World War II-era militarism, he was described as “brazen.” When the United States bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Beijing called that act “flagrant.”
North Korea, a longstanding ideological ally, has had increasingly testy relations with China in recent years. But it was not until Monday, moments after North Korea apparently exploded a nuclear device, that China accused it of a “brazen” violation of its international commitments.
The wording is just one indication that a nuclear test would cross a red line for China, which has devoted years of painstaking diplomatic effort, and staked its delicate relationship with the United States, on the premise that it could deliver a peaceful, negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
That policy, Chinese analysts say, seems to have failed, and North Korea’s action leaves Beijing little choice but to take a tougher approach. But Chinese leaders still see highly punitive sanctions as unpalatable and counterproductive, and the country’s elite remains sharply divided over how far to distance China from its neighbor, and how closely to embrace the Bush administration, several senior Chinese foreign policy experts said.
I still don't see Beijing, at the end of the day, agreeing to hyper-punitive sanctions. I could be wrong on this, of course, but I just don't see it ultimately. That's probably why Chris Hill's statement today that Kim Jong "is really going to rue the day he made this decision" strikes me as not wholly plausible. Without the Chinese really stepping up, that's an elusive goal, alas. And I'm far from sure Beijing is willing to wholly ditch North Korea, so as to really team up per the U.S. approach, even given frustration about how unreliable and untrustworthy an ally North Korea is. This is particularly true given seemingly perenially fraught Sino-Japanese relations, and of course the unresolved Taiwan issue always looming too in the background.
MORE: "More fizz than pop"? See Gertz here.
Posted by Gregory at October 10, 2006 03:19 AM
"“It’s pretty remarkable that such a small explosion was promptly apparent on seismometers all over the world,”"
If it's so remarkable, isn't it more likely that it *wasn't* such a small explosion?
It's not clear what this person is responding to. Did this person make his own determination of the size of the explosion, or did the reporter provide the government's kiloton estimate, and ask for a response?
I wonder if this is this counter-propaganda.
Let as do as a moment what North Korea has done and ignore Bush's words. It's not as if they ever had much basis in anything but a passing emotional state anyway.
And let's look at North Korea. And what we could have done about them.
Well, actually, nothing.
China has found the existence of North Korea convenient. South Korea does not want to have its prosperity adversely impacted by North Korean refugees.
Frankly, we never should have staked American prestige on NORK not getting nukes. Their getting nukes is not good for the secutity of Korean peninsula, but they are of minimal threat to the United States. Our getting invovled in this situation for years and years just allowed the NORK monarchy to extort little bribes from us for their favors. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton made the initial mistake. Bush compounded it.
This is one time when the US should let others take the lead -- China and South Korea, because the North is their problem, not ours. It is not the mission of the United States to right all wrongs and enforce all international treaties. That is an imperial delusion. If China and South Korea think this is a problem, let them commit some of their resources to enforcing sanctions. If they don't, then they will pay the consequences if they are mistaken.
In order for the Chinese to be willing to really put the screws on NoKo, they're going to look for a path whereby a peaceful settlement to the standoff involves the reunification of the peninsula withint their sphere of influence -- e.g. the U.S. out of the South. Bracketing for a moment U.S. strategic interests, this is not wholly implausible -- imagine a reunified peninsula, oriented toward China on the basis of mutual hostility towardtheir "natural mutual enemy," Japan. This is the endgame Beijing is looking for, and if they think they can get there, I think they'd happily throw Kim and his nuclear ambitions under a bus.
Whether the U.S. would accept such an outcome is highly doubtful, however. It seems evident that the current policy team on Korea would rather see an ever-tenser continuation of the status quo, even if that means a nuclear-armed North Korea, than a denuclearized peninsula within the Chinese sphere of influence. And that's what the real issue in Korea is about: as reunification takes place, within whose sphere will the unified entity fall?
We are conflating a number of things here and, in my opinion, we need to examine each on its own merits. First, the detection of seismic activity is a highly developed science as it is broadly used when prospecting for oil, for monitoring earthquake activity, and for monitoring nuclear testing. The fact that this explosion was immediately detected relates to the speed at which seismic events are transmitted through the earth’s crust, and that is very fast. Moreover, the size of the event does not determine the speed of transmission, only the intensity.
Secondly, the very small size of this event, which was about twice the size of the Oklahoma bombing, about 545 tons, suggests either that the “bomb” was a dud, or that the explosion was caused by conventional explosives. Note that no radioactive blips have been detected by anyone, and NK has offered no proof that what was detonated wasn’t a few truckloads of ammonium nitrate. As I understand the matter, and I am not an expert, the physics of nuclear explosions is such that a partial explosion is unlikely and the engineering and manufacturing necessary to construct a very small device is far more sophisticated than making a larger, say 10 kiloton device. Further, pulling a bluff here is completely consistent with NK’s behavior in general. So before we put on all the sackcloth and declare the end of the world as we know it, lets keep an eye on the facts and have our reactions be proportional to what we know and what is likely.
In the hubbub of today’s political polarization, the anti-administration voices have been quick to attribute this “test” as a failure of American diplomacy. But what was that diplomacy? It was a recognition that NK was in China’s sphere of influence and that NK was a client state of China and that rather than taking the lead (by engaging in direct negotiations), we deferred to China to keep the genie in the bottle. As noted above, the language chosen for the Chinese condemnation is a good indicator that whatever China was communicating to NK on this subject, that communication was ignored. So, if there is a failure of policy, it was China’s policy and blaming the US at this point is little more than the purely academic task of sorting out what decision of what of the last four presidents impacted what. A useless task for present purposes.
China, I believe, is going to handle this. She realizes that while she is becoming an economic power, without the American markets, that process will go flat real fast. She also realizes that in the eyes of the world, she has lost face and unless she rectifies the situation, her status as a world power is diminished. Yes, China is very concerned about a flood of NK refugees, and the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis at her doorstep. She may also be concerned that the nuts in NK would provoke a military confrontation with SK as a device to assure Chinese bonding. China is also concerned about a nuclear Japan and a nuclear SK. (I think the above poster is very wrong about a nuclear reunified Korea, for were that to happen, I am certain that the Koreans would not maintain any nuclear arsenal.) So, what is the desirable result from a Chinese perspective?
1. Regime change in NK is inevitable and China will make that happen not in a cataclysmic fashion, but gradually and before the current situation gets too much further out-of-hand. 2. Reunification of the Koreas with an exodus or at least a severe reduction of the American military presence in SK and a large increase in American and Chinese humanitarian aid during the transition. 3. An agreement by Japan not to go nuclear and that might not even require an agreement. 4. China emerging as a real player on the world political stage.
The law of unintended consequences is about to take hold in NK. That cranky punk needs to get into his playpen.
Secondly, the very small size of this event, which was about twice the size of the Oklahoma bombing, about 545 tons,
You lost me right there.
NK has offered no proof that what was detonated wasn’t a few truckloads of ammonium nitrate.
545 tons of TNT. How many truckloads is that? The usual legal gross vehicle weight limit is 25,000 pounts, so that's 1,090,000 pounds of TNT or about 43 18-wheelers-worth.
Of course it's a failure of american diplomacy. Bush said he wasn't going to tolerate north korea with nukes. He didn't say he was going to recognise that it was all china's problem and he'd leave it up to china to handle it, and if china messed up it made china look bad and not us. Sheesh.
You'e talking about a unified korea with much-reduced US influence. How can you spin that as something other than another US failure?
5 years ago the USA was the only world superpower. Now we are not.
The 545 ton figure comes from widely published estimates.
Explosions are measured by the force of the blast and not the weight of the explosive materials as oppposed to bomb weights which are measured in actual weight as these have to relate to the carrying capacity of the aircraft. The Nagasaki explosion has been variously estimated at between 10 and 20 kilotons. 10 kilotons would be 20 million pounds, and there is nothing that has ever flown that can carry that much. (Incidentally, the GVW of my two axle trucks here in California is 45k, three axle trucks are around 60K and the six to ten axle trucks that are common in the mid-West are in the 150-200k GVW range. I saw such trucks in Michigan last weekend. "Go Blue." )
Whatever Bush said, he refused to engage in direct negotiations and deferred to China in all negotiations to date. Could that be any clearer as a policy? At the same time, by freezing NK assets and denying access to the international banking system and by selectively intercepting ocean shipments, the stability of the NK regime has been diminished. You need to take off your partisen blinders and recognize that this is a very complex issue where the blame is properly attributed to all of the last four presidents, including Clinton with his "Agreed Framework". What would you have had the US do during this period, invade NK? Bomb them into the stone age? Precipitate an attack on SK? Had any of those been done, the BDS folks would have gone nuts. Diplomacy takes time.
While it is possible bilateral talks would persuade North Korea to agree to another Framework deal, I think it is more likely that any bilateral talks, even on the sidelines of six-nation talks, will fail to solve the crisis for two reasons: 1) Having been granted direct talks, the NoKo's will demand the lifting of economic and financial sanctions already in place(assests and banks that enable their counterfeiting efforts) and direct aid in exchange for nuclear freeze; at which point we will be left with the possibility of deja vu all over again and 2) our regional partners (China, South Korea and Japan) will have to be sold on an agreed framework and I suspect China, South Korea and Japan will not be so willing to accept American pressure to accept the deal, which will further strain our ties with them, which is what Kim really wants. He wants direct talks so he can play nice with Uncle Sam (for a little while) in exchange for some toys and then let Uncle Sam and the rest of the adults squabble over whether giving into Kim's demands was a wise idea and wait patiently for the next go-around.