North Korean scientists have made considerable progress in building national nuclear capability over the past decades.
The other day the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) cited the national leader, Kim Jong-un as saying that the country has developed a hydrogen bomb to protect its sovereignty and national dignity.
How we have to interpret this statement? Have North Korean scientists really developed a hydrogen bomb?
North Korean scientists have made considerable progress in building national nuclear capability over the past decades, but there are grounds to assume that Pyongyang does not have a sufficient technology, materials, and experience to create a thermonuclear bomb any time soon. The questionable results of the nuclear tests conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2013 more confirm this doubt rather than support the possibility that North Korea will have H-bomb soon.
By the way, it took the United States, despite its much more advantageous technological and financial opportunities, over seven years to move from the first nuclear test “Trinity” in July 1945 to a thermonuclear test on November 1, 1952, when the US conducted the first successful test of a hydrogen bomb, code named “Mike.” The bomb weighed over 70 tons, and was hence too large and heavy to be delivered to the target area by any delivery vehicles available.
Another example is India which launched a nuclear weapons program decades before North Korea. New Delhi has greater technological potential and more funds than Pyongyang, and never was a part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which means it has never had restrictions. Nevertheless, it encountered problems during a test of thermonuclear weapon in 1998.
The analysis of data available on the results of the three nuclear tests conducted in North Korea suggests that the Korean scientists goal should be to create a deliverable (i.e. reasonably small) and reliable nuclear bomb (not H-bomb). As of today, it is most likely that North Korea can only produce and test nuclear devices that are too large and heavy to be delivered by the country’s missiles or aircraft. Kim Jong-un formulated the task of “miniaturizing” nuclear weapons in his speech at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on March 31, 2013, soon after the latest, at that time, nuclear test.
So, what can explain the recent statement referring to the development of an H-bomb? I see at least three reasons.
First, Pyongyang regards the United States as the main threat to its security, and nuclear weapons or nuclear capability as the only reliable protection of their national sovereignty. North Korea saw the US and its allies operations in Iraq and Libya as proof that it made the correct choice in favor of creating nuclear capability in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The top US leaders’ statements and the US actions in Northeast Asia are strengthening Pyongyang’s belief in its nuclear choice.
It is enough to mention the interview of Barack Obama to YouTube on January 22, 2015, where he said that the United States "are constantly looking for ways to accelerate” the process of the North Korean regime collapse, as well as joint military exercises of the US and South Korean armed forces in the vicinity of the North Korean borders, providing bombing practices with use of strategic bombers and amphibious operations drills aimed to capture the "administrative centers" of foreign countries.
Pyongyang interprets these statements as an infringement on its sovereignty, and hence its nuclear weapons program can be seen as an element of its deterrence policy.
Second, North Korea has been actively working in order to be recognized as de-facto nuclear-weapon state, such as Israel, India and Pakistan. This is why Pyongyang’s nuclear policy includes as an important element a ‘public relations’ strategy designed to exaggerate the progress of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. The recent signs of this strategy are demonstration of backpack (portable) nuclear weapons at military parades (for the first time this happened in July 2013), the announcement of an underwater SLBM launch from a strategic submarine on May 8, 2015, and the recent statement about the creation of a thermonuclear bomb. Despite their recent achievements in the nuclear missile sphere, it will take Pyongyang at least 10 years to translate its declared breakthrough achievements into practice.
And third, when there is demand, there is supply. Several recent studies done in the United States overstate dramatically the North Korean nuclear capability, in part to attract the Americans’ attention to the need to address the Korean nuclear issue. For example, under one of these scenarios, described in these studies, North Korea can build 100 nuclear charges by 2020.
Pyongyang certainly wants to increase ‘the effectiveness’ of these publications by making statements and activities to support them. The North Korean authorities view it as an additional way to strengthen its nuclear deterrence policy.
The above developments definitely run counter to Russia’s national security interests because they can further weaken the nonproliferation regime amid the buildup of the US military infrastructure in Asia Pacific and the strengthening of North Korea’s nuclear potential.
Therefore, Russia’s national interests can be served by the reopening of negotiations on the Korean nuclear issue as part of the broader Northeast Asian security framework. At the same time, it should be remembered that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is widely different from the crisis around Iran’s program of nuclear technology development.