The Corner

National Security & Defense

North Korea’s H-Bomb Test Is a Risk-Raising Nuclear Game Changer

If North Korea’s claim of having tested a hydrogen bomb holds up, then East Asia’s nuclear risk has gone up a magnitude. Mastering the technology of a fusion weapon is not easy, and skepticism abounds that the impoverished, isolated regime in Pyongyang has actually made the leap from fission to potential megaton yields. Yet foreign skepticism of North Korea often winds up confirming Pyongyang’s claims. If there is one thing the Kim regime is successful at, it is in aggressively pursuing capabilities that both deter its adversaries from contemplating employing the kind of pressure that could weaken the regime, and also use its new-found strength for blackmailing concessions from the United States, South Korea, and Japan, among others. 

Whether Pyongyang intends to demand a new round of negotiations, so as to give the fiction that it might give up its new H-bomb capability, it is wise for Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to consider the strategic and operational implications of a North Korean H-bomb. After all, even if today’s announcement is disproved, Pyongyang one day likely will get a fusion weapon. The test should be a spur for Seoul and Tokyo to begin serious, meaningful discussions both bilaterally and with the Washington on cooperation to deal with this new danger.

An H-bomb makes North Korea an existential threat to South Korea and Japan. Just a single weapon of megaton-yield detonated over Tokyo or Seoul could effectively destroy the economies and government of the two nations, not to mention wipe out significant percentages of their population. Obviously, a North Korea that has mastered the technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles is also a threat of the gravest order to the United States, as well as any other nation in Asia within range of its rockets.

To counter this threat, several steps must be taken. First, at the most basic level, once confirmation of the test is made, the U.S. and its allies must determine if North Korea’s H-bomb is indigenous, or whether Pyongyang received help in its development, perhaps from a new A.Q. Khan–style nuclear bazaar. That will help in calculations of whether North Korea can quickly and easily weaponize its fusion program, or whether this test is simply the beginning of a long scientific process that will not see an actual military threat emerge for some time. 

Second, regardless of the state of the North Korean fusion program, early warning systems must be increased among all allied nations in the region, including increased satellite coverage, radar stations, and the sharing of real-time information. Avoiding strategic surprise is vital, especially if North Korea has mastered fusion technology.

Third, as North Korea continues to move to weaponization of its H-bomb, along with its fission (atomic bombs), Washington must plan to increase its funding of ballistic missile defenses both at home and in the region. Destroying any North Korean missiles in early phase of launch (the boost phase, when they are traveling more slowly) is the best bet for defense, but using maritime-based Aegis anti-ballistic missile defense system for short- and intermediate-range missiles in the “midcourse” phase is where South Korea and Japan have focused most of their efforts, along with PAC-3 ground-based defenses. All these will need to be upgraded and their numbers increased.

Fourth, the allies must make a declaratory statement that any North Korean ICBM that is loaded with a nuclear warhead and fueled for launch will be destroyed immediately. It is difficult to determine if a warhead is on a missile, though flying drones low over suspected missile sites can give radiation readings. Doing so could cause North Korea to consider that an act of war, so the declaratory doctrine needs to be clear and unambiguous. To back it up, then, the U.S. will have to be willing to base B-2 bombers closer to North Korean territory, along with F-22s, so as to ensure stealth operations against the North’s antiquated radar and air-defense systems. When the next generation bomber and the F-35 are deployed, then those, too, need to be added to the mix, as well as sea-launched cruise missiles and B-52, with stand-off air-to-surface missiles. 

There will be other steps needed, but rushing back to the negotiating table is not one of them. The Obama administration all but ignored Pyongyang during its time in office. This may have had the benefit of avoiding the mistakes of the Bush Administration, whose concessions to the North enabled its nuclear program, but it also meant that Pyongyang got a breather for seven years to work on the most horrifying weapons known to man. Yesterday’s test, if it was so, is a reminder that not doing anything can be as risky as over-reacting.

The Kim regime is focused above all on survival. That may make their actions “rational,” at least from their point of view. Yet an aggressive nation that has attacked its neighbors cannot be trusted not to use the ultimate weapon, either for blackmail or operationally, due to a calculus that we cannot understand. There are no good options when it comes to North Korea, many diplomats are fond of saying. It may now be the case that there are no good defenses, either. 

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