On Oct. 9, North Korea announced it had conducted an underground test of a nuclear device. The claim triggered renewed speculation about how a successful test might affect the balance of power in Asia and throughout the world. Julian Palmore, director of the UI's Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security, discussed the situation prior to his participation Oct. 12-15 at a Wilton Park conference on "The Future of Nuclear Deterrence in the North Atlantic Alliance" in Steyning, West Sussex, United Kingdom.
First of all, how are outside observers able to determine whether or not the test was actually a success?
Seismic activity is one way to determine that an underground explosion occurred at a particular time and in a particular region. The signal generated by the explosion can be detected at many locations around the world, and by analysis, the magnitude of the event and the approximate location can be determined. Different types of activity - such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, conventional explosions and nuclear explosions - have different signatures. Whether the explosion was actually due to a nuclear device could be determined by several methods. Any radiation leakage into the atmosphere could be detected, even at low levels. The type of radiation would immediately identify the type of fission device using either uranium or plutonium. The seismic signal, duration and magnitude itself would place the explosion on a scale, that - were it large enough - would separate conventional (non-nuclear) from nuclear. News reports have indicated an explosive yield of 500 tons (of TNT) to 12-15 kilotons (thousand tons of TNT). The largest conventional explosion was carried out at White Sands Missile Range years ago. It was a surface blast of about 3 to 5 kilotons intended to mimic the blast effect of a nuclear explosion. So a yield of 12-15 kilotons by itself would strongly suggest a nuclear blast.
If the North Koreans did indeed succeed at their goal, what are the some of the more immediate military and political ramifications - for Asia, as well as for the rest of the world?
First of all, a nuclear test is significant in that it shows the level of nuclear development that the North Koreans have achieved. Clearly, this test is a data point that can be used to clarify Western intelligence estimates of development timelines and levels of activities in enrichment and separation of nuclear materials such as plutonium. This is extremely important.
Secondly, it does not by itself imply the development of a nuclear weapon with delivery system. But it is enough to alarm the entire region: South Korea, Japan and other countries. Nuclear weapons carried on missiles have to be miniaturized and the rockets must be reliable. The missile program in North Korea has failed twice to demonstrate a long range capability: once in 1998 and again within the past year. In both cases, long-range rockets were tested and failed, falling into the sea. Their short range SCUD-type rockets have been tested extensively.
Thirdly, North Korea may claim to have now joined the "nuclear club," but that remains to be seen. India and Pakistan have both developed nuclear (possibly thermonuclear) weapons and are recognized as members along with the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
What are your thoughts on how the world should respond to the situation?
There are several responses: diplomacy through the United Nations, imposition of sanctions, reducing energy supplies to North Korea and military action.
Diplomacy is an option, through the United Nations for economic sanctions, and for restarting the six-party talks that might be expanded to include other nations. Sanctions could be put in place to immediately impose economic restraints on North Korea. North Korea is a known proliferator of ballistic missiles so that can be further impeded through the Proliferation Security Initiative. China is in a critical position to interfere with North Korean activities by interrupting energy supplies, which it provides to North Korea. Such actions might lead to unintended counter actions on the part of the North Koreans.