Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Kim Jong-il Lays Another Egg

There is growing speculation that North Korea's "nuclear test" was, in fact, a failure. Bill Gertz of the Washington Times is quoting intelligence officials who say the evidence--so far--seems consistent with a failed test; some analysts believe the detected underground explosion may have been associated with the trigger of a nuclear device, but the actual bomb (if there was one) failed to explode.

On the other hand, some experts believe there was an actual nuclear explosion in North Korea on 9 October. Russian analysts estimated the size of the blast at roughly equivalent to 6,000 tons of TNT, the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. If that assessment is accurate, it would make the North Korean weapon slightly smaller than the Indian and Pakistani devices that were tested in the late 1990s. The Indian bomb reportedly had a yield of 10-15 kilotons, and the Pakistani device was a bit smaller. Pyongyang reportedly received nuclear assistance from Pakistan's A.Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation network, in exchange for North Korean ballistic missile technology. Given the "success" of Pakistani tests, the North Korean "failure" is a bit surprising, and suggests that Kim Jong-il's nuclear scientists--like his missile engineers--need to go back to the drawing board.

If the DPRK test was indeed a dud, it would represent the North's second high-profile failure in less than four months. On 4 July, North Korea launched a flurry of missiles from its territory, including a much-anticipated test of the long-range TD-2, capable of targeting portions of the United States. While the short-range missiles performed as expected, the TD-2 failed less than 45 seconds into its flight, exploding and falling to the ground near its launch site. Post-event analysis suggests the TD-2 suffered some sort of catastrophic failure in flight, causing it to explode. There have been no further TD-2 tests since the July failure, and by some estimates, the event may have set-back the long-range missile program by several years. Adding to the embarassment was the presence of foreign scientists and engineers at the test site, including (reportedly) an Iranian delegation.

As we noted at the time, the July missile failure was a severe loss of face for North Korea, which relies on missile technology exports for much of its hard currency earnings. That failure, coupled with Pyongyang's inability to win concessions in the Six Party talks, may have prompted Kim Jong-il to move up the date for his nuclear test, attempting to proving that North Korea has the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons, and cannot be ignored by the international community. Also influencing the test date were various North Korean anniversaries, and a desire by Kim Jong-il to win support for his son as the next leader of North Korea. It's no accident that Kim delivered a major speech on the nuclear issue to a group of senior generals just before the test. Faced with adversaries (the U.S., South Korea and Japan) that are vastly superior in terms of technology, North Korea's military brass want nukes in their arsenal. In return, Kim Jong-il wants their backing to continue his "one family rule" of North Korea.

If Mr. Kim wanted to get the world's attention (again) he succeeded. But if he hoped the alleged test would create some sort of diplomatic breakthrough, then he will likely be disappointed. So far, the diplomatic activity seems aimed at what additional steps might be taken against North Korea. Officially, China remains cool to the idea of new sanctions, but there is no doubt that Pyongyang's test was a major slap at Beijing, which has long been North Korea's principal ally and trading partner. The question now is how long China will continue to support an erstwhile ally that is plunging the region into a new nuclear arms race. As Kim Jong-il may discover, even Beijing's patience has its limits.

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