February 12, 2013 11:22 am

Q&A: North Korea’s nuclear progress

Was this test successful?

North Korea hailed it as a big success, claiming the device was smaller and lighter than those tested in the past. That would indicate progress towards building a weapon that could be delivered by a ballistic missile. South Korean officials estimated the force of the blast at up to 7kT, meaning it was probably more powerful than the explosions in 2006 and 2009. They yielded less than 1kT and 4.6kT respectively, estimates Siegfried Hecker at Stanford University. But all three blasts have been small by the standards of modern nuclear weapons. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki by the US in 1945 yielded more than 20kT.

How serious a threat does North Korea pose?

Cause for concern has increased in the past two months. The successful satellite launch in December showed that North Korea has mastered much of the technology required to build intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to hit mainland US. It already has missiles that could hit South Korea and Japan.

If Pyongyang has indeed, as it hinted, made progress towards “miniaturising” a nuclear device, that would present a further escalation of the threat. However, while foreign analysts can estimate the force of Tuesday’s blast (albeit with a wide margin of error), it is far more difficult to assess the size of the device itself.

Beyond North Korea’s own nuclear programme, there are also fears that it could help other nations to flout the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. US intelligence officials believe that North Korea has given substantial assistance to nuclear weapons work in Iran and Syria.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons?

Since the end of the Korean war in 1953 the Pyongyang regime has fretted that the US still harbours designs to overthrow it. North Korea considers a nuclear deterrent the only reliable defence against this threat. Furthermore, the attainment of nuclear weapons could, in theory, give Pyongyang greater bargaining power to extract economic or other concessions from the US and South Korea – although it would also increase the risk of foreign intervention.

Officially, Pyongyang still wants to unify the Korean Peninsula – through force if necessary – providing further cause for military investment. While North Korea has one of the world’s biggest standing armies, its conventional military technology and equipment is outdated by comparison with South Korea’s.

What can be done t o prevent North Korea getting the bomb?

This is the subject of fierce disagreement among diplomats and analysts. Some argue for greater communication, arguing that previous deals with the US and South Korea show that North Korea will consider giving up its weapons programme if given the right incentives, and if it can be reassured of Washington’s and Seoul’s good faith.

Sceptics retort that North Korea has consistently used these talks simply as a means to extort money from foreign governments, and that it will never voluntarily give up its nuclear programme. These analysts say the US and its allies can only hope to stall progress in the project by stopping the flow of necessary materials into the country, as well as the illicit weapons exports that help to fund the programme. This would require stronger monitoring by China, which is the transit route for much of the smuggling in question.

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