North Korea’s Recent Nuclear Test and Satellite Launch – and What Can Be Done

By Olga Symeonoglou

"North Korea - Pyongyang" by stephan  is licensed under CC BY 4.0
On January 5, North Korea announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. The claim was met with skepticism because the size of the earthquake produced by the detonation – with a reported magnitude between 4.2 and 5.1 – did not reach the strength that a hydrogen bomb would cause.  

Hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bombs are far more powerful than atomic bombs. Atomic bombs create energy through fission (atoms splitting in half), while hydrogen bombs use the energy released from atomic fission to spark fusion (atoms fusing together). Only the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain are known to have tested hydrogen bombs. 

Even if North Korea did not detonate a hydrogen bomb, the test is troubling. Initially, some wrote that North Korea could have developed – or could be in the process of developing –  a boosted fission weapon, which increases the power of an atom bomb by accelerating the rate of fission. This type of weapon is typically created in the process of developing thermonuclear weapons. Later in January, CNN reported that North Korea did in fact test components of a hydrogen bomb.

About a month after the nuclear test, on February 7, North Korea launched satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 into space using a long-range rocket. Kim Jong Un claims the satellite launch was for peaceful, scientific purposes, but the international community condemned the launch as furthering North Korea’s ballistic missile development program because the launch could further this goal even if done for peaceful purposes.

The nuclear test and satellite launch do not pose immediate threats by themselves. According to U.S. officials, the satellite is “tumbling in orbit,” making the launch ultimately unsuccessful. Additionally, there is no evidence that North Korea has developed either a miniaturized nuclear weapon that could be carried on an inter-continental ballistic missile or a reentry vehicle that could carry the nuclear weapon back down to earth without disintegrating in the process. But these recent provocations pose threats for the future and should not be taken lightly.

The international community responded with outrage and – as always – more sanctions. Several weeks after the satellite launch, the U.S. sanctions bill sailed through Congress with only two “no” votes and was signed into law by President Obama. South Korea responded by closing the jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex and is considering the implementation of a U.S. antimissile defense system. China and the United States are negotiating a new United Nations Security Council resolution. Japan passed a sanctions bill, but this caused North Korea to stop its efforts to look into the fate of Japanese citizens who were abducted in North Korea.

The new sanctions bill passed by the United States is stronger than most. It not only places sanctions on North Korea itself but also contains “secondary sanctions” provisions against those who facilitate North Korea’s nuclear program (and support DPRK in other ways) and makes the imposition of the sanctions mandatory for the president to enforce.

Are sanctions the answer? It remains to be seen whether or not the new sanctions bill will be effective. But the sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea up until this point have not stopped the DPRK from developing the nuclear and satellite launch technology used in recent months. The problem? North Korea receives a great deal of economic support from China, making sanctions imposed by other countries less able to accomplish their goal. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China to reconsider their strategy and use their influence to stop North Korea from further developing its nuclear program.

There is a pattern after North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or launches a satellite: global outcry, new sanctions, sanctions are not enforced, or sanctions were not strict in the first place. Without China’s involvement and cooperation on this issue, any sanctions carry much less weight. China’s concerns are keeping North Korea stable and the derivative concerns of preventing a flood of refugees to their border if North Korea’s economy fails or preventing a security threat to China if attempts to de-nuclearize DPRK result in anger. China said it prefers a stable North Korea armed with nuclear weapons than an unstable one possessing the same weapons. If China does not budge on this issue – it is likely the new round of sanctions will result in more of the same.