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North Korea Fallout
When North Korea Provokes, China Loses

North Korea today announced the successful detonation of its first thermonuclear bomb after sensors in South Korea identified a seismic event registering 5.1 on the Richter scale in the Hermit Kingdom’s northeast—a region where underground nuclear tests have been carried out before. Calling the test a “complete success,” an announcer on Pyongyang’s state-run TV channel described the weapon as a “self-defensive measure” against “threats and blackmail by the United States and to guarantee the security of the Korean Peninsula.”

The United States officials, for their part, said they could not confirm North Korea’s claims at this time, but several independent experts expressed doubts that Pyongyang had managed to pull off a full-bore H-bomb. Rather, it was far more likely that North had managed to develop a boosted fission bomb, a traditional nuke that incorporates a small amount of radioactive hydrogen in its core to increase the damage it can do, but that falls short of a full-on thermonuclear device.

The biggest loser in all of this, however, appears to be China, and the biggest winners are Japan’s Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s conservative government. North Korea’s test will strengthen public support in Japan and South Korea for defense buildup A) because nukes are scary, and B) because it demonstrates that China, which has far more influence in Pyongyang than anybody else, isn’t willing or able to control its client. If Beijing isn’t willing, that suggests hostility and encourages Japanese rearmament. If Beijing isn’t able, that demonstrates weakness, making the Japanese and South Koreans think they have to defend themselves against threats from North Korea, Chinese protests to militarization be darned. The detonation also makes the comfort women deal more likely to stick; a nuclear threat is a pretty strong incentive for traditionally-hesitant allies like Japan and South Korea to hug tighter.

 

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  • gabrielsyme

    The development, even of a boosted fission bomb is bad news for both South Korea and Japan, as it increases the potential damage from a North Korean strike on either of their countries. Higher defence spending for either nation will do little to decrease the chances that a toppling Nork government decides to go out with a bang.

    • CapitalHawk

      Well, that depends on what the higher defense spending is spent on, doesn’t it. Imagine you were a highly developed industrialized nation, with access to the some of the most talented scientists on the planet, and (1) your two neighbors were both (a) hostile and (b) armed with nukes, and (2) your traditional ally, who at one point seemed willing to use its nukes in order to defend you, has gone a bit wobbly in general and with respect to some long time allies in particular. Do you think you would seriously start thinking about developing some nuke of your own, or not?

      • f1b0nacc1

        Given who the two nations in question are, likely not….i.e. they will NOT pursue nukes. South Korea has a very large, and aggressively unpleasant pacifist faction that will fight to the death any attempt to build or deploy nukes. Japan has some, er….’history’…. that makes such a development rather unlikely. Neither nation is likely to either build nukes, nor would they use them if by some miracle they actually acquired them in the first place.
        Even if they did develop such weapons (and that is a huge and conditional ‘if’, I repeat) what would it gain them? North Korea is run by a delusional twit with a God complex (no, not Obama…he is OUR problem….), and isn’t likely to be deterred, particularly since a breakdown in his control (the most likely scenario for nuke use in the first place is about his worst case scenario to start with. If a nuclear threat against the South (or the West) isn’t going to work, then the high, but by no means certain, possibility of retaliation isn’t going to be much worse from his point of view.
        As for other defense options, they are all rather grim. Missile defense would of course be useful, but the Norks could deliver their bombs in other ways such as smuggling I(he best choice…..those tunnels that the Norks maintain across the DMZ would be excellent for this purpose), suicide subs (the Norks maintain a rather large inventory of these, and they are quite capable of carrying a bomb without the technical issues inherent in putting one on a missile), or other even more unpleasant options (cargo ships, off-shore detonations, etc.) all of which would be extremely difficult to defend against.

        • gabrielsyme

          Well, I think a Japanese deterrent would probably be credible – the Japanese have a history of nationalism and xenophobia, and often have a pretty poor opinion of the Koreans. But as you say, it’s implausible that Japan will develop nuclear weapons.

          A South Korean nuclear force would not be a credible deterrent – the North Koreans are the ethnic and national brethren of the South Koreans, and it is almost impossible to imagine them launching a 2nd strike.

          Investment in missile defence does indeed make sense for both nations, but that was true for both nations before this latest test.

          • GS

            if forced to develop the nukes, the Japanese will. And given the nature of norks, to deter them one needs to face them with a prospect not of massive retaliation but of total annihilation.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I wish I could agree with you, but I cannot. Japan in 1950, even 1960 would certainly have followed that path, but now? Japan has changed a great deal, and I cannot imagine any Japanese government choosing to use nuclear weapons whatever the provocation.

          • GS

            Somebody said, millenia ago, “the [goddess of] necessity is deaf” – it does not listen to any objections. If forced to develop the nukes, they will. If forced to put their nukes in cobalt alloy casings, they will. If forced to obliterate north korea to such a point that the last three north koreans are put on display in some zoo, they will do that, too.

          • gabrielsyme

            Well, it is perceived necessity that matters, of course. Perhaps this alleged H-bomb test will be a tipping point for Japan, but I’m doubtful – the calculus was much the same last week, and for the past ten years or so, and I’m unaware of a vocal and sizeable Japanese minority arguing for joining the nuclear club. Additionally, even if the Norks were to have a large and devastating nuclear arsenal, the Japanese public would (rightly, I think) see it as unlikely ever to be used on them. To undertake a politically risky and expensive project based on what is seen to be a somewhat remote future possibility is not commonly done.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Your observation regarding the South Korean disinclination to nuke their brethren is an excellent one!

          • GS

            The Japanese will do what they will be forced to.

  • Anthony

    “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.”

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