What does North Korea's nuclear test mean for the country's neighbours?by Mark Fitzpatrick / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
North Korea’s nuclear test alters the balance of power in northeast Asia. In every other field—economics, culture, diplomacy, biotechnology and IT, to name a few—the gap between the impoverished citizens of Kim Jong-Il’s regime and their world-class southern kinsmen could hardly be greater. The north’s ageing conventional military capabilities have also fallen far behind the south. But now North Korea boasts of possessing the ultimate equaliser. The suggestion that the explosion was merely a large quantity of TNT cannot be dismissed entirely without air sampling data, but it is implausible that North Korea would fake what was a technical failure judging from the sub-kiloton yield—eight to ten times less bang than what would have been planned.
Despite the successful test, it is questionable whether North Korea has the means of delivering a nuclear weapon. Miniaturising the weapon for delivery with a ballistic missile is no easy task. The bomb design that Libya received from the AQ Khan network, which North Korea may have bought as well, would not fit on North Korea’s Scud, Nodong or Taepodong missiles. North Korea had trouble enough getting the bomb to work at all, let along miniaturising it. Any plane or ship that North Korea outfitted with a nuclear weapon for a suicide attack would be detected and stopped before it reached its intended target. The only way North Korea today could deliver a nuclear weapon would be overland to the 38th parallel border with South Korea, an unlikely scenario in which casualties and fallout would affect as many Koreans in the north as in the south.
The test will strengthen the new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give Japan’s Self-Defence Forces a proper military role that would be normal in any other country but that is unfairly cast as “remilitarisation” by many Chinese and Koreans. The key question is the extent to which North Korea’s test will strengthen those inside Japan who argue tha…