The detonation of North Korea’s third nuclear weapon leaves analysts and the common reader alike with many questions regarding not only the country’s intent, but its capabilities, as well as the international reaction from this test. The list of said questions could take up an article on its own, but we’ll try and stay focused here on three critical issues: the level of success, the weapon’s composition, and the reaction from China.
Was the Test Successful?
Yes, a detonation did occur, meaning that on one level the test was a success. Still, there are other questions that determine the success of the test, notably the size of the weapon and the detonation yield. North Korea reportedly was testing a bomb with a much bigger yield while also miniaturizing the weapon so that future nuclear weapons could be placed on ballistic missiles. It’s unlikely that North Korea will be able to successfully place one on a missile in the very near future, but a successful test of a smaller-sized weapon would be progress for them.
Uranium or Plutonium?
This may be the most important question regarding the nuclear test. North Korea’s previous tests have used plutonium. The DPRK has a limited amount of the material, however – reportedly having only enough to manufacture a handful of weapons. What North Korea does have in more abundance, however, is uranium, which the North Koreans have been attempting to refine for its future arsenal. Sensors aboard aircraft and ships may be able to tell us which one was used. If it was highly enriched uranium, then the North Koreans may be close to being able to develop a much larger arsenal of nuclear weapons.
How will China React?
It’s fairly obvious how the U.S. and many other nations will react: with swift condemnations and possibly additional sanctions. The reaction that matters most, however, is China’s. The PRC, who is the main provider of both fuel and goods for the Hermit Kingdom, is the only country who, outside of actual conflict, could cause serious harm to the North Korean regime. Before the detonation, the Chinese government had allowed sharply-worded columns to run in newspapers, but its reaction since then has been the more muted kind familiar from the past. The Chinese government will, as in the past, likely be hesitant to take any action that harms the regime too much.
The test may also provide a further glimpse into the policies of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. A condemnation but little action would be in line with past Chinese policy, but a stronger action, even if only slightly so, may suggest an opening to more constructive diplomacy with other Asian nations and the West in dealing with North Korea and possibly other issues. Of course, it could just be that the Chinese are angry with an ungrateful ally and happy to punish them, so it’s hard to read too much into a Chinese reaction too early. Nevertheless, China’s reaction will largely determine how future policies regarding North Korea pan out, and as such deserve the most attention.