Yesterday, North Korea announced to the world their first explosive testing of a hydrogen bomb, a nuclear weapon which would be significantly more powerful than the three previous atomic weapons which the reclusive hermit nation has detonated.  While many in the public sphere perceive Kim Jong-Un’s government as profoundly insane, North Korea’s actions do in fact follow a pragmatic strategic calculus.

The reasons for North Korea’s weapons testing are primarily two fold:

  1. Regime preservation: First and foremost, tyrannical autocratic regimes want to perpetuate themselves.  Developing nuclear weapons, and proving to the world that you have them via test detonations, helps insulate the regime from the international community.  Ironically, America’s anti-proliferation agenda has helped incentivize dictators to pursue the construction of Weapons of Mass Destruction as fast as possible.  There can be little doubt that Saddam and Gaddafi would still be in power today if they had acquired nuclear weapons.  Assad would probably be in a very different position as well, somewhat like Pakistan, a country which is nominally allied with America but undermines us on multiple fronts and is protected from regime change by their small nuclear arsenal.
  2. Concessions from the international community: North Korea has very good reason to make the world believe that they are irrational and crazy.  These beliefs put the international community in a state of confusion and dis-equilibrium, one in which they are willing to make concessions to North Korea in order to temporarily pacify the regime.  This is a pattern of behavior for North Korea; ratchet tensions up to their breaking point and then back down in return for political and material concessions, such as foreign aid.  Another way to view North Korea’s nuclear program is as a bargaining chip, much the same way that Iran used theirs to leverage concessions from the west.  Maybe North Korea will one day give up their nukes, but in exchange for what?  Probably some very deep compromises when the Korean peninsula is eventually reunified.

For now, analysts are left to pour over the data and determine exactly what North Korea tested in an underground chamber.  Using the field of nuclear seismology, scientists can attempt to determine how powerful the blast was.  One nuclear seismologist that the author spoke with referenced a de-coupling mechanism which can take place if the nuclear weapon is detonated in a very large underground chamber, which would theoretically separate the blast from the seismic effect which the world community can detect.  Supposedly, this technique could be used to hide nuclear test shots and develop nuclear weapons in secret.  The scientists I spoke to was very skeptical that this technique was feasible however.

At this time, it sounds as if North Korea’s claim of developing a hydrogen bomb is probably bunk.  The magnitude of the seismic event created by the so-called hydrogen bomb test was 4.8 on the Richter scale.  This is even smaller than the last atomic detonation that North Korea carried out, which measured at 4.9 back in 2013.

None the less, North Korea will still get what they want out of their brinksmanship: our attention.