Editor’s Note: This piece is cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus.
North Korea announced recently that it had successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb. “This test is a measure for self-defense,” state media announced, “to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the US-led hostile forces.”
South Korea, Japan, and China were swift to respond with condemnation, as was the UN Security Council, which issued a statement that North Korea’s test was a “clear violation of Security Council resolutions” and resolved to take “further significant measures.”
Many observers, however, including nuclear-weapons experts and government officials, doubt whether North Korea really did test a hydrogen bomb.
“I don’t think this was a hydrogen bomb,” said Bill Richardson, a former diplomat who’s traveled to North Korea. “It was apparently six kilotons. A hydrogen bomb is 20.” The White House also issued a statement saying that data collected by US intelligence was “not consistent” with a hydrogen-bomb test.
While an independent verification may take days, and the world may never fully know the true extent of North Korea’s nuclear capacity, what we do know is that this would be Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear-weapons test since 2006—and the third under President Obama’s watch.
If anything, this proves the utter failure of the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” when it comes to achieving North Korean de-nuclearization.
Why now—especially when the door to inter-Korean talks has been open since August, when the two countries struck a deal to ratchet down tensions?
One reason is that North Korea sees its time running out to reach a deal with the Obama administration. “North Korea’s latest nuclear test is a response to the growing and worrisome trend of hardline foreign policy of the United States in Northeast Asia,” argues Korea policy analyst Simone Chun.
Chun cites this assessment from the Council on Foreign Relations: “Resolving the current standoff will probably become more difficult after Obama leaves office, as the next administration, no matter who wins the 2016 presidential election, is likely to be more hardline in its foreign and defense policy.”