On Tuesday, “The Weekly Column” examined the implications of North Korea’s third nuclear test, which it conducted on Tuesday, February 12. Since then, little progress has been made regarding whether North Korea used highly enriched uranium (HEU) for its latest test rather than plutonium-239 (Pu-239), and tensions have continued to mount on the Korean peninsula as North Korea threatened South Korea with “final destruction” and promised to take “second and third steps.”
One of the key questions following the test was whether North Korea used plutonium or HEU as the fissile material. A day after North Korea carried out its test, Japanese planes detected trace amounts of xenon-133 during flights over Japan, a compound commonly released into the air as a byproduct of an atomic explosion. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force Technical Application Center in Florida, in a coordinated effort with South Korea and Japan, dispatched WC-135 “sniffer” airplanes to search for clues as to the devices design.
Although a U.S. intelligence official said analysis from the tests “was continuing,” it is possible (and may even be likely) that their efforts came up empty. Highly enriched uranium decays very rapidly (within a couple of days after an explosion), and therefore the more time that passes with no traces of HEU detected, the less likely it becomes that any will be detected.
“History would teach us that the North Koreans do like to hide their secret activities and control the message,” said David Albright, a private nuclear expert. “We need to remember that this is deep in the mountains (where) they tested that are formed of heavy rocks, not out in flat, exposed area,” a South Korean official knowledgeable about the February 12 test said, adding: “We may not find anything.”
While it may be impossible to detect whether HEU or Pu-239 was used, it is clear that Pyongyang feels emboldened by the success of the test. According to the KCNA, contributors of the nuclear test were greeted in the streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday by jubilant North Korean citizens, “with bouquets in their hands,” eager to give a “hearty welcome.” “I warmly congratulate those contributors who displayed the invincible dignity and inexhaustible potentials [sic] of the great Paektusan nation,” said O Il Sok, a Pyongyang resident. He added that “final victory” was imminent for North Korea because it “boasts of the single-minded unity,” “scientific and technological foundations,” and an “invincible army.” Then, the “38-year-old man living in Taedonggang District” delved into foreign policy, issuing a stern warning to the United States and its allies: “The U.S. and its followers should be mindful that it is a disposition of the DPRK to counter any provocation with prompt counterstrike and any aggression with a war of justice for national reunification.”
The North frequently cites “hostility” from the United States as its justification for conducting weapons tests (e.g., see “DPRK’s Nuclear Test Is Product of U.S. Hostile Policy: Vishwanath”). And on Thursday it signified that it would not cede to U.S. pressure to abandon its nuclear plans. In an apparent reference to Libya, which abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 in a bid to mend relations with the United States and later saw leader Muammar Gaddafi overthrown in an uprising supported militarily by Washington, North Korea argued that those countries that had abandoned their nuclear programs “halfway” had suffered “tragic consequences.” “The tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs . . . clearly prove that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] was very far-sighted and just when it made the [nuclear] option,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency said.
But while North Korea also frequently hurls vitriolic rhetoric at South Korea – it often refers to South Korea’s army as the “south Korean puppet forces” – its latest remarks drew harsh condemnation from the international community.
At a debate at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, North Korean diplomat Jon Yong Ryong warned of the possible destruction of South Korea. “As the saying goes, a new-born puppy knows no fear of a tiger. South Korea’s erratic behavior would only herald its final destruction,” Jon said.
Spanish Ambassador Javier Gil Catalina was “stupefied” by North Korea’s brazenness, adding that the North’s comments may have even been a breach of international law. “In the 30 years of my career I’ve never heard anything like it and it seems to me that we are not speaking about something that is even admissible, we are speaking about a threat of the use of force that is prohibited by Article 2.4 of the United Nations charter,” Catalina said.
On February 18, the European Union agreed to tighten sanctions on North Korea, expanding the existing sanctions on North Korea by adding measures preventing trading in North Korean government bonds, gold, precious metals, and diamonds. The United Nations is widely expected to approve further sanctions, though Russia has signaled that it would only support sanctions “aimed exclusively at the sphere of non-proliferation of nuclear arms and rocket launches” and not new economic sanctions.
Meanwhile, North Korea has informed China that it is prepared to stage one or even two more nuclear tests this year. Satellite photographs indicate the North has resumed activity in two different parts of the Punggye-ri nuclear site. Although analysts cautioned that there was not enough evidence that a new test was in the works, they said that it was possible that if North Korea detonated the Feb. 12 bomb in a tunnel in the northern area, “then the southern tunnel would be readily available for a fourth test.”