I leave it to the weapons experts to decide whether it was or it wasn’t. What jumps out in any case is that the North Koreans CLAIMED that what they tested Wednesday was a hydrogen bomb.

True or not, why would they want to escalate with an announcement that would surely focus minds in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing and bring down upon them, at the least, more stringent sanctions?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the test-fire of a strategic submarine underwater ballistic missile (not pictured) in this undated photo released by North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the test-fire of a strategic submarine underwater ballistic missile (not pictured) in this undated photo released by Pyongyang

We know, of course, that it’s the habit of the ruling Kims to step up the rhetoric and action whenever they feel they’re being ignored. Many analysts think that’s so they can extort more benefits. But Kim Jong-un surely knows it’s not a good time to get the US and China lined up to pay him off – and yet he staged and publicized the test anyhow, presumably as soon as the machinery had been readied.

There will be consequences, to the extent we can use that term for inconveniences inflicted by angry outsiders in the form of sanctions. The Chinese in particular have been showing increased signs of irritation. If you fully subscribe to China’s frequent claims that it lacks leverage, just pay a visit the border city of Dandong, whence most of the goods and commodities that enter North Korea pass across the Yalu River.

Will this test and/or the words used to describe it push Beijing closer to exerting the leverage it has? We shall see.

In view of the certainty he won’t get off scot-free, what could be in the mind of the young ruler? The country’s official announcement of the test mentions deterrence – and some western analysts argue that he’s simply trying to make sure the US doesn’t bomb him. “If they did develop an H-bomb,” says Washington-based consultant and blogger Mike Bassett, “they did so because it makes potential invaders think twice about targeted strikes against their facilities.”

North Koreans troops marching
North Korean troops marching

But don’t the North Koreans possess strong deterrence already? Don’t those prospective invaders already think twice (or more) about targeted strikes, as shown by the lack of such strikes? Why isn’t that enough deterrence for Kim & Co.?

Bassett’s reply: “Because now Japan has an offensive military, because the trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement pulled the alliance in line and because hostile rhetoric of the past three years where people actively publish and speak about how to collapse their system has risen ten-fold over the past five years … The solution is to engage them and broker a peace treaty.”

If over the decades I had seen more than a smidgeon of sincerity about talks I’d be more inclined to credit the theory that all they want is a simple peace treaty. I’m afraid, though, that what they want is a peace treaty that would remove the US as a barrier to their rule over the whole peninsula. We go home. They wait a decent interval. They invade again. Meanwhile, they’re building their weaponry.

“I understand your point, but now more than ever we are talking about re-listing them as a state sponsor of terror, and hauling Kim off to the ICC [International Criminal Court],” Bassett replies. “I think it’s easy to put ourselves in their shoes. Anyone could’ve seen this coming, especially when the only thing we actually do is sanction, contain, isolate and demonize them.”

Contrasting with the views of the engagers are more cynical theories. For one, the test and the announcement may be intended to advertise the North Korean arms industry to potential customers. Specifically, Pyongyang may think that, regardless of (or because of) Iran’s pending nuclear agreement, hardliners in Tehran may be in the market for its weapons of mass destruction.

As for using such weapons against the North’s own enemies, it’s been a truism since the Cold War era, when the term Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was coined, that beyond deterrence big nuclear weapons are useless – no one would dare use one. So if Kim really wants the biggies, why?

I’m inclined to think the country’s rulers never have given up conquest of South Korea as the overriding national goal. The notion that a North Korean leader would settle for mere regime survival does not comport with what we know about the Kims.

Kim Il-sung didn’t give up his ambition simply because his 1950 invasion of the South was a failure. Rather, he presided over the extreme militarization of the country from the 1960s. Always a major part of North Korean military planning was – and is – how to infiltrate troops into the South: by land tunnel, by submarine, by slow aircraft that fly below enemy radar.

Succeeding Kim rulers have been raised and trained never to accept defeat. Kim Jong-il after being given the top military rank of marshal pleased his elders by saying that if he should face defeat, rather than accepting it he would “destroy the world.”

Kim Jong-un was the youngest of three brothers. Each of the older two was viewed in turn by outsiders as the logical successor to Kim Jong-il. Why did the youngest get the job? He was the aggressive one, even as a child, according to a Japanese who was for some years the palace sushi chef and who has written books about his close interactions with the ruling family.

In North Korea’s traditional military doctrine the actual use of weapons of mass destruction is NOT unthinkable. Lee Chong-guk, a defector to South Korea who had worked in the 1990s as a noncommissioned officer in the Bureau of Nuclear and Chemical Defense, told me he had heard in an ideology course taught by a leader in the development of WMDs that it would be necessary to kill ALL South Koreans.

The officer-teacher, then-Lt. Col. Hwang Chang-pyong, explained that South Koreans’ own ideology was so strong that they would never accept northern rule. “Not only the US Army or the South Korean Army,” Lee quoted Hwang as saying – “everybody should die.”

H-bomb test

How do North Korean citizens like the militaristic ambitions shown by the nuclear test? An Associated Press photo of people at the Pyongyang train station cheering the televised announcement of the nuclear test illustrates the fact that some – perhaps most – of the elite who are concentrated in the capital are like their leaders in wishing at all costs to avoid defeat.

Proud northerners fear that with their smaller population, inferior skills and lack of economic resources they would become very junior partners in a Korea unified on southern terms – would be relegated to menial positions in the economy such as “wiping the asses of South Korean babies,” as one analyst put it pungently.

Making a big publicity splash with the announcement of the test is at least in part a matter of domestic political campaigning, then. And the more it upsets the likes of South Korea and the peninsula’s former colonial master Japan, the better many North Koreans like it.

Longtime Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin, the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, currently teaches in the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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