TROY - North Korea's claims of successfully testing a hydrogen bomb may be aimed at bolstering domestic support rather than intimidating international rivals, a Troy University international relations expert suggests.
Reports surfaced Wednesday that North Korean leadership claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in an underground test, a claim that, if true, would represent a major step up in the country's nuclear capabilities.
With international analysts skeptical about the official report of the test, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his regime may have exaggerated their nuclear capabilities in order to build support within the country’s borders.
"My gut feeling is that it's probably directed toward internal domestic purposes," said Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston, a University lecturer who previously served as Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. “But that’s often overlooked in international circles, with people looking for other reasons or taking it as a threat against President Obama or the United States."
Because North Korea operates under a two-track approach of developing its economy and its nuclear program, a major development such as a nuclear fusion bomb would be a potentially valuable tool in building confidence in the leadership.
"Maybe the leadership believes they have to shore up their coalition support by demonstrating this strength and awesome power, this rapid development in the nuclear area," Pinkston said. "By passing these milestones and having success in these types of developments, these achievements can be used to bolster support for the regime."
Pinkston said he’s also looking into the possibility that linguistic issues may be at the heart of the matter and that North Korea may not actually have made the claims being attributed to it.
"If you look at the Korean report of what they said they did, it’s slightly different from the English reports," he said. “What North Korea said in the Korean version is something to the effect that they developed on their own a new hydrogen explosive device for testing. It could possibly be a boosted fission weapon that would include tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, so they could be making reference to using hydrogen as part of the materials that are used to boost the (less powerful) fission explosion.”
If North Korea is lying in order to impress or intimidate its international competitors, it's unlikely to succeed.
"I think it's foolish, because the analysts, the scientists and researchers who analyze the data on this, are very knowledgeable. They've got very sophisticated techniques," Pinkston said. "I don’t think you can bluff these international specialists and get away with it."
The most immediate effects may be felt in South Korea, which has its national assembly elections upcoming.
"It does bolster the arguments by conservatives and hard-lines in South Korea," Pinkston said. "Those who are advocating increased military budgets, more missile defense, more counterstrike abilities and other assets to balance against North Korea, their arguments will be enhanced by this recent development. I think this will boost their electoral chances."
Pinkston doubts North Korea poses any immediate military threat to the U.S. or its allies.
"I don’t see North Korea initiating a war like they did in June 1950, because they would lose that war and they know that," he said. "My greatest worry is there is some accident or unauthorized use of a weapon, some error whereby there's a sudden exchange of fire or a military operation begins and gets out of control, one side misreads what the other is doing and feels they have to retaliate with a large amount of force. That triggers an escalatory spiral it is difficult to exit from."
The U.S. relationship with North Korea draws parallels to the Cold War.
"We have to realize we are probably engaged in the long haul in a game of coercion with North Korea," Pinkston said. "We played this game for decades with the Soviet Union, so we have a lot of experience with this. The U.S. and its allies have an enormous amount of resources, a huge advantage over North Korea, so they have array their forces in all capabilities of government, military, economic sanctions, nonproliferation, counter-proliferation, export controls and so forth to minimize this threat."
Pinkston said caving to North Korea's demands would be a dangerous route.
"They are looking to try to unify the peninsula on their terms, gain recognition as a nuclear weapons state, and they wish the United States would withdraw from northeast Asia, and so that’s what they're trying to use their nuclear weapons for," he said. "It's North Korea using its nuclear capabilities to change the policy positions of other countries, of their adversaries or competitors. I think that would be dangerous."
For now, the game must continue, Pinkston said, and the U.S. must continue to implement deterrents, because North Korea is unlikely to discontinue its current policies.
Pinkston is a lecturer in international relations at TROY's teaching site at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Previously he was the Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul, and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Pinkston received his Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of California, San Diego, and he has a M.A. in Korean studies from Yonsei University. He is the author of The North Korean Ballistic Missile Program, and has published several scholarly articles and book chapters on Korean security affairs. He also served as a Korean linguist in the U.S. Air Force.