N. Korea Hydrogen Bomb Claim Highlights Collaboration with Iran, Nonproliferation Failures

North Korea’s recent claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb has led experts to question the regime’s ties to Iran and its nuclear program, as well as the sustainability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Pyongyang said that it successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb – a more powerful weapon, which is based on fusion, than fission-based nuclear bombs – at a known underground site on Tuesday. The announcement came hours after an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale was detected near the area. While some experts cast doubts on North Korea’s claim, explaining that the force of a hydrogen bomb should have resulted in a significantly more powerful seismic event, they emphasized that Pyongyang is advancing on a worrying path.

The Wall Street Journal quoted (Google link) Yang Xiyu, an expert on North Korea at the China Institute of International Studies, who said, “the explosion should have been much larger, and logically a larger explosion should trigger a larger quake. So it’s really a mystery.” Still, Xiyu cautioned, “no matter if it’s an exaggeration or not, their statement indicates that they are marching in that direction.”

Juan Zarate, CBS News senior national security analyst, noted on CBS This Morning that the true nature of the explosion will not be known for several weeks. “But if it was a hydrogen bomb that will demonstrate a technological leap forward for North Korea, a much more powerful weapon,” he warned. “And if they’re on the verge of miniaturization that would mean that they’re very close to being able to put that on a warhead and potentially to deploy it well beyond the Korean Peninsula.”

Retired Army Major Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, discussed Pyongyang’s announcement in the context of the reported collaboration between North Korea and Iran, telling Fox News, “We know that the Iranians were at the last nuclear test a couple of year ago, [and] we know that the Iranians are helping the North Koreans miniaturize their nuclear weapons.” He indicated that the North Korean nuclear program experienced several failures until it received assistance from Iran. “What does this say about our nuclear deal with Iran?” Scales asked. “It says Iran is able to circumvent it by using their technological colleagues in Pakistan and their test site facility in North Korea to push their own nuclear ambitions.” He added that “the Iranians and North Koreans are both developing long-range ballistic missiles by collaborating together.”

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, explained in August that advances in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program could translate into advances in Iran’s program.

Indeed, North Korea’s arsenal is the inspiration behind most of Iran’s ballistic-missile capabilities—including the Shahab 3 and Shahab 4, now in service, and its longer-range Shahab 5 and 6 variants, currently in development. And the collaboration continues today; the two nations are believed to be jointly working on a nuclear-capable missile of intercontinental range.

The Islamic Republic has also relied on the DPRK for help with its nuclear program. In recent years, North Korea is known to have assisted in fortifying a number of Iranian nuclear facilities against possible preemptive strikes. It has also reportedly dispatched hundreds of nuclear experts to work within the Islamic Republic, as well as providing Tehran with key nuclear software.

In a public sign of this collusion, a delegation of Iranian scientists was on hand during North Korea’s very public February 2013 nuclear test. The Iranian experts are believed to have paid tens of millions of dollars to the DPRK for a front-row seat to the successful detonation.

Berman observed that Iran seems to be following North Korea’s path to a nuclear weapon, which included engaging in “extensive diplomacy with the international community” in order to boost its nuclear program and gain “diplomatic and economic benefits” to stabilize its regime. These concessions helped Pyongyang advance its nuclear ambitions, and resulted in the regime reneging “on every single international commitment relating to its nuclear effort.” Like with Iran, the international community responded to these violations by “[attempting] to moderate North Korean conduct through conciliatory steps, rather than punitive ones.”

In The Looming Global Nuclear Weapons Crisis, which was published in the January 2016 issue of The Tower Magazine, nonproliferation expert Emily Landau observed that while the NPT was effective for decades, its creators did not anticipate that rogue regimes would join the treaty only to later defy it.

Finally, we come to the issue of the consequences for a state that violates the NPT. While the architects of the NPT in the late 1960s did not anticipate that states would join the treaty and then proceed to violate it, it is by now clear that some states have chosen this path, and others are likely to follow. The case of North Korea is particularly instructive in this regard. Those who believed in the early 1990s that it was a mistake to insist on revealing the extent of North Korea’s past violations, and that negotiations at the time should focus solely on conditions for future compliance, woke up in the new millennium to North Korea having crossed the nuclear threshold. North Korea is a stark and undisputed nonproliferation failure. As such, the consequences for violations must be clear, stiff, and reliable. Violators must be made to “come clean” as a condition for lifting sanctions and other forms of pressure, as well as for reaping the treaty’s benefits. Potential violators must understand that the costs to a regime’s long-term status, wealth, and power would far outweigh the benefits of developing such a weapon.

A clip from Zarate’s segment is embedded below.

[Photo: CBS This Morning / YouTube ]