Victor Cha on North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Weapon Test

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North Korea tested a nuclear weapon on January 5, 2016, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. The nuclear test is the fourth performed by North Korea since 2006.

Professor Victor Cha, Director of the Asian Studies Program and D.S. Song-KF EF Endowed Chair in Government and International Affairs, offered thoughts on the situation. “The latest test, coming two days before Kim Jong-un’s birthday, demonstrates that North Korea is not building a couple of bombs in the basement, it wants the most modern, sophisticated, and lethal nuclear weapons program it can achieve,” Cha wrote for CogitAsia, a blog produced by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). “If the hydrogen bomb claims are true, then this is beyond the capabilities that the expert community thought the North could achieve. The battery of international sanctions after three nuclear tests are not delaying the development of the program,” Cha commented.

Many in the international community doubted North Korea’s claims that the weapon tested was a hydrogen bomb, but Cha cautioned against dismissing the possibility completely. “We won’t know for a while, if ever,” Cha told The New York Times. “From a national security perspective, I don’t have the luxury of downplaying the North Koreans’ claims and would doubt the doubters.”

The latest nuclear test signals that North Korea’s nuclear capacity may have exceeded the amount agreed to in the Six-Party Talks with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. “If [assessments are correct], then the plutonium program that the U.S. and members of the Six-Party talks had been negotiating over this past quarter century would suddenly seem trivial,” Cha told CNN.

Cha suggested that the latest nuclear test puts increased pressure on China to change its approach to North Korea. “All eyes will be on China to see whether this fourth nuclear test near its border will finally compel a change in Beijing’s support of the regime,” Cha told BloombergNews via email. “Beijing is likely to support a UN Security Council resolution as well as making some tactical adjustments to its flow of assistance to the Pyongyang government in the short-term, but at present there is no indication of a longer-term strategic change in Chinese support for North Korea.”

Past sanctions against North Korea from the United Nations have not resulted in a cessation of the nuclear weapons program.“The sanctions are clearly quite leaky. If you had to [find one reason], you’d have to point to China. They [have] not [been] willing to really step on the North Koreans’ necks to get them to give up these weapons,” Cha explained to CNN Wire. He attributes Chinese reluctance on harsh sanctions to fears that they might cause a collapse of North Korea, which would have direct consequences for neighboring China. “The thing that they’re most worried about is a destabilized North Korea in which there could be loose nukes and millions of refugees coming across the border,” Cha told CNN.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Cha or here to read about the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University.