On Sunday afternoon local time, Ri Chun Hee of Korean Central Television announced that North Korea had just detonated a hydrogen bomb capable of being delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile.
State media said the device was of “unprecedentedly large power.” The U.S. Geological Survey said it recorded a 6.3 magnitude earthquake near the Punggye-ri test site in the mountainous northeastern part of the country midday Sunday local time. South Korea said the tremor looked man-made and indicated the device was more powerful than the North’s five previous nuclear tests.
Fox News initially reported that sources said the bomb might have been 10 times more powerful than the one the North tested Sept. 9, 2016, the most recent previous test. The Sept. 9 device has been estimated to have had a yield of 20 to 30 kilotons, which is more than twice that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
The apparent detonation follows the release by Pyongyang’s state media of photographs of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, inspecting what was said to be an “H-bomb to be loaded into new ICBM.” There has been no verification of whether the North Koreans have built such a sophisticated weapon.
Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University told The Daily Beast it is possible the bomb was in fact thermonuclear.
Presumably, the device detonated a few hours ago is the one the North Koreans sealed in a tunnel at its test site this spring, perhaps in March. It appeared that all preparations were completed then and technicians at Punggye-ri were waiting only for a political decision by leader Kim to set it off.
The test is apparently Kim’s answer to Washington’s recent overtures. On Aug. 22, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Pyongyang had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past” and raised the possibility of talks. “Perhaps,” he said at the time, “we’re seeing a pathway to, sometime in the near future, to having some dialogue.”
On that same day, President Trump said he believed Kim was “starting to respect us.”
Kim’s initial response was to launch a salvo of three ballistic missiles on Aug. 26 and one on Aug. 29. The second part of the response was Sunday’s test of a nuclear bomb of some sort.
North Korea’s next step, to prove it is able to integrate its new capabilities, could be to land one or more missiles in waters near Guam, as the regime threatened to do on Aug.10. When Pyongyang first made that threat, it said its missiles would fly over Japan on their way to the American territory in the Pacific Ocean.
Last Saturday, Pyongyang flew a Hwasong-12 missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, thereby fulfilling the first part of the Aug. 10 threat. Because the North usually carries through on specific threats—at least eventually—it is possible that Kim will send missiles to Guam soon.
The second thing Kim could do is load a nuclear device onto a ballistic missile and conduct an atmospheric test. After all, state media has twice suggested it can mate a thermonuclear device to a missile.
What now? As Bechtol, the author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era, noted, the North Korean regime has just put President Trump on the spot. “The political fallout from the detonation will be immense,” he said in email comments Sunday.
In a few days, therefore, the focus of attention will be on what the U.S. should do about Kim’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Many, if not most analysts, say Washington’s sanctions policy has been a failure. They are obviously correct. Observers then jump to the conclusion that the administration should begin efforts to talk to the North Koreans.
In view of Pyongyang’s harsh responses to Trump’s and Tillerson’s overtures, talking to the regime, even if possible, is unlikely to produce a constructive result at this moment. Kim is feeling particularly bold now, and he may have picked this weekend to carry through on the long-awaited test because he felt the Trump team is not in a position to respond effectively.
The U.S., despite what most analysts believe, has the leverage to peacefully disarm Kim. Washington can, for instance, use its overwhelming leverage over China so that China uses its overwhelming leverage over North Korea.
What the administration should do is demand that Beijing and Moscow accept a complete embargo on North Korea. If they do not comply, the administration should threaten to impose severe costs on them. For instance, Trump could hand down what are essentially death sentences on the largest Chinese banks, like Bank of China, for laundering money for the Kim regime. The president can do that by designating them “primary money laundering concerns” under Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Such designations would deny these institutions the ability to transact in dollars.
Sanctioning the largest Chinese banks in such a manner could throw the Chinese financial and political systems into turmoil, and Beijing knows it. Therefore, the White House has the means to persuade China’s leaders to disarm the Kim regime.
Fortunately, Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler, is particularly vulnerable at this moment. The 19th Communist Party Congress, which begins on Oct. 18, is when Xi must consolidate his power if he is to continue strongman rule. He will be blamed by his many adversaries if relations with the U.S. are disrupted before the meeting.
Going after Chinese banks would mirror what the U.S. did to bring Iran to the bargaining table during the Obama administration, which levied stiff fines on banks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, in her weekly podcast, talked about employing the Iran model to get the North Koreans to agree to denuclearization.
That’s what Trump should do. As important, there is something Trump should not do. The president in comments on Saturday hinted he will this coming week give Seoul notice of termination of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement. Withdrawal was never a good idea for strategic reasons, and next week would be absolutely the worst time to do so. The U.S. needs all its friends and allies on board as it confronts North Korea and its backers.
In the meantime, Kim is stocking up on oil, presumably in anticipation of sanctions. So now is a particularly good time to pre-emptively hit him before he can fill up his storage tanks.
There is a window for Trump to act, and it could close soon.