North Korea defied international warnings on February 12 and carried out its third nuclear test, drawing immediate condemnation from leaders around the globe. Pyongyang said the "successful" test was in response to what it called the "reckless hostility" of the United States, which has led the global charge toward expanding sanctions against the communist state. South Korea is now on alert.
State media said the underground test used a lighter, smaller nuclear bomb with greater explosive force than previous tests - raising fears Pyongyang has achieved a breakthrough in miniaturizing the technology.
Following the test, the North's Foreign Ministry defiantly warned of unspecified additional measures. South Korea has already placed its military on alert and hinted at the possibility of additional North Korean nuclear tests or missile launches on Tuesday. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting today in New York to discuss the test, which prompted an outpouring of global criticism. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon immediately condemned the "deeply destabilizing" test, calling it a "clear and grave violation" of international sanctions.
President Barack Obama called the test "highly provocative," saying it threatens U.S. security and international peace. He called for "swift and credible" action by the international community.
China, North Korea's main ally, expressed what it called "firm opposition" to the test. It also took the rare step of summoning the North Korean ambassador to let Pyongyang know it was "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to the test. North Korea for weeks had threatened to carry out its third nuclear test in retaliation for United Nations sanctions that were expanded in response to a December long-range rocket launch.
However, observers point out that China is actually rattling the sabre. This past week, columns of armored vehicles were seen on the highways of Fujian and Shengyang province, sparking speculation that China may be preparing for war. China has indicated numerous times that it will not stand by idly in the face of Japanese claims over some disputed islands near China. China and Japan have mustered ships and aircraft as tensions mount.
Initial reports suggest North Korea's latest nuclear test was stronger than its previous tests in 2006 and 2009. A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson said the explosion generated 6-7 kilotons.
Security analyst Michael McKinley with the Australian National University says it is important to determine in the coming days whether North Korea used plutonium or highly-enriched uranium to conduct the test. "The crucial evidence here will be whether they used plutonium as they did in the other two [nuclear tests], or whether they've used uranium in this one. That would represent of course that they've got a secret uranium enrichment program," he said.
In 2009, Pyongyang announced it would begin enriching uranium, possibly giving it a second way to make fuel for nuclear weapons. Experts say uranium-enrichment programs are more sustainable and easier to hide in secret facilities.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama expressed concern over North Korea. At that time, Obama advocated for an "international coalition" to handle a nuclear North Korea. He referred to the Six-Party Talks of that time as "ad hoc," and supported what he called "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy." In a September 2008 presidential debate, Senator Obama blamed a lack of diplomatic engagement with North Korea for the Communist nation to significantly increase its nuclear capacity. Obama credited the Bush administration's reengagement with the regime as having led to "some progress."
In October 2006, following a North Korean nuclear test, Senator Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said the United States had no leverage because of the United States' refusal to hold bilateral negotiations. Obama also clarified a passage from his book Audacity of Hope (in which he posed the question "Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma?"). Obama said he did not consider invading the communist country an option to resolving the nuclear issue. However, Obama did name North Korea in 2005 as one of the "biggest proliferation challenges we currently face." Obama has called for the strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, apparently hoping that North Korea and other countries such as Iran "that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions." He later called for a stronger U.S. missile defense system because of the North Korean nuclear threat. Some critics indicate that both North Korea and Iran - state sponsors of terror which are jointly producing nuclear weapons, missile delivery systems, and fissible material - are immune to traditional arms control pressures.
President Obama was expected to address the reduction of the overall nuclear weapons stockpile worldwide during his State of the Union Address. The nuclear explosion in North Korea now places nuclear weapons in the forefront of his speech. Officials in the Obama administration have reportedly said that the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons could be reduced by one-third without adversely affecting national security.
Nuclear History of North Korea
* August 1998: Test fires Taepodong-1, its first long-range rocket.
* September 1999: Pledges to freeze long-range missile tests amid improving ties with U.S.
* March, 2005: Ends moratorium on missile tests, blames "hostile" policy of U.S.
* July 5, 2006: Test fires long-range Taepodong-2, which fails less than a minute after launch.
* July 15, 2006: U.N. Security Council demands Pyongyang halt missile program.
* October 9, 2006: Conducts first underground nuclear test.
* October 15, 2006: U.N. Security Council demands halt to missile and nuclear tests, bans sale of weapons
* April 5, 2009: Launches long-range rocket that lands in Pacific. Claims success, but U.S. says no satellite placed in orbit.
* April 13, 2009: U.N. Security Council condemns launch, tightens sanctions. Pyongyang quits six-party nuclear talks.
* May 2009: Conducts second underground nuclear test.
* June 2009: Security Council imposes tougher sanctions.
* February 2012: Announces moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile programs in exchange for U.S. food aid.
* April 2012: Launches long-range rocket, which falls apart shortly after lift-off.
* December 2012: Launches Unha-3 rocket, and declares success in placing satellite in orbit.
* January 2013: U.N. Security Council condemns December rocket launch, North Korea says it will conduct a third nuclear test.
* February 2013: Conducts third nuclear test.
- from VOA and agency reports.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.