WASHINGTON – North Korea claims to have carried out its fourth test of a nuclear weapon on Wednesday, and its first of a hydrogen bomb, defying international sanctions and prompting crisis meetings across the region, in Washington and at the UN.
The test, if confirmed, would mark significant advancement of the illicit North Korean nuclear program.
But US intelligence sources questioned whether the explosion, registered by the US Geological Survey on Tuesday night, was caused by a hydrogen device, and said that US “sniffer planes” were quickly deployed to search for radioactive particle clues as to the cause of the detonation.
An initial US analysis of the test, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “is not consistent with North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test.”
Nevertheless, the test amounts to a “provocative and a flagrant violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” Earnest added. “North Korea continues to be one of the most isolated nations in the world. And their isolation has only deepened as they have sought to engage in increasingly provocative acts.”
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke on Wednesday with his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Han Min-koo, to discuss what the Pentagon characterized as “an unacceptable and irresponsible provocation.”
“Carter and Han agreed that North Korea’s provocations should have consequences,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
Indeed, officials at the UN in New York, including the secretary-general and the Security Council, called urgent meetings to discuss possible consequences.
“This test once again violates numerous Security Council resolutions, despite the united call by the international community to cease such activities,” UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, told reporters, calling the test “profoundly destabilizing for regional security.
“It is also a grave contravention of the international norm against nuclear testing,” Ban continued. “I demand the DPRK [North Korea] cease any further nuclear activities and meet its obligations for verifiable denuclearization.”
But no punitive steps were immediately outlined by Security Council members.
North Korea is already the most sanctioned country in the world. Russia called for a “proportionate” response to the test, while Japan – a temporary member of the Security Council – said it would work to coordinate a unified response to the hermit state.
The Security Council “recalled that they have previously expressed their determination to take further significant measures in the event of another DPRK [North Korea] nuclear test,” the council said in a statement.
“In line with this commitment and the gravity of this violation, the members of the Security Council will begin to work immediately on such measures in a new Security Council resolution.”
One path forward for the council, a senior Western official said on condition of anonymity, was to directly restrict the travel of officials serving in foreign posts for the North Korean government and of officials in senior positions in that government.
“All of this depends on the appetite of the council, particularly the Chinese position,” the official said. “There are more things we could do in terms of listing more people, brokers and intermediaries, broaden out the circle of people on the list.”
Thermonuclear weapons, known as hydrogen bombs or simply H-bombs, provide the most efficient energy yield of any nuclear weapon currently in production.
The weapons produce an exponentially greater explosion than less complex models, such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the US during World War II.
In any case, whatever caused the explosion on Wednesday morning local time produced a seismic event “slightly down in terms of magnitude” from a test at a nearby site in 2013, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization said in a statement on its initial findings. Officials of the organization based in Vienna warned that seismic activity alone could not identify the nature of the device, which Pyongyang claims to have been a miniaturized H-bomb.
“Let the world look up to the strong, self-reliant nuclear-armed state,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wrote in what state TV displayed as a handwritten note.
The broadcaster said the weapons program is legal and designed to defend the North Korean people against American aggression.
In Israel, officials warned of the spread of nuclear weapons and questioned whether Iran, which has cooperated with North Korea in the past on its own nuclear activity, might be involved.
“The test reminds us all that the most important mission is to prevent a similar thing from taking place in Iran: a nuclear agreement first and nuclear weapons later,” National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz said, referring to an agreement reached in 1994 between world powers and North Korea that was meant to end the latter’s nuclear program. The same diplomat who led those negotiations for the United States, Wendy Sherman, led the recent US effort to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
“Israel and the US should increase intelligence sharing in order to ensure that Iran is not breaching its nuclear agreement through involvement in North Korea’s nuclear project,” Steinitz added.
The connection was quickly used as a foil by US Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, candidate for the Republican nomination for president, who is leading in the polls among Iowa voters, who will cast their ballots on February 1.
“Why does Kim Jong Un and North Korea – a crazy nut case and that’s a technical term – have nuclear weapons? Because of the failures of the Clinton administration,” Cruz told supporters in Rock Rapids, Iowa.
“Well fast forward a couple of decades. The Obama administration, now Hillary Clinton serving as secretary of state, who do they recruit to be the lead negotiator for the Iranian negotiations, that very same person, Wendy Sherman, who turns around with Iran and negotiates that exact same deal she negotiated with North Korea.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
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