RED ALERT: North Korea Underground Nuclear Test Reported
Reports spread Oct. 9 that North Korea tested a nuclear device in the eastern part of North Hamgyong province at 10:35 a.m. local time. China has indicated it did detect a small underground test, although the South Korean military has not raised its alert level. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his government has confirmed there has been seismic activity from North Korea, although he has not received reports on its magnitude.
The U.S. Geological Survey detected a 4.2 tremor in North Korea, which is smaller than expected and not big enough to make North Korea an unequivocal nuclear power.
If a test did occur, the most immediate U.S. response will likely be a strong condemnation and a call for a U.N. mandate for sanctions. If there is no U.S. military response, Pyongyang will see that as an acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.
Many questions remain, however. Even if this were a nuclear test, it is not clear that it was a weapon rather than a device. A nuclear device produces an in-place blast from a mechanism of indeterminate size and structure. A weapon can be fitted on a missile or on an aircraft, and is therefore highly compact and ruggedized.
China's response will be hesitant. China does not seem ready to cut off food or fuel to North Korea, particularly before winter sets in. Beijing has deployed additional troops to the border, but that is to seal the frontier. Beijing will be angry, but its primary concern is to keep the North Korean people from spilling across the border into northeast China.
South Korea will, of course, suspend cooperation in Kaesong and Kumkang and will probably put its forces on alert. With the drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, the South Korean army is now the border patrol. U.S. military units remaining will have to go on heightened alert and rush Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to the peninsula. South Korea could deploy high-level officials to North Korea.
Japan will work for U.N. for sanctions and Chapter 7 invocation. Japan also will heighten its military posture and increase diplomacy with China and South Korea in an attempt to show a united front against North Korea.
North Korea will go on high alert nationwide. The military will assume a high-readiness posture, and the North Koreans will proclaim their entry into the nuclear club, using sanctions to tighten control and rally domestic backing. Pyongyang might quickly invite the International Atomic Energy Agency in to make its nuclear status "legitimate." It will petition international bodies to accept the new reality.
In any event, North Korea will view the test as a victory. It will mark the acceptance of the government as a nuclear state. Further negotiations will have to take place under this new reality. North Korea cannot be isolated forever. North Korea has bet that anything less than a complete military invasion is a capitulation. Pyongyang will press for acceptance, similar to Pakistan. China and South Korea will be key; both desperately want to avoid any military action. They will end up negotiating with North Korea, finding a way to make the North comply with international regulations.
THIS FLASH REPORT FROM STRATFOR, INC.