View from Moscow: Why Kim Jong Un is bluffing about a hydrogen bomb

December 17, 2015 Andréi Lankov, special to RBTH
The North Korean leader’s claim that his country possesses a hydrogen bomb has set off alarm bells in Russia, a member of the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Andrei Lankov, a leading Russian scholar of Korea, writes that the claim is yet another round of scare diplomacy, which is a Pyongyang trademark that has sometimes worked in the past.
Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un. Source: AP

The world has grown used to the rather surprising statements made by North Korean officials and media outlets, but last week the North Korean leader managed to say something which attracted a lot of international attention. Kim Jong Un said that North Korea is a nuclear power which can design and build not only nuclear, but also thermonuclear weapons. In other words, Kim Jong Un claimed that North Korea has a hydrogen bomb or, at least, is going to develop it in the near future.

This statement was met with great skepticism. Thermonuclear devices which use fusion reaction are more powerful than regular fission devices, but are also much more difficult to design and build. For North Korea such an undertaking would be ruinously expensive, and, even if successful, would not dramatically increase its already formidable ability to deter a foreign attack.

Thus, one can be pretty sure that the North Korean leader is bluffing. But what does he want to achieve by making such statements? It seems that, above all, we are seeing another round of scare diplomacy, which is a Pyongyang trademark that has sometimes worked in the past.

Reaching out to potential partners

In the last few months there have been significant changes in North Korea’s foreign policy. While in the last three years North Korea showed little interest in dealing with the outside world (with the important exception of Russia), since October 2015 North Korean diplomats have started to approach a number of potential partners with suggestions about improving political and economic relations.

North Korean diplomats have approached Europe, Australia and China, but it seems that the major goal of North Korea’s foreign policy is a deal with the United States. The basic outline of such deal has been made clear a number of times. North Korea will agree to freeze its nuclear program at its current level if the US agrees to resume the economic assistance on a sufficiently large scale.

At the same time, the North Koreans clearly say that under no circumstances would they surrender their existing nuclear weapons. They want a freeze, not disarmament, and they also want to be rewarded for their willingness to not improve their nuclear potential further.

However, from the US point of view, this proposal does not appear acceptable. In Washington such a compromise is seen as nothing but rewarding a blackmailer. Indeed, under such a freeze agreement, the North Koreans would remain a nuclear power and receive some financial rewards and political concessions from the US. This is not acceptable, more so since in its current state the North Korean nuclear program constitutes a rather theoretical threat to the US. Thus, Washington prefers to ignore the North Korean proposals.

The North Korean side hopes to change the equation by demonstrating that the cost of ignoring North Korea is higher than the cost of striking an unpalatable compromise with Pyongyang. The only way to do so it to demonstrate that, if ignored and not talked to, North Korea would become far more dangerous.

A simple increase in nuclear arsenal will not work. Americans do not care much whether North Korean has five or fifteen crude nuclear devices. A number of successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile and/or submarine-based missile would probably make a difference. Such a delivery system can hit the continental US, so there is the chance that the American decision-makers, if facing such a threat, will agree to compromise and pay.

However, so far the advances in the delivery system are very slow. Hence, obviously, North Korea decided to use another trick, and make a statement about the hydrogen bomb – on the assumption that this would prompt Washington to reconsider the threat from Pyongyang.

It is doubtful, though, that the scheme will work. Words are cheap, and only tests matter. So, as long as the North Korea hydrogen bomb is not tested, it is presumed to be non-existent (and, perhaps, rightly so).

Andrei Lankov is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

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