In defiance of U.N. resolutions, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, angering Japan and the United States, and likely causing rifts between the isolated nation and its ally, China.
“It was confirmed that the nuclear test that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment,” the North Korean news agency KCNA said.
North Korea said the test had “greater explosive force” than the small-scaled 2006 and 2009 tests;. KCNA it had used a “minituarized” and lighter nuclear device, indicating that it had again used plutonium which is more suitable for use as a missile warhead.
With the success of the third test, North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un has now presided over two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test during his first a year in power, and in the process has pushed policies that have propelled his impoverished and malnourished country closer to becoming a nuclear weapons power.
U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement calling the test a “highly provocative act” that threatens both the U.S. and international security.
“The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community. The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies,” Obama said in the statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a “grave threat” that could not be tolerated. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the test was a “clear and grave violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
South Korea said the size of the seismic activity indicated a nuclear explosion slightly larger than the North’s two previous tests at 6-7 kilotons, although that is still relatively small. The Hiroshima bomb was around 20 kilotons.
The test will likely disturb China, North Korea’s sole major economic and diplomatic ally.
“The test is hugely insulting to China, which now can be expected to follow through with threats to impose sanctions,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
North Korea has linked the test to its technical prowess in launching a long-range rocket in December, a move that triggered the U.N. sanctions, backed by China, that Pyongyang said prompted it to carry out Tuesday’s nuclear test.
Washington believes North Korea’s ultimate aim is to design an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States. North Korea says the program is aimed merely at putting satellites in space.
North Korea used plutonium in previous nuclear tests and prior to Tuesday there had been speculation it would use highly enriched uranium so as to conserve its plutonium stocks as testing eats into its limited supply of the material that could be used to construct a nuclear bomb.
However, despite its three nuclear tests and long-range rocket tests, North Korea is not believed to be close to manufacturing a nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States.
Japan immediately called for more sanctions against North Korea.
“This is a grave problem for our country’s national security and we must be extremely concerned,” Kyodo news agency quoted Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera as telling reporters.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Pyongyang had informed China and the United States of its plans to test on Monday, although this could not be confirmed.
When new leader Kim, now aged 30, took power after his father’s death in December 2011, there were hopes the he would bring reforms and end Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policies.
Instead the North seems trapped in a cycle of sanctions followed by further provocations.
“The more North Korea shoots missiles, launches satellites or conducts nuclear tests, the more the U.N. Security Council will impose new and more severe sanctions,” said Shen Dingli, a professor and regional security expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Tuesday’s action appears to have been timed for the run-up to February 16 anniversary celebrations of Kim Jong-il’s birthday; significantly, the test comes at a time of political transition in China, Japan and South Korea, and as Obama begins his second term.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bedding down a new government and South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, prepares to take office on February 25.
China also is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition to Xi Jinping, who takes office in March. Both Abe and Xi are staunch nationalists.
The longer-term game plan from Pyongyang may be to restart talks aimed at winning food and financial aid.
“Now the next step for North Korea will be to offer talks… – any form to start up discussion again to bring things to their advantage,” said Jeung Young-tae, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.