North Korea has conducted its long-rumoured third nuclear test, the previous tests coming in 2006 and 2009. Details are still unfolding and the story looks set to continue throughout the night but as the situation stands currently this is …..
…What we know.
At almost midday local time (11.57) on Tuesday February 12 the DPRK successfully conducted a nuclear detonation. This test was conducted at a depth of 1km at the Punggye-ri site, and caused an earthquake originally registering a magnitude of 4.9, but later upped to 5.1 by the USGS. North Korea’s state media confirmed the test and elaborated that they used a “miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.”
…What we think we know.
The yield of the device was originally discussed as being around 10kilotons, but estimates now seem to have settled around the 6-7kTs mark. Russia is telling the world that they have registered the test at above 7kTs. Whatever the true number, it is certain that is was substantially stronger than the previous tests.
…What we don’t know
Whether the device was Plutonium or Uranium based. This won’t be known until after the site vents, and according to Nuclear Arms expert Jeffrey Lewis ‘Can be days; Can be never’. This is important as an accurate response or military preparation cannot go forward without this knowledge. It is also important for gauging how much progress the North’s nuclear facilities have made in the past four years. Steve Herman of Voice of America claims the US and Japan have already launched ‘airborne assets’ to try and get some answers to this question.
… And what they’re saying in Seoul.
As the US, UN and the Western world now returns to the default ‘We Condemn North Korea’s actions!’ setting, the situation in South Korea is a more complex one.
The Korean Government and military have attempted to seize control of the situation and the story and hit back at the North with the strongest criticism possible. After an almost immediate meeting of the NSC, Park Geun-Hye’s spokesperson rejected the idea of a nuclear North Korea “under any circumstances.” This along with words of disapproval from the South Korea chaired UNSC helped create a tough, united response from the ROK.
However, the South Korean public, having lived with the threat of annihilation from the North long before nukes became an issue were typically muted in their concerns. For several hours after the test the story was failing to trend at number one on Twitter (trailing the news of a celebrity death), and the reaction of those I spoke to on the ground in Seoul this afternoon ranged from “It is worrying to me but I think there is nothing much to do at the moment” (Female, 28, Student), to an even more blasé “North Korea is always doing these things. I think this is not their worst actions. As long as they do not attack [South] Korean citizens again I am not worried” (Male, 44, Taxi Driver).
One of the public’s biggest concerns was what the test may mean economically, but in this again the response was low-key. Stock markets took a slight knock, but in total the Korean KOPSI fell only 0.3% and the Yen rose 2%. Neither of these matches the kind of troubles financial markets went through after the 2006 or 2009 tests.
In fact, despite South Korea’s strong words it is in little position to do anything about the test, and the coming days may show this is no longer primarily a South Korean issue. With no appetite for closing Kaesong , sanctions already tight, and aid stopped, there is little option left to Park and her government in terms of ‘stick’ to hit North Korea with. All they can, and seemingly will, do is take-away the ‘carrot’ of more cooperation Park had pledged during the election.
Frustrating though this may be for North Korea, it must be surely what it will have expected. North Korea seems to once again pushing away from reconciliation, and Seoul has little left to threaten it with. Yonhap perhaps unintentionally summarized it best when they told of Park “stressing that the new administration will use strong deterrence measures and strengthen cooperation with the international community to denuclearize the North.” If that sounds like vague, politico-speak indicative of nothing but the usual merry-go-round of condemnation and sanctions, that’s because it is. The ball is now more than ever in the UN’s, America’s, and China’s court. South Korea will continue to make its usual statements but in reality what can they or Park Geun-Hye do?