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Was the Korean Nuke Test a Dud?

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006

Apparently, the seismic and geological analyses of the North Korean nuclear tests that are now beginning to trickle in point toward a failed test.

This Korea Times article is the first news report I've found questioning the test's success.

And Jeffrey Lewis at the blog Arms Control Wonk is all over the story. He cites already published U.S. Geological Survey data as evidence that the test was a dud. According to Lewis, the French defense minister was the first official from the government of a major power to entertain the possibility of a failure. Lewis also explains why it didn't work.

Let's hope he's right. Because if it didn't work, it's not good news at all for the Kim regime. If the test was a failure, it means that the regime succeeded in uniting the world, including China, in opposition to its action, but failed to reap any of the benefits of those actions, such as deterrence and greater leverage in negotiations.

Last week, in his blog, Nikolas Gvosdev of The National Interest, held out the possibility of a failure as one of the positive consequences that could come from the test. He also pointed out that a test, whatever its result, has the benefit of increasing, rather than decreasing, certainty over N. Korea's true capabilities. A good outcome no matter what, he argued:

I find it odd the strenuous effort being undertaken to try and prevent North Korea from going ahead with a nuclear test.

We already treat North Korea as if it is a de facto nuclear power; why not have some definitive proof that they can actually assemble and detonate a device?

A test also forces the other countries that comprise the Six-Power talks to decide whether or not getting North Korea to de-nuclearize is truly a priority for them or not.

The argument I often hear is that a test (always assumed to be successful; no one takes the point that it could fail with even more negative consequences for the regime) crosses some sort of pre-agreed line beyond which there can be no de-nuclearization. I don't see what the fuss is about over the test. The real question is dismantling or destroying the infrastructure that is in place; the test has little to do with whether that infrastructure remains functional or not.

I also don't know why we want to continue this state of ambiguity over North Korea's capabilities.

Increasing certainty is an undeniably good outcome if the test was a failure, because that kind of increased certainty -- demonstrating the Kim regime is less capable than initially thought -- serves only to give N. Korea fewer options.

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