DENVER – The most recent North Korean nuclear test is the most dangerous of the three to date. How the international community responds, in both word and deed, will say much about the world we live in. And, whether the Chinese like it or not, how they respond will speak volumes about what kind of role China will play in global governance.
While details are not yet fully known, the test suggests substantial progress on the part of North Korea’s scientists in increasing the yield of their weaponry. The October 2006 test suggested the possibility of a faulty design, while there were questions about whether the 2009 effort was even nuclear in nature.
But North Korea’s test this month was by all measures the real thing. Moreover, though it is hard to evaluate North Korean bluster on these occasions, there appears to be reason to be concerned that North Korean scientists have also made progress in miniaturizing their design, a step needed to mount a nuclear device on a missile.
Most worrisome of all, we cannot rule out that North Korea may have succeeded in enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. We have scant information about this, beyond some limited information about international acquisitions and some detection of traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU) on materials brought out of North Korea. If North Korea is using HEU in its bomb design, we have little knowledge about where it comes from and how much of it they have, or could have in the future.