North Korea "Targets" The United States
After a year free of warlike bluster, North Korea has now says that it threatens the United States with its missiles and nuclear warheads. This is probably a response to the passage of UNSC 2087 this week, increasing sanctions on North Korea.
North Korea recently put a satellite into orbit, one of its more successful rocket launchings, although the satellite was not successful. The increased sanctions were in response to the launch. Preparations for an underground nuclear test appear to have been in progress for a few months, with activity increasing in the past month. The United Nations has warned North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test.
North Korea has a limited stock of plutonium – enough for perhaps four to six weapons - and cannot produce more until it has an operating reactor. Another test would use up some of that plutonium, unless the uranium enrichment facility shown to American visitors in 2010 is part of a larger complex that has produced enough enriched uranium for a test device. Given the limited amounts of fissionable material North Korea has, it would be important for them to learn something from a test.
In order to threaten the United States, North Korea would need more reliable missiles. The latest launch was the first successful one. No doubt their missiles are improving, but they have not yet achieved consistency. It would also be necessary to have a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on the missile. An objective of a test would be to learn how to make a smaller nuclear weapon. Enriched uranium, requiring a larger critical mass than plutonium, is more difficult to make smaller.
If the test is for effect, to make up for the small yields in earlier tests, then a surefire design with enriched uranium would be relatively easy to produce.
China has been North Korea’s protector and supplies food and energy, mainly because a political or economic collapse in North Korea would send large numbers of refugees into China. Nontheless, China supported the UN resolution, as it has past resolutions.
Guardian editorial: Nevertheless, from Kim Jong-un's view, a third nuclear test is a high-stakes gamble. It tests Beijing's patience to the limits, giving it very little option but to go along with a new round of UN security council mandated sanctions. China has already agreed to support tougher sanctions in the event of a further rocket launch or nuclear test. Building up its missile and nuclear strength boosts the young leader's domestic standing – but only up to a point. China has its own territorial agenda and trade relations in the East China Sea, and an unstable and destabilising regime in North Korea is not part of it. Containment, yes. Anything more, no.
North Korean Capabilities:
Photo: December rocket launch from Christian Science Monitor