Ask the Experts

Ask the Experts: The significance of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests

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While sanctions are in place and Secretary of Defense James Mattis threatened North Korea, experts don't see war as inevitable.

Earlier this month, North Korea conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb, the most powerful North Korean nuclear weapon yet recorded. The hydrogen bomb test caused a tremor ranking at 6.3 on the Richter scale, per CNBC.

The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea, targeting its primary exports. These sanctions would reduce the country’s economic capability to fuel its growing nuclear industry, according to CNN.

The Daily Orange spoke with Corri Zoli, director of research and research assistant professor at Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, and Frederick Carriere, research professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, to discuss the heightened global tension surrounding North Korea.

The D.O.: Why is North Korea’s testing of a hydrogen bomb more significant than their past five nuclear tests?

Corri Zoli: Their technology system has radically improved. They’ve been able to do this miniaturization thing which suggests either they’ve trained up a new generation of sophisticated experts, or they are relying on another hostile nation’s expertise — many have speculated Iran —  or it could be some shared expertise for these three or four different regions.

These states in these regions may have a bone to pick with the United States or NATO and other security collaborations, or they’re doing this on the sly to buck the system a little bit, to try to establish a little more hegemony in their region.

Frederick Carriere: The magnitude of destruction a hydrogen bomb is capable of underscores the general concern about their testing and potential using of these weapons.

They tested a kind of bomb that was used in Hiroshima many, many years ago, and for all intents and purposes that bomb would be just as devastating. It makes a much more forceful statement with a hydrogen bomb.

The D.O.: United States Defense Secretary James Mattis responded to reporters with stating that any threat to the United States, its allies or its territories “will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.” What do you think qualifies as a threat?

C.Z.: This, I mean (Mattis), is obviously referring to this kind of technological advance and then the statements that North Korea’s government is making to threaten both its regional neighbors — Japan, in particular — so it’s essentially making statements.

And now it has the tools and technological advancements to back up these threats. So he is referring to that, and stating that we now have justification if we need to act.

F.C.: The latter part of that statement is alluding to a possibility that we would actually use some kind of nuclear device against North Korea.

But the first part — “threat” — he is being very, very vague. Normally, (the Secretary of Defense) would say if we are attacked, then of course we will result in a military response.

The D.O.: What effect will the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions have against North Korea? Will it cause any global economic issues?

C.Z.: I don’t know about global economic issues, but I think that this is the most important piece of the story. The five permanent members of the Security Council went into the same room and negotiated to create a unilateral consensus on creating a pretty serious sanctions regime against North Korea for their threatening behavior.

I mean, we’re not doing very well at this historical moment with Russia, and China we’ve had a lot of pure competition with over the years, so the fact that everyone could sit in the same room and agree is extremely significant.

F.C.: I think the problem of whether or not UN sanctions will achieve their purpose is a question that has not changed. Even in the UN resolution themselves, there is always a paragraph that states: This sanction should not, in any way, negatively impact the humanitarian needs of the people.

It’s only the real idealists that are absolutely convinced that the sanction regime will force North Korea to cave in order to survive … Sanctions are in place in order to send the message that North Korea is an unacceptable member of the international community due to their continuous testing of nuclear weaponry.

The D.O.: Do you think war against North Korea is inevitable or avoidable?

C.Z.: I think war is getting ahead of ourselves. This is a confusion people often have on international security issues. A lot of times leaders, especially like the Secretary of Defense, make statements because they’re trying to deter a bad actor from doing something.

… In some ways you’re seeing much stronger language coming out of the national security community now because they’re trying to reset expectations globally.

We are not going to tolerate some of the things we were tolerating before. Furthermore, we are going to give you all the information you need to know to not miscalculate. They’re using this really strong language; that doesn’t mean we are going to war. It’s a language that’s instrumental to communicate to people, very clearly, that we are strong.

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