North Korea’s announcement of its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006 has been expected for some time.
Seismic evidence at this point does not rule out that the “test” was a massive conventional explosion (in the manner of the planned US “Divine Strake” test). However satellite imagery and signals intelligence should provide a greater level of confidence, that the explosion was, in fact, nuclear.
In a February 28, 2006 global threat assessment before the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Negroponte, US Director of National Intelligence said unlike Iran, North Korea claims already to have nuclear weapons, “a claim that we assess is probably true”.
Assuming North Korea’s nuclear capability is as North Korean leader Kim Jung-il claims, Kim Jung-il had a choice of when to hold the test and when to announce it.
One limitation was that the test should be held at a time when the probability of a successful detonation was sufficiently high.
A test sooner or later was inevitable given Kim Jung-il tendency towards grandiose gestures. Furthermore (unlike Israel) North Korea is probably too backward (in some areas) to run a reliable computer simulation of a nuclear test, so a real test was necessary.
Testing of a nuclear weapon should not have greatly changed the strategic picture if the whole world knew North Korea had nuclear weapons, but public fears and politics have changed the picture.
The major reasons for the test and its timing are likely to remain unclear until a comprehensive statement from the North Koreans and (declassified) intelligence assessments clarify them.
Why test on October 9?
It was the ninth anniversary (and one day) since Kim Jung-il came to power. The extra day may have been due to technical delays.
On October 10, 2006, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon faced a vote on his bid to become the next Secretary General of the United Nations. He has just been nominated for that post.
It provides the Republicans with the necessary foreign policy crisis to have some hope of “winning” the mid-term elections on November 7, 2006, as in times of crisis Americans rally to the president, including his (Republican) Party.
Most Americans would have been unaware of North Korea’s previous ownership of nuclear weapons. An actual test provides a headline to allow the truth (and fear) to sink in. North Korea’s action provides Bush with a sound reason to make bold statesman-like speeches against North Korea. He may also launch some military action such as a stop and search “quarantine” of North Korean shipping and he will be seen to support UN sanctions.
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