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“It go boom.”
That’s what Asian analyst Jeffrey Lewis posted on Twitter after he got word from the U.S. Geological Survey of a 5.1 magnitude explosion in North Korea. Lewis, who directs the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, knew it was no earthquake.
North Korea’s Feb. 12 test was significantly larger than its two previous tests—in 2006 (4.3) and 2009 (4.7). At an initially estimated 6-7 kilotons, it’s no match for the megaton nuclear devices the United States has in its arsenal. But as Lewis points out, North Korea is no longer incompetently following a U.S. or Soviet nuclear development path: “With fewer tests, North Korea is trying to move more quickly to larger, deliverable warheads based on the experience of others.”
The ultimate goal: a stockpile of missile-delivered thermonuclear weapons.
“The nuclear bomb is small in size but devastating in power,” a state newscaster boasted on North Korean television that night, making clear that the communist regime’s aim is to target the United States and its ally, South Korea. Residents in Seoul actually felt tremors from February’s underground blast, and as some took to the streets in fear, North Korean officials threatened the South with “final destruction.”
Officials say they hope to conduct one or two more nuclear tests this year in an effort to force the United States into diplomatic talks. But the regime of Kim Jong-un and his predecessors is notoriously unable to come to any negotiating table: North Korea is built on unblinking loyalty, even worship, of the ruling Kim family combined with the fervently held doctrine of juche, or self-reliance. Juche holds that man “is the master of everything and decides everything,” according to the government’s website. And it demands that any departure from official dictates be severely punished. That’s why North Korea has the fourth-largest army in the world—and why military prowess advances while ordinary citizens suffer.
One week after the test, two survivors of North Korea’s state gulag testified before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Shin Dong-hyuk and Kang Chol-hwan say the state’s political prison system is incarcerating 200,000 “criminals”—many of them Christians—in Holocaust-like camps: “Fundamentally, it is the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz,” testified Kang.
“People think the Holocaust is in the past, but it is still very much a reality. It is still going on in North Korea,” Shin told reporters on the sidelines of the human-rights summit. He is the only known surviving escapee from a “total control zone” camp—where three generations of his family had been held until he broke free seven years ago at age 23. When at 22 Shin met a new prisoner, he was unaware of any alternative reality existing outside the camps.
Kang told the Geneva audience that Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test was meant as a warning not only to the outside world but also to potential regime opponents within the country. “It is the international community’s duty to help them light the fire of resistance,” he said.
Others agree that without the nuclear threat Pyongyang cannot get Washington’s attention. “A North Korea without nuclear weapons,” writes Sohn Gwang Joo, director of Daily NK, “is just a regime burdened by economic woes, inflicting human rights abuses on its people. … Only with nuclear weapons are they able to maintain their regime, hidden away from the world. This is how they keep their people in chains: through military tension.”