US officials, led by President George W. Bush, went through a series of public responses to North Korea’s first nuclear test Monday, October 9 – first surprise, then the play-down.
Was the test fact, fake, failure or just too small to matter? They asked. If it was less than one kiloton, as South Korea, France and the US claimed, the device was smaller than the12.5 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII.
The expressions of surprise in the West – if not the skepticism – were feigned.
For at least two years – if not more, the Western intelligence services following North Korea’s nuclear program knew that Kim Jong Il and his military junta had piled up 3 to 4 nuclear bombs. In 2004, they estimated that by 2006 his stock would have grown to half a dozen bombs or even eight.
Radiation level confirmation can take up to three days for a relatively small blast like one that occurred Monday. More detailed analysis of the actual power of the device, or whether test was a success or a failure, can take longer – two weeks according to US analysts.
In the face of this skepticism, a senior North Korean official threatened to put nuclear warheads on missiles and conduct further nuclear tests. This was Pyongyang’s way of warning Washington that a second test would be carried out if needed to settle doubts.
There was no doubt in Japan, or in Russia’s Pacific coast town of Vladivostok, 150 kilometers from the North Korean border, where hundreds of students protested: “We don’t want to be mutants.” People in the city rushed out to buy radiation meters as soon as they heard that Moscow was “100% certain” a nuclear test had been carried out and measured it at between five to 15 kilotons.
The most devastating consequence of the North Korean action is political: the radiation fallout may be invisible but it has blasted a large hole in American nuclear and military deterrent leverage both in Pyongyang and in Tehran. It has also smashed the credibility of the United Nations’ various peacekeeping and monitoring mechanisms – above all, the Vienna based International Atomic Energy Agency whose function it is to combat proliferation. Not a peep has come out of the nuclear watchdog’s director Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei since the test. Israel’s ultimate weapon as the only nuclear-armed Middle East power is jeopardized; North Korea’s test has burst the dam which held its neighbors and enemies back from entering into a nuclear arms race.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources see Saudi Arabia as the first nation crouched on the starting line.
Up until October 9, Saudi princes were preparing to meet the Iranian threat by developing a home-grown nuclear program in partnership with Egypt targeted for a weapon in 5 to 10 years. This week, the few royal voices in Riyadh demanding that the kingdom take the short cut of buying a nuke off the shelf are much louder.