China hand in N-proliferation

Published: 08th February 2013 07:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th February 2013 07:46 AM   |  A+A-

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on February 3 that a third nuclear test by North Korea was imminent at its Punggye test site in the Hamgyong Mountain range in the northeastern part of that country adjoining the Chinese Jiangsu province. According to another news story, this specific site has three unevenly horizontal L-shaped tunnels bored into the 7,000-feet high granite mountain, Mount Mantap, each with nine bulkheads to absorb the shock waves from nuclear tests. The granite prevents venting of noble gases, such as xenon, that can help outside experts divine the nature of the device.

The Washington think-tank, Institute for Science and International Security, is of the view that the Punggye complex, inclusive of the instrumentation bunker to record the test data, closely resembles the Pakistani Ras Koh nuclear testing facility in the Chagai Hills. The Yonhap account revealed that North Korea’s National Defence Committee decided on a ‘high level’ test to be carried out in the western-most shaft as early as mid-February 2013. That the phrase ‘high level’ referred to a thermonuclear test was confirmed by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, on January 25 mentioning that a fusion-boosted fission (FBF) device using plutonium as ‘primary’ in a staged thermonuclear weapon — which by itself is a ‘mini thermonuclear’, would be triggered by North Korea. A second near-simultaneous test of a uranium device is possible both to test the explosive cladding of the ‘secondary’ in the thermonuclear package, and to mask the results of the FBF. Indeed, the weekly science journal, Nature, on February 3 contends that scientists re-examining isotopic data have concluded that the North Koreans conducted two low-yield tests in 2010, one of which may have been an FBF.

In the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Siegfried Hecker, a former US nuclear weapons designer, revised his earlier conclusion that the first North Korean nuclear test was a failure with just 1-2 kiloton (KT) yield, to suggest that it was actually a successful test of a small, light warhead/weapon packing over 8 KT of destructive power. Hecker, who has been allowed to access sensitive North Korean nuclear facilities, reported that during a visit three years ago he saw an installation with 2,000 centrifuges, presumably of the P-1 type of Pakistani origin. This number, however, indicates that North Korea doesn’t have enough of them. A minimum 10,000 uranium centrifuges are required to output a reasonable amount of weapon-grade uranium enriched to 92 percent plus level. Also, a new centrifuge plant takes five years to tune up and another five years to output the 14 kg of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) required for the ‘secondary’.

The situation raises the question: Which country transferred the thermonuclear fuel, tritium, for the FBF and the large stock of HEU to North Korea? The answer, by connecting the dots, points to China and Pakistan.

China has been the most egregious proliferator of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology to Pakistan, North Korea, Libya and, per Western sources, to Iran. North Korea, as a pariah state is a pliable instrument for Beijing and Islamabad to exploit. As Pyongyang doesn’t give a damn, it is utilised as a proxy to, in one case, stir up trouble and, in the other case, possibly to test a Pakistani FBF design vetted by Chinese scientists. With great strategic forethought, Beijing spawned these proliferation dangers and, thereafter, positioned itself as part of the solution to, for instance, keep the unpredictable North Koreans in check, and Iran from reaching the nuclear weapons threshold. Beijing bolsters its ‘mediator’ credentials by occasionally feigning anger at Pyongyang’s brinksmanship and at Islamabad for the Sunni mullahs radicalising the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. Elsewhere, there is evidence showing Beijing has clandestinely transferred thermonuclear materials along with technical expertise to a Pakistan craving fusion weapons to match India’s arsenal. Islamabad, however, cannot afford to test its own hydrogen bomb but can use the Punggye site to do so. North Korea is happy to oblige as long as it shares in the data, notoriety, and fusion weapons skills, combining these to extort food aid and development assistance from the international community.

Some experts maintain that Pakistan sourced the HEU for the North Korean FBF, except it is under close observation. In view of the state-of-the-art nuclear forensics available with the US, Islamabad cannot risk moving HEU to North Korea for fear of punitive actions and sanctions, which it cannot survive. However, there is no reason for Pakistan to attempt such a foolhardy venture considering China can easily transport the HEU, along with the tritium, undetected across the mountainous land border.

Beijing prizes its mediatory role between the West and particularly North Korea called a ‘weak and crazy’ state by George Friedman of Stratfor. It is a description that fits Pakistan as well. Controlling both these states equipped with thermonuclear capabilities constitutes a powerful negative leverage — something that Beijing has used effectively over the years to keep the proliferation issues simmering, but not boiling over, in the process winning the gratitude of the West. Besides, a hydrogen bomb armed-Pakistan will have India obsessing even more about its smaller neighbour, thereby at once reducing itself and taking itself out of the big power game afoot in Asia, which serves China’s purpose just fine.

Whether or not North Korea explodes a thermonuclear device anytime soon, this is the direction in which the rogue triad of China, Pakistan and North Korea is moving or manoeuvring to move. It is imperative that New Delhi issue an immediate demarche to Washington, stating unequivocally that nuclear testing by North Korea and its acting as proxy for China and Pakistan is pushing India towards resumption of nuclear testing. Open-ended fusion tests, desperately needed since the failure of the hydrogen device in 1998, will render the country’s thermonuclear stance credible. Tragically, the feeble-minded Manmohan Singh government has not stood up for the national interest all these years, and is unlikely to muster the gumption to issue this demarche in its last months in office.

Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at


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