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North Korea Declares It Conducted A Hydrogen Bomb Test


What started out as a report of an earthquake in North Korea quickly turned into a political earthquake when today, that country announced it had just tested a hydrogen bomb. When North Korea claimed last month that it had developed one, much of the world reacted with skepticism because if true, it would be a huge advance in the North's rudimentary nuclear weapons program. Joining us for more is Anna Fifield. She is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she's reported on North Korea's nuclear program for years. Thank you for joining us.

ANNA FIFIELD: You're welcome, nice to be here.

MONTAGNE: What is known so far about what did or did not happen at this North Korea test site?

FIFIELD: Well, we know that there was a nuclear test there at the site where it's conducted its three previous nuclear tests, up in the northeastern part of the country. The big question about whether - is whether this is a hydrogen bomb, like North Korea claimed today, or whether it's just an atomic test like it's carried out before. So North Korea claimed it has advanced its technology in this way. And if so, it would be, like, exponentially more powerful than what it has already. But the evidence so far doesn't seem to bear out North Korea's claim. The yield on the detonation seems to be more in line with the nuclear tests that its conducted in the past, and not with the a hydrogen bomb. So there is a lot of skepticism out there about its claim today. But clearly the fact that they even conducted the fourth nuclear test, the first in three years, is a big provocation from Pyongyang.

MONTAGNE: Well, there has been skepticism but also condemnation by the countries in the neighborhood.

FIFIELD: Right. Even if it is a nuclear test, it is, you know, a real throwing down the gauntlet to North Korea's neighbors. And it has been condemned, as you say, by everyone in the region today, including by China, which is the closest thing North Korea has to a friend, who have criticized it very severely. In Japan and in South Korea, we've had strong criticism from the leaders of both countries. They're both saying that they will take strong action to make sure North Korea pays a price for this.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, always hard to know what leadership in North Korea is thinking. But what would seem to be the motivation behind either carrying out a test - but claiming it to be a hydrogen bomb?

FIFIELD: Well, I don't want to get into Kim Jong-un's head. I think that's kind of a scary place. But we can surmise that he's trying to bolster his legitimacy as North Korea's leader. He is going to turn 33 on Friday, so he's a very young leader in this communist dynasty. So we think that he's probably trying to present himself as a strong, tough leader in North Korea. And in particular, North Korea will hold a congress of its Working Party in May this year. That's the first time in 36 years that this big occasion will have happened. So chances are, he's trying to give a huge, you know, event to crow about, basically, during this congress and something to celebrate during that time.

MONTAGNE: A U.N. Security Council resolution does forbid North Korea from carrying out a nuclear test. The Security Council has scheduled a closed meeting for later this morning. What can the U.N. or any world power do, though, to change North Korea's behavior?

FIFIELD: Well, so far the evidence is pretty much nothing. I mean, since 2006, when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, there have been four major resolutions come out of the U.N. Security Council, imposing sanctions on North Korea, trying to stop it from moving money, from using technology and equipment. And everything that the U.N. and the international community can do to try and stop them getting their hands on this kind of stuff. And clearly, it's amounted to very little, if anything at all. North Korea is continuing to work on its nuclear program. It's continuing to carry out all kinds of tests, including submarine ballistic missile tests. So so far, North Korea has proven to be pretty impervious to the kind of punishment that the international community can impose on it. Now, the big question here is China. China is the one that has the power to inflict some pain on North Korea. It's a main economic lifeline into North Korea. So the question now is how angry is China going to be about this - because China's biggest priority is stability in North Korea. It does not want the collapse of North Korea, hungry refugees coming over the border, American troops right (ph) up to a unified Korean born in with China. So China's actions here, you know, everybody's going to be watching to see just how angry they are.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

FIFIELD: Great to be here.

MONTAGNE: Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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