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Did North Korea actually explode a nuke? If so, now what? 

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

"The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent."

The above, eerily Dr. Seuss-like declaration, appeared last week on North Korea's English-language propaganda Web site. The reliably weird Korean Central News Agency ( was announcing that, on Oct. 9, North Korea exploded a nuclear device. The other big news stories out of North Korea that day? The government issued collectible stamps to honor the 80th anniversary of an organization called the "Down-with-Imperialism-Union." Also, North Korea's Dear Leader received not one, but TWO floral baskets from well-wishers. And who says the media focus too much on the negative?

Despite KCNA's announcement, not everyone is convinced that North Korea actually exploded a nuke. The main reason for skepticism is the explosion's apparent small size. North Korea allegedly told China that the test was supposed to yield a roughly four-kiloton explosion. In nuke-speak, that means that the force of their nuclear weapon's blast was supposed to be equal to that of 4,000 tons of TNT.

North Korea conducted its test in a cave, so it was difficult for outsiders to measure precisely, but American intelligence officials who've spoken to reporters say North Korea's test yielded a measly 200-ton blast. That's 20 times smaller than the four kilotons they supposedly told the Chinese to expect.

So what happened? There are three possibilities.

Possibility No. 1: North Korea tried to psyche out the world out by detonating roughly 200 tons of plain ol' TNT in a cave. I suppose that's possible, but atmospheric radioactivity levels near North Korea indicate that the explosion was nuclear.

Possibility No. 2: North Korea tested a super-sophisticated weapon that intentionally produced a small blast. That doesn't seem likely. First of all, why would they tell the Chinese that the blast was supposed to be bigger? Secondly, low-yield nuclear devices are exceedingly difficult to produce. With the exception of its awesome progaganda Web site, there's little indication that North Korea is capable of such technology.

Possibility No. 3: The most likely explanation is that North Korea's nuclear test was only partially successful. The device could have simply been poorly designed and/or poorly built, resulting in only partial nuclear chain reaction. Building nuclear (or nucular) weapons ain't easy. Only eight countries before North Korea have managed to do it (United States, Russia, U.K., France, Israel, India, Pakistan, China).

Let's say, for the sake of wrapping up this column quickly so I can go eat, that No. 3 is true, that North Korea has nukes, but that they're poorly built and unreliable. Now what?

The U.N. has already imposed economic and military sanctions on North Korea. If the sanctions are going to work, they will have to be enforced largely by China. China is North Korea's primary economic and military patron. China is skittish about pressing North Korea too hard, however, because, in the event of war or North Korea's economic or political collapse, China's gonna have hundreds of thousands of hungry, desperate North Korean refugees.

Japan, for lack of a more fancy-sounding description, is freaking out right now. Having a nuclear arsenal allows North Korea to puff out its chest and act like a big shot. It's not inconceivable that North Korea would lob some conventional missiles at Japan under the pretense of defending Korean nationalism, knowing full well that Japan (and the United States) now have to think twice before firing back. Japan may now consider acquiring a nuclear deterrent of its own.

What will the Bush administration do now? It needs to figure out a way to get international nuclear inspectors back into North Korea. The world can't pry North Korea away from its nukes just yet, but it might be able to keep an eye on the nukes and keep North Korea from selling them to terrorists.

Will the Bush team git-r-done? Don't count on it. From 2001 to 2005, Bush's policy to deal with North Korea's nuclear program was to call its leader a pygmy and to invade Iraq. The White House didn't act when North Korea kicked out nuclear inspectors in 2002. It didn't act when North Korea removed fuel rods from its reactors to start making weapons. And it has never sat down with North Korea, one-on-one, to discuss a mutually acceptable compromise.

Contact Andisheh at

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