North Korea's nuclear test: How worried should we be?

World leaders roundly condemn Pyongyang after the Hermit Kingdom conducts its third nuclear test

South Korean protesters
(Image credit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, in defiance of foreign leaders around the world. Condemnation came swiftly. President Obama called the long-threatened move a "highly provocative act" demanding "swift and credible action by the international community." China, which had urged Pyongyang not to conduct the test, declared its "staunch opposition" but urged calm as the United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting.

North Korea's official KCNA news service said the test involved a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force" than those the reclusive communist regime tested in 2006 and 2009, suggesting that Pyongyang is getting closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. Is it time to panic?

One thing's for sure: "This isn't good," says Casey Chan at Gizmodo. The unusual seismic activity detected around North Korea's testing area had measured as a 4.9-magnitude earthquake, which is stronger than the shaking caused by the country's earlier tests in 2006 (3.9 magnitude) and 2009 (4.5 magnitude). The fact that North Korea says the device was "miniaturized" suggests that Pyongyang is "very close to being able to put a device on a missile," North Korea expert Andrei Lankov tells Fox News, and that's reason for real concern.

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It's particularly troubling that Pyongyang appears unmoved by the public scolding from China — North Korea's most powerful ally, notes Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. That makes it pretty clear that North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, is confident that "China won't do anything more than waggle its finger at Pyongyang" as it rushes recklessly ahead with its doomsday dreams.

"Aside from saber-rattling, though, what does the DPRK's third nuclear test mean?" asks Marc Ambinder at The Week. The answer remains unclear, for now. And China's reaction could prove key in determining the price Pyongyang will pay for its defiance.

China has moved troops and artillery to its shared border with North Korea. It has warned the country in public not to conduct its test. Since China rarely criticizes its client state in public, the Chinese pressure might mean that it will be on board with a more forceful response to Pyongyang. What type of sanctions will China agree to? Given how poor North Korea is, any financial sanction regime has the potential to hurt innocent people. There is no real "middle class" to speak of, unlike in Iran. [The Week]

Before world leaders know how worried they should be, they need to figure out a few things, Stanford professor Siegfried S. Hecker explains at Foreign Policy. One prime question is whether the bomb was fueled by plutonium, of which North Korea has a limited supply, or, for the first time, by highly enriched uranium, which would suggest the country has developed the ability to produce enough fuel to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal. Still, even if every detail proves chilling, there's no need to panic.

It may make Pyongyang more aggressive and provocative in dealing with South Korea and Japan. However, one more test does not fundamentally change the security threat North Korea poses. Pyongyang can threaten South Korea, Japan, or U.S. regional assets, but it can only use its nuclear weapons if it is prepared to accept the destruction of the regime. [Foreign Policy]

The real danger from this test might not emanate from Pyongyang, suggests Mick Hartley at his blog. "It's the Iran connection that's the most worrying." North Korean leaders, having chosen bombs over electricity, might share the knowledge from this test with Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have similar nuclear and long-range missile dreams. "There's at least a degree of cold rationality to the North Koreans: they're not about to nuke Seoul, or Japan. With the Iranian theocracy, and their terrorist proxies, all bets are off."

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.