The doubts were noticed. Two days later, in public remarks at a celebration of the test, Jang Chol, president of North Korea’s State Academy of Sciences, offered a warning: North Korea would continue advancing its weapons technology at full speed. If the country’s enemies belittled the accomplishments of North Korea’s scientists and technicians, he added, “we will deal a crushing blow to the bastards’ heads by detonating another type of hydrogen bomb.”
Moreover, when North Korea started testing its new Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile this spring, Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying that it was capable of carrying a “large, heavy warhead,” which some experts took as an allusion to a hydrogen bomb. The same phrase came up in July after the testing of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, or ICBM.
The timing of the nuclear test should come as no shock, either. North Korea often tests its nukes on holidays or other special dates in the United States. Its first test, on October 9, 2006, coincided with Columbus Day. The second, on May 25, 2009, took place on Memorial Day. The third, on February 12, 2013, took place on the eve of the State of the Union Address, probably forcing some hasty revisions to President Barack Obama’s prepared text.
When North Korea conducted its first ICBM test on July 4 of this year, Kim Jong Un described it as a “gift for the American bastards” to mark the occasion, and pledged to send America more such “gift packages.” As warnings go, that was pretty coy, of course. Equally coy was his remark of last week that the latest Hwasong-12 test flight, which soared over Japan, was a mere “curtain-raiser.” But you don’t have to ask what the next act will be, because Kim Jong Un has already told us: North Korea will fly more missiles over Japan into the Pacific. The Hwasong-14, which the North Koreans now indicate was designed to carry the new H-bomb, is an obvious candidate. Also still on the table is a plan to test multiple Hwasong-12s in the vicinity of Guam, where U.S. bombers are present.
We also know how the United States and its allies will respond—more sanctions. Since there are no sanctions left for the United States to impose directly on North Korea, that presents a choice: either Washington can lean on Beijing, which is responsible for most of North Korea’s foreign trade today, to adopt new sanctions of its own, or it can try to cut out the middleman and levy its own “secondary” sanctions against the Chinese businesses that do business with North Korea.
President Donald Trump has even threatened to hit China with across-the-board tariffs, sometimes indicating that he’ll refrain from this policy if China cooperates on North Korea. As troublesome as Pyongyang can be, it’s starting to look like the tail wagging the dog of U.S.-China relations. But Washington is fresh out of other ideas.