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Not only might North Korea's third underground explosion of an atomic device be a sign that it is closer to having a weapon that's light enough to be put on a missile, it seems to be a not-so-subtle message aimed at the U.S.
North Korea's "main external audience" when it does things such as this "is often the United States," NPR's Frank Langfitt said earlier today on Morning Edition. "And Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, seemed to time it to try to upstage President Obama's State of the Union" address, which is is set for Tuesday evening.
"North Korea sees the U.S. as ... its biggest threat," as Frank notes.
The global reaction to news of North Korea's test has been swift. The White House released a statement from the president saying that "this is a highly provocative act." that "violates North Korea's obligations under numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions."
The test also drew condemnation from "Japan, Europe and Pyongyang's only major ally, China, which summoned the North Korean ambassador to protest," Reuters writes. The wire service adds that "the Security Council will meet on Tuesday to discuss its reaction to the test, although North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world and has few external economic links that can be targeted."
As for the test itself and what it means, according to The New York Times:
"Preliminary estimates by South Korea suggested the test was much more powerful than the previous two conducted by the North.
"Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korea's Defense Ministry, said Tuesday's blast generated an explosive yield of between six and seven kilotons, far greater than the yield of less than one kiloton detected in the North's 2006 test and an estimated yield of two to six kilotons in its 2009 test. But it appeared less powerful than the first bomb the United States dropped on Japan, in Hiroshima in 1945, which had an explosive yield of 15 kilotons."
News reports analyzing what the test signals about the status of North Korea's weapons program, such as this one from The Wall Street Journal, are focusing on two things: North Korea's claim that the device was "a smaller and light A-bomb" that might fit on a missile, and the claim that the nation's nuclear capability "has become diversified" — which might mean it has used enriched uranium, not reprocessed plutonium, to fuel its device.
As always when it comes to claims from North Korea, verification is virtually impossible at this point.
After news broke about the test, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that "North Korea may conduct an additional nuclear test and launch a long-range missile if the United Nations moves to penalize it for its third nuclear test, Seoul's spy agency said Tuesday."
Update at 8:45 a.m. ET. More Tests In Coming Days?
North Korea has been " promising all along to do something splashier, with more yield, and clearly they have succeeded," says Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But, he adds, while "they are claiming that this is a quantitative and qualitative improvement over their last test and it seems that's true ... it still doesn't mean they have something that's ready to go on top of a missile."
Now, says Pollack, the question is "will there be another test in the coming days? They have multiple tunnel entries and they may be preparing for a whole series of tests, such as Pakistan conducted in 1998."
At the U.N., he predicts, "the United States, South Korea and Japan will be pushing for more on the sanctions front. The Chinese have been warning the North Koreans not to test or risk damaging their relationship."
"But talk is cheap," Pollack says. "Let's see. The new Chinese leadership seems to be less inclined to defer to North Korea. It will be interesting to see whether China is willing to collaborate with the other Security Council members in something more than just a wrist slap."