Analysis: What Kim Jong-un may be trying to prove

North Korea has put on an extraordinary two-part show of its nuclear ambitions, releasing photos of leader Kim Jong Un next to what it described as a hydrogen bomb for an intercontinental ballistic missile, then actually detonating a device in its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear test to date.

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The underground test, a major nose-thumb at Washington, Beijing and all of the North’s neighbours, follows an intense few months that have seen Kim launching missiles at record clip and in ways that are much more provocative than usual.

It was almost certainly intended to get under the skin of one man in particular: President Donald Trump, whose first salvo back, in a tweet, was: “North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”

Here’s a closer look at what the North did Sunday, and some of the possible reasons why.

Related readingThe morning teaser

Bright and early, North Korea’s state media started posting photos of Kim visiting the country’s Nuclear Weapons Institute to see what state media described as “a signal turn in nuclear weaponisation.”

A front-page story in the ruling-party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, carried photos of Kim watching a shiny, peanut-shaped device it said was a hydrogen bomb designed to be mounted into the North’s new “Hwasong-14” intercontinental ballistic missile. The North’s official news agency, KCNA, also released the photos, which were clearly intended to be seen by a global audience.

Whether the North can make a nuclear warhead small and light enough to put on top of a long-range missile has long been a matter of heated debate among foreign experts. This was clearly an attempt to address those doubts. The North in July had demonstrated for the first time that it has – or is very close to having – an operational ICBM, though experts still believe it could at best reach Chicago and will probably require another year or two to perfect.

The photos created a stir among missile and nuclear weapons experts on Twitter, with the general consensus being that the design appeared to look about right for a sophisticated thermonuclear warhead. The peanut shape is created by two rounded “stages” within the device that give it an extra boost and a far higher yield than simpler nuclear bombs.

The state media reports stressed that the bomb was made with domestic parts and workmanship, suggesting that more could be made without outside experts or imports.

Related readingBiggest blast yet

Before North Korea watchers had a chance to digest the photos, seismographs recorded a big tremor around 12.30 pm North Korea time.

Ground motion is a great indicator of an underground nuclear test, and sometimes the only one. The power of the blast, its location at the North’s nuclear testing site and the shallow epicentre left little doubt.

North Korea has repeatedly stated that it will continue to pursue nuclear weapons and long-range missiles capable of reaching the US because it sees that strategy as its only protection against what it believes is a hostile superpower bent on regime change or possibly outright invasion.

The device that was detonated on Sunday is believed to have a much bigger yield than anything the North has demonstrated – possibly 70 kilotons according to Japan’s defense minister.

That’s far more than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima (15 kilotons) and Nagasaki (around 20).

0:00 Turnbull slams North Korea after nuclear test Share Turnbull slams North Korea after nuclear test

A curtain raiser 

Starting with the launches of two ICBMs in July that are believed to have the range to strike the US mainland, North Korea has been far more aggressive in its military activities over the past few months than usual.

It’s possible Kim Jong Un – feeling either threatened or emboldened by Trump – has decided to hurry to get that nuclear deterrent his country wants.

But tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise every year in the spring and late summer, when the US and South Korea hold annual military exercises.

North Korea has stated it is, at least in part, responding to Washington’s decision to hold the exercises, which ended last week. It has also protested a new round of sanctions recently approved by the UN and the repeated dispatch of B-1B bombers from the island of Guam to the skies of South Korea – a show of force from Washington to reassure allies in Seoul and Tokyo.

North Korea’s state media reported that Kim said the launch of an intermediate range missile over Japan just a week ago was a “curtain-raiser” for more activity ahead.

Sunday’s test would certainly fit that bill.

But it will almost certainly raise the curtain on something else – a tougher response, either in sanctions, diplomatic isolation or a bolstered US military presence – that Kim and his top lieutenants will have to take into consideration as well.

Tigers’ AFL drought concerns Malthouse

Mick Malthouse is worried about Richmond’s barren AFL finals record under Damien Hardwick and suspects it would nag at their coach.

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The Tigers have rallied superbly this year to reach the top four for the first time under Hardwick, after missing last season’s top eight.

There is a growing mood of excitement at Punt Rd, especially given last week’s re-signing of Dustin Martin.

But the Tigers also lost three-straight elimination finals before last year and have not won a game in September since 2001.

Malthouse, a three-time premiership coach and a player in Richmond’s last premiership team 37 years ago, said the lack of a finals win cannot be ignored.

“It’s a good question, because the easy answer is just to dismiss it and go ‘it’s no worries’,” he said.

“But I think it does hang over you.

“It will hang over Damien for a while, because he’s had the side in the finals and they haven’t won a finals match.

“He won’t lose sleep over it, he won’t be thinking of it as they’re running down the race, but I guess there’s a little nagging thing there.”

But Malthouse said there would be only one relief for the Tigers – and that will not come by beating Geelong in Friday’s qualifying final.

“It would be handy to win one … (but) there’s no relief winning a final, it’s a relief when you win a premiership,” he said.

Malthouse, who will present the Jock McHale medal to the premiership coach, admits to a soft spot for the Tigers ahead of the finals.

“Any club where you’ve bled and (had) broken bones and probably broken bones, you have a soft spot,” he said.

“Every club I’ve been to – and I know I’ve been to a lot of them – they’ve had a special place.

“But when you see a club like that, who have come from where they did last year, and the way they’ve played their footy this year, and they find themselves in the top four … it’s fantastic for the Tigers.

Malthouse would love to no longer be a member of Richmond’s “most recent” premiership team.

“I don’t go home and polish it every day (his player’s premiership medal), I will give you the tip – I don’t even know where it is,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter who wins, but if the Tigers win, it will be fantastic.”

Penrith can overcome Moylan saga: Wallace

Veteran Peter Wallace is adamant Penrith can overcome the speculation over captain Matt Moylan’s future which threatens to damage their NRL finals campaign.

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Moylan was set to meet with club general manager Phil Gould on Monday amid reports that he is unhappy and rival clubs are circling.

It’s bad timing for Penrith who are preparing for a sudden-death final against at Allianz Stadium Manly on Saturday.

Fronting the NRL finals launch in place of Moylan on Monday, Wallace denied the saga would affect their chances of reversing last Saturday’s defeat by the Sea Eagles.

“There’s never a good time but it just so happens to be now,” Wallace said.

“It’s not a distraction for us. I know the whole team’s excited about playing this week and they’re not going to let anything distract us. It’s got nothing to do with us.

“Matt and the club will sort that out and then move forward.”

Wallace is currently deputising as skipper for an injured Moylan but believes the 26-year-old should remain the long-term captain, a role he was appointed to at the start of last season.

“Moyza’s the captain and there’s a lot of pressure that comes from being a captain. I think he’s handled it the best he can. It’s all a learning curve too when you first start,” Wallace said.

“Obviously I want him to stay. He’s an integral part of what we’re trying to do here. I’d love to see him stay but that’s obviously between Matt and the club and they’ll sort that out.”

Moylan’s fitness status for the Manly clash is also up in the air after he missed the team’s final two regular season games with a hamstring injury.

Rookie fullback Dylan Edwards too is racing the clock to overcome a knee injury, and Wallace wasn’t confident either player would prove their fitness in time for Sunday’s elimination final.

“I don’t expect them to play, (but) I’m hoping they will play,” Wallace said.

“They’re going to have to do some running this week and some fitness tests to see how they’re travelling and there’ll be a call made later in the week.

“Obviously we’d love to get them back but they’re going to have to do a bit of work before they prove their fitness.”

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is likely to be named at fullback after Dean Whare was switched out of the position midway through Saturday’s game at Lottoland.

North Korea at the tipping point: why we’ve just seen a gamechanger on the Korean peninsula

At the beginning of the northern summer, just three months ago, no one thought North Korea had a missile that could reach the United States.

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That all changed on July 4 when North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, which could travel as far as Alaska. Weeks later, they tested another Hwasong-14,  with a likely range as far as New York. They even released stamps to commemorate the occasion. 

A North Korean commemorative stamp released in July. KCNA

The same weapon could also reach Australia. It’s designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Now Pyongyang has conducted what the Japanese and South Korean governments have confirmed was a sixth nuclear test, claiming it was a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. 

If that is true, the risk calculations change completely.

No defence analysts expect the US to initiate a nuclear conflict with North Korea, although if Pyongyang made a nuclear strike at Korea, Japan, Guam or US bases in the region, that would certainly invite nuclear retaliation from the US.

But Pyongyang has also insisted that its nuclear capacity is only for retaliation or deterrence.

That’s why defence analysts think that Kim Jong-un is not actually insane, despite western opinions to the contrary. They think he is a rational actor, and the North’s frequent weapons tests are necessary steps in acquiring a nuclear deterrent against the US, because Kim believes that will give him his best chance of achieving his objectives.

Kim’s number one priority is the survival of his regime.

“Kim Jong-un is not a crazy man,” said Professor Sung-han Kim, Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University in Seoul. “He knows that he will be dead if he triggers a war. He is thus obsessed with preserving his own regime by maximizing his leverage – through improving nuclear and ICBM capabilities – over the US in the future negotiations.”

The point is that once he has reliable nuclear weapons that could land on San Francisco within half an hour’s flight, Kim can make the US considerably less likely to launch a nuclear attack against him no matter what else he does, as well as give him more bargaining power at the table. 

0:00 The three latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile tests by North Korea. Share The three latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile tests by North Korea.

That’s because a military intervention designed to stop the North’s nukes program would be so catastrophic. The likelihood of success of a “limited” strike targeting the leadership is slim, with a whole range of unpredictable consequences. Even a conventional war on the Korean peninsula would likely see at least hundreds of thousands killed in a conflict that could last months and paralyse South Korea, a country of 50 million and the world’s 12th largest economy.

But not everyone agrees.

Asian security expert Dr Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra said “if we live with a nuclear North Korea they can build up their nuclear forces. … [In ten years] they would have perfected their ICBM and also their submarine-launched ballistic missiles which would give them what’s known as an assured second strike capability, that then makes it much more difficult to place pressure on North Korea in the future.”

A nuclear arms build up in North Korea would lead to a classic security dilemma, where other states respond in kind, producing a spiral toward open conflict even when no side actually wants it.

In other words, if you let North Korea develop its nukes, South Korea and Japan will want them too. Then China would beef up its nuclear arsenal, which would invite a reaction from the US, Russia and India.

“So you have this potential for a much more dangerous nuclear scenario emerging globally as a result of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea,” Dr Davis said. “It may actually be better to try to remove that threat of a nuclear North now rather than letting it build up and having to deal with it when it’s much stronger later.”

Dr Davis said the best option left would be re-deploying US tactical nuclear forces in South Korea that were removed at the end of the Cold War, and strengthening missile defence systems, which is already underway. 

Under Kim Jong-un, missile tests have increased dramatically in frequency compared to his predecessors.SBS World News

Under Kim Jong-un, missile tests have increased dramatically in frequency compared to his predecessors. 

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop is putting her faith in the UN sanctions announced by the Security Council on August 5, which are supposed to be implemented by early September. 

The sanctions are the strongest ever – a ban on US$1 billion worth of exports for a country with total exports valued at US$3 billion last year – and it was significant that both Russia and China supported them. They are intended to pressure Kim to return to the negotiating table. But implementation has been problematic in the past, and the US President appeared sceptical of their value after the test on Sunday.

South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017

Korea University’s Professor Sung-han Kim said public opinion in South Korea is turning against sanctions.

“More and more the South Korean people are frustrated with the effect of economic sanctions due to the lukewarm attitude of China. The voice of supporting South Korea going nuclear or redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons is getting stronger,” he told SBS News. 

Some who believe sanctions will fail again are advocating the so-called “freeze-freeze” model proposed by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in June and explained here in detail by Douglas Mo for the the Council on Foreign Relations.

In this model the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises “in exchange for the suspension of North Korean missile development and testing.” China would monitor North Korea’s compliance and provide security assurances. 

But Dr Davis is sceptical, saying the North would not genuinely stop its nuclear weapons development.

“And in return for doing that the US has to back out of a key alliance relationship … South Korea would lose confidence in the US, Japan would lose confidence in the US ….Both China and Russia gain as a result of that … At the end of the day it’s rewarding North Korea for its bad behaviour. I don’t see it as credible option.”

A North Korean stamp commemorating the country’s second Hwasong-14 missile test in July 2017. KCNA

Professor Sung-Chull Kim from the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University and co-author of the 2017 book North Korea and Nuclear Weapons told SBS News that while there is strong support in the south for the US alliance, there is some frustration about the failure of a string of US presidents to take the problem seriously and find a way to get back to the negotiating table with Pyongyang.

“Mr Trump is not popular in Korea… but the issue is not personal popularity,” he said.

“There is a kind of cycle of expectation but frustration – a little hope of North Korea’s stepping forward for a talk with the US, [then] North Korea’s provocative tests, and the US [having] no apparent intention of talking.

“Gradually deterrence will become the only means to deal with North Korea’s nuclear [capacity], a situation that is against our hope and objective.”

 

Parliament hears tales of family violence

More than half the Australians who responded to a parliamentary call for experiences of family violence say they felt unsafe when they went to court.

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Fifty seven per cent of the more than 3800 respondents to the questionnaire created by a committee looking into a better family law system reported feeling unsafe during court appearances.

More than 80 per cent of respondents said they had been the target of family violence.

Many told of how the court they attended had no separate facilities for victims and how they felt unsafe.

Other anonymous responses revealed how women had to queue with their children in the same entrance as the perpetrator.

“Interacting with my ex-partner in court triggered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms for me, there should be as minimal contact as possible,” was another of the responses released by the committee.

Other findings from the survey include:

* 78 per cent were not offered a safety plan regarding their court appearance.

* Almost 50 per cent of respondents had legal proceedings in more than one court.

* Of those, 82 per cent felt unsatisfied with the coordination between courts.

* Almost 70 per cent of respondents were women.

Committee chair and Liberal MP Sarah Henderson said they wanted to give people a voice.

“It is of course a great tragedy that so many Australians have experienced family violence,” she said on Monday.

The next hearing will be held on Tuesday.

National domestic violence helpline: 1800 737 732 or 1800RESPECT. In an emergency call triple-zero.