A South Korean soldier watches a TV screen reporting seismic waves of North Korea's nuclear test Feb. 12 at Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea. Defying U.N. warnings, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in the remote, snowy northeast, taking a crucial step toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States. (Lee Jin-man / AP)
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TAIPEI — Despite decades of carrots and sticks, North Korea went forward with its third underground weapons test in the early hours Tuesday. It was the third underground test in seven years.
North Korea's official news agency said the test was carried out in a tunnel at the Punggye-ri test site in the northeast; the same site of two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The North Korean news agency further stated that it was a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously" tested.
According to Shannon Kile, head of the Nuclear Weapons Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme, "while it will be technically challenging for outside experts to confirm the design of the device, a successful North Korean test of such of a compact design would bring it one step closer to being able to build a long-range ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon."
In December, North Korea successfully tested a multi-stage satellite launcher, suggesting that it was progressively mastering the technology needed to develop such a missile, Kile said.
The test comes just 24 hours before U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. Shortly after confirmation of the test, Obama called it "highly provocative," said the test "undermines regional stability" and vowed to defend the U.S. and its allies.
Bruce Klingner, a North Korean expert at the Heritage Foundation, said that despite Obama's initial reaction, the question being raised is whether Obama will live up to his earlier promises of "significant repercussions" if Pyongyang disregarded the latest United Nations resolution.
There will no doubt be additional domestic and international calls for more sanctions against North Korea, but, in reality, the iron lung that keeps North Korea going might be beyond sanctions.
North Korea's expatriate community in Japan and China continues to travel back and forth delivering gifts, money and information. Many of these expatriates operate import and export businesses in China near the North's border. These businesses help supply the North with a wide range of hard-to-find equipment and supplies.
One U.S. analyst on North Korea who visited the area from the Chinese side said trucks travel back and forth 24 hours a day without hindrance from China. Though China has recently expressed tougher language on curtailing North Korea's nuclear and missile testing antics, it is still unclear if Beijing will take any real action.
To focus too much on China would be unfair. There are even export companies operating in Taiwan that facilitate the export of equipment to North Korea, including the Royal Team Corporation.
Such opaque export organizations also exist in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, with no interference from the U.S. government. Some are set up as non-governmental organizations under the cover of food aid or some other international relief organization.
Klingner calls on the Obama administration to initiate unilateral action identifying and targeting North Korean banks, businesses and government entities culpable in violating United Nations resolutions and international laws.
The question, however, is how to identify and target quasi-North Korean front companies that can so easily disappear and reappear under different addresses, titles and phone numbers.