The latest North Korean threat is to conduct a hydrogen bomb test in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Whether or not this is just windy posturing is best known to Kim Jong-un and his associates as well as, one would hope, various intelligence agencies. However, as a piece in the Atlantic suggests, a bomb test in the ocean is a far more concerning matter than the usual test in an underground chamber.

What setting a hydrogen bomb off would do to the ocean

Experience in above-ground Hydrogen Bomb tests in the 1950s gives the world cause for concern.

Besides killing a lot of marine life, such an explosion would spew radioactive particles over a wide area. Smoke from the blast and lingering radiation would hinder the growth and reproduction of both fish and plants in the ocean at and around the site of the explosion. The environmental consequences would last for decades.

How should the world react?

Hitherto, North Korea’s bomb and missile tests have had a purely psychological effect, unsettling that country’s neighbors as well as the United States. A bomb test in the ocean would wreck actual physical damage to the environment. The question arises, how can the United States prevent such a test and, if it goes off anyway, how should she and her allies react?

If North Korea fires a missile that contains a thermonuclear warhead at the ocean, the United States could try to shoot it down. However, it is by no means certain that the Pyongyang government has solved the problem of building a weapon of mass destruction that can fit on top of a missile. The alternative is to put a bomb on a ship, take her out to sea, abandon it, and then set off the device remotely.

The United States or even South Korea or Japan would be well within its rights to sink such a vessel, presumably without setting off the bomb.

What happens then is a matter of conjecture. Kim Jong-un, like any psychopath, will have a tendency to escalate. He would graduate from trying to kill fish to trying the commit the mass murder of human beings.

The question arises, will the recent economic sanctions work quickly and thoroughly enough to stop North Korea’s drive for a nuclear arsenal without recourse to war?

The North Korean missile crisis is a classic case of letting a mad tyrant have his way until stopping him becomes very expensive. The world should have learned that lesson from Munich and the attempts to appease Hitler before World War II. Sadly, it has to learn it all over again.