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North Korea test dud: everybody else catches up

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Just after 11:00 a.m. on Monday I went with an assessment, based on a post at ArmsControlWonk and a discussion with two non-proliferation experts I trust, that the North Korea nuclear test likely failed to meet North Korea's goals and expectations. Two hours later, after further conversations, I put up a post indicating an even stronger assessment that the test was not a full success.

Then I sweated it out, as virtually no corporate media source reported anything but a success. North Korea was claiming a huge success, the Russians put the blast at between 5 and 15 kilotons, and we got plenty of comments and emails that were highly critical of our assessment.

Fortunately, in the aftermath, it's become clear that the test did get screwed up. It was a sub-kiloton event, which is extremely small for a nuclear blast, and while nobody can yet figure out exactly why, everybody else is finally catching up. That fact that the test largely failed isn't getting quite as much press as the initial event, of course, but by now -- two days later -- it's the conventional wisdom. From the Times:

The statements came as American intelligence analysts developed their first theories of what might have gone wrong in the barren mountains of North Korea’s northeast provinces to have produced an explosion much smaller than even North Korea had apparently expected.
This, of course, does not mean that the test wasn't a big deal -- it was, and North Korea is definitely part of the nuclear club despite the screwup -- and what could have been is nearly as important as what was. But the most crucial part of the failure is that it appears to create some room for negotiation. The uncertainty surrounding the test offers an opening; North Korea's claims and actions force a harder line from many of the relevant actors, but there's a window of opportunity that didn't appear to exist immediately after the test.

With this administration, though, I think the question now isn't whether we'll manage to screw it up, but how . . . and how badly.

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