North Korea detonated its third nuclear device, following the first two in 2006 and 2009. The explosion this week points to slow but consistent progress in this field for the world's poorest and most outcast country.
The first test was a resounding failure (the blast produced a force of one kiloton; a "regular" blast produces a force of 20 kilotons), in my opinion because of the low quality of the plutonium enriched at its nuclear plant, and also because of the small amount used (only two kilograms, compared to the four kilograms typically required). The second test already indicated progress in the warhead's design but the explosion still produced a low-level blast force (two kilotons).
This week's blast produced a "respectable" force of six kilotons. In their announcement, the North Koreans even boasted about succeeding to miniaturize the bomb they tested, making it possible to attach it to an intercontinental ballistic missile it is also developing.
This consistent progress has been achieved while the country itself is in dire economic straits (on the verge of starvation), international isolation and subjected to severe economic sanctions. Even its one friend, China, has condemned these armament efforts, although it hasn't joined other countries in imposing sanctions. As long as China refrains from wielding its influence, I don't believe there is a chance North Korea will alter its militant stance.
According to the Chinese, joining the sanction efforts would destabilize the regime to the extent that it would collapse, subsequently allowing the entire Korean peninsula to unite under the auspices of South Korea, which is allied with the West. The newly elected Chinese leadership's response will be crucial in regards to how matters unfold.
How is all of this connected to us? The nuclear technology developed by North Korea was transferred to Syria, which used it to build a nuclear plant to produce plutonium (its reactor was completely destroyed by anonymous forces). North Korea, Syria and Iran closely cooperate in the exchange of missile and nuclear technology.
This cooperation, specifically in regards to commerce and the smuggling of strategic materials and vital machine parts in their efforts to arm themselves, projects onto each country's capabilities.
I'm of the impression that the international community's efforts to thwart this armament is currently being tested, and that the results will directly affect our adversaries.
If Iran arrives at the conclusion that the sanctions imposed against it are ineffective (and they aren't as long as it is able to still do business with China, Russia and Turkey), it won't hesitate to persist with its clear objective of developing a transportable nuclear weapon. In my opinion, Iran already has enough fissionable material, technological know-how and equipment to conduct a nuclear test. The only thing stopping Iran is concern over a harsh international response. They are waiting and taking stock of the situation.
What can Israel do? In my view, very little beyond what we have already done successfully until now: Raise the alarm, operate covertly and enlist international support. The truth is that planning for this nightmare nuclear scenario began many years ago already, and we are not helpless in the face of such a threat. It's not ideal, but that's life. This type of race can't be stopped with one airstrike, as effective as it may be. You can't bomb knowledge.
The writer is a professor of physical chemistry at Tel Aviv University.