'Hydrogen' bomb test may backfire on North Korea

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may have just achieved exactly what he did not want.

There will probably be further sanctions after North Korea's claim that it blew up a hydrogen bomb Wednesday, but another likely consequence is that the major allies arrayed against North Korea — the United States, Japan and South Korea — will cooperate more closely than they have up to now, experts told CNBC.

The Wednesday trial registered as a 5.1 magnitude seismic event, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and a Pyongyang mouthpiece claimed the country tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear bomb "in the most perfect manner." Experts have expressed doubt whether North Korea actually used such a powerful weapon, but a fourth nuclear test from the isolated state marks a potential geopolitical crisis, experts said.

Officers from the Korea Meteorological Administration point at the epicenter of seismic waves in North Korea, at the National Earthquake and Volcano Center of the Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 6, 2016.
Lee Jin-man | Getty Images
Officers from the Korea Meteorological Administration point at the epicenter of seismic waves in North Korea, at the National Earthquake and Volcano Center of the Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 6, 2016.

And that crisis will likely boost multilateral cooperation between the U.S. and its major Pacific Rim allies.

"I think it's quite likely we see increased defense deployments and military exercises around the Korean peninsula," Nick Consonery, the Eurasia Group's Asia director, predicted.

In addition to show-of-force exercises, experts suggested that Japan, South Korea and the United States could now further align their information-gathering procedures — including sharing the load for reconnaissance flights and human intelligence.

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"This may add — in a slightly more quiet way rather than an extremely public way — to the drive to have greater intelligence-sharing between the three countries," Rodger Baker, vice president of Asia Pacific Analysis at Stratfor, said.

Beyond immediate North Korea-focused cooperation, Wednesday's test could serve to strengthen the U.S.'s existing alliances.

"This will certainly give more substance to the U.S.-South Korean alliance: It will take an already deeply integrated relationship and carry it further," said Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.

In fact, Baker suggested that the partnership-boosting reaction to the nuclear trial may push Seoul to adopt the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. (THAAD is a Lockheed Martin-developed anti-ballistic missile system, which China strongly opposes.)

South Korea and Japan may also increase their cooperation, Armstrong said, explaining that the North Korean test has come at a "critical point of improvement in the relationship" between to the two countries.

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"We should look for a substantial increase in direct military interaction between South Korea and Japan," he said. "Already there has been low-level cooperation, and whether this will make this relationship more explicit at the military level, we'll have to see."

Seoul and Tokyo announced last week that they had reached an agreement to resolve the issue of Japan's use of Korean "comfort women" in forced brothels during the Second World War. Although some in South Korea opposed the resolution, international observers deemed the move a strengthening of bilateral relations.

But it remains to be seen just how much increased international cooperation can actually accomplish. Regional experts told CNBC that an increase in information sharing could lead to slightly more aligned national goals, but a unified multilateral front remains unlikely.

"We would hope that something like this would catalyze South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and other regional powers to work closer together, but I don't think it will change the security situation in northeast Asia very much," said Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Korea Chair.

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The major question for post-test geopolitics, experts said, is how China reacts to North Korea. Some said they expected Beijing to offer Pyongyang a slap on the wrist, but others predicted that the pariah state's dubious claims of a hydrogen bomb could move the Chinese closer to the other regional leaders' point of view.

"The test really pushes all of Asia's major powers closer together: Not just Japan, South Korea and the U.S., but also China," Consonery said. "We'll see increased convergence."

Beijing has pressured North Korea to cease its nuclear development, so if Wednesday's test actually utilized new technologies, then China could want to hinder any further move in the "wrong direction," Consonery said.

Yet others pointed to China's concern about the negative regional impact of cutting off North Korea: If it leans too heavily on the impoverished nuclear nation, it could destabilize the Korean Peninsula — and potentially much of East Asia.

"The Chinese have been growing a little more condemnatory of the North Korean actions, but you see a huge change in the overall economic relations between the two countries," Baker said, pointing to Beijing's larger regional concerns.

Columbia's Armstrong agreed, predicting that China will sign on to whatever sanction the United Nations proposes, but they'll largely stop there.

While no one suggests that North Korea's nuclear tests are a good thing, the fact that the dictatorship is carrying them out presents a rare chance even for major geopolitical rivals to agree on something.

"Any interaction where the U.S. and Chinese work together to solve an international problem is good," David Riedel, president of Riedel Research Group, told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Wednesday. "There has been some weakness in terms of the U.S. commitment to Korea, to Japan, to North Asia in general. … (The nuclear test) is a reminder of how weakened the U.S. position is in Asia: Anything that strengthens that is good for the global economy and good for Chinese stocks."