What’s the significance of North Korea’s latest nuclear test?


North Korea claims to have successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device which, if this indeed happened, would mark a major advance in its weapons program. The announcement is being viewed with some skepticism.

Reuters reports: South Korean intelligence officials and several analysts, however, questioned whether Wednesday’s explosion was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device.

The device had a yield of about 6 kilotons, according to the office of a South Korean lawmaker on the parliamentary intelligence committee – roughly the same size as the North’s last test, which was equivalent to 6-7 kilotons of TNT.

“Given the scale, it is hard to believe this is a real hydrogen bomb,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

“They could have tested some middle stage kind (of device) between an A-bomb and H-bomb, but unless they come up with any clear evidence, it is difficult to trust their claim.”

Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert who is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security organization, said North Korea may have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb.

“Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb,” he said. “But it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce”.

The United States Geological Survey reported a 5.1 magnitude quake that South Korea said was 49 km (30 miles) from the Punggye-ri site where the North has conducted nuclear tests in the past.

North Korea’s last test of an atomic device, in 2013, also registered at 5.1 on the USGS scale.

The test nevertheless may mark an advance of North Korea’s nuclear technology. The claim of miniaturizing, which would allow the device to be adapted as a weapon and placed on a missile, would also pose a new threat to the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. [Continue reading…]

Jeffrey Lewis, who teaches a class on the evolution of China’s nuclear weapons program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, points out that current assessments of North Korea’s technical capabilities should not lead to false assumptions about their aspirations. He writes:

One of the major themes of the early part of China’s nuclear program is how committed China was to matching the other nuclear powers in the possession of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles armed with multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons. A lot of Americans had trouble accepting this idea. We thought of China as being too backward to have such aspirations. That was, I argue, precisely why China wanted such weapons: because China’s communist leaders had a different vision of China’s place in the world and the development of thermonuclear weapons was a way of achieving that vision.

I think something similar is happening with North Korea. We think of the country as impoverished, both in terms of economy and leadership. Well, that’s not how the government in North Korea sees itself—and anyone who does, keeps such thoughts to himself. Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus argues—and this is what Kim was saying—that North Korea is a technological powerhouse. The North Korean propaganda line argues that this power is demonstrated by a series of achievements culminating in space launches, nuclear weapons and, yes, even thermonuclear weapons.

So, while a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.

This is today’s announcement being made on North Korean state television:

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