North Korea ramps up uranium enrichment, enough for six nuclear bombs a year

Reuters reports: North Korea will have enough material for about 20 nuclear bombs by the end of this year, with ramped-up uranium enrichment facilities and an existing stockpile of plutonium, according to new assessments by weapons experts.

The North has evaded a decade of U.N. sanctions to develop the uranium enrichment process, enabling it to run an effectively self-sufficient nuclear program that is capable of producing around six nuclear bombs a year, they said.

The true nuclear capability of the isolated and secretive state is impossible to verify. But after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last week and, according to South Korea, was preparing for another, it appears to have no shortage of material to test with.

North Korea has an abundance of uranium reserves and has been working covertly for well over a decade on a project to enrich the material to weapons-grade level, the experts say. [Continue reading…]


North Korea will have the skills to make a nuclear warhead by 2020, experts say

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is ominous not only because the country is slowly mastering atomic weaponry, but because it is making headway in developing missiles that could hurl nuclear warheads halfway around the globe, threatening Washington and New York City.

The reclusive, hostile nation has been rushing to perfect missiles that are small, fast, light and surprisingly advanced, according to analysts and military officials. This spring and summer, Pyongyang successfully tested some of these missiles, while earlier efforts had fizzled or failed.

“They’ve greatly increased the tempo of their testing — in a way, showing off their capabilities, showing us images of ground tests they could have kept hidden,” John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, said in an interview on Friday. “This isn’t something that can be ignored anymore. It’s going to be a high priority for the next president.”

Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead. They also expect that by then North Korea may have accumulated enough nuclear material to build up to 100 warheads. [Continue reading…]


Why Kim Jong Un tested a nuclear warhead now

Gordon G Change writes: North Korea is hailing a “successful” fifth nuclear test, which it carried out Friday morning local time.

The device tested, which created a 5.3-magnitude tremor at its Punggye-ri test site, was reportedly in the 20- to 30-kiloton range, much more powerful than the North’s previous detonations. The last test, in January, yielded only about seven to nine kilotons.

The North Koreans have been ready to test this device since May. So why did they wait until now? Some are suggesting the detonation celebrated North Korea’s Foundation Day, marking the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But from all indications, the Kim regime tested at this time because it realized China would not impose costs for the detonation.

The test took place three days after Pyongyang’s nuclear envoy traveled to Beijing. Choe Son Hui, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s U.S. affairs bureau, arrived in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.

We don’t know what Choe — who was deputy chief envoy to the six-party denuclearization talks, which have been dormant since 2008 — and her interlocutors said this week. Nonetheless, it was evident that the North Koreans were confident of the Chinese reaction.

At the moment, Beijing is far more upset with Seoul than Pyongyang.

In July, South Korea and the United States announced they would deploy the American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on South Korean soil. Beijing is worried that THAAD’s high-powered radars will reach into China and could help the U.S. shoot down Chinese missiles. Washington denies that is the case and has been willing to share technical information, but Beijing has not been mollified. [Continue reading…]


Russia warns North Korea over threats of nuclear strike

The Guardian reports: Russia has warned North Korea that threats to deliver “preventive nuclear strikes” could create a legal basis for the use of military force against the country, suggesting that even Pyongyang’s few remaining friends are growing concerned about its increasingly confrontational stance.

The Russian foreign ministry statement, which follows a North Korean threat to “annihilate” the US and South Korea, also criticises Washington and Seoul for launching the largest joint military drills yet to be held on the peninsula.

“We consider it to be absolutely impermissible to make public statements containing threats to deliver some ‘preventive nuclear strikes’ against opponents,” the Russian foreign ministry said in response to North Korea’s threats.

“Pyongyang should be aware of the fact that in this way the DPRK will become fully opposed to the international community and will create international legal grounds for using military force against itself in accordance with the right of a state to self-defense enshrined in the United Nations Charter,” continued the statement, translated by Itar Tass news agency. [Continue reading…]


Flipping the script: Could peace talks help defuse North Korea?

The Associated Press reports: The new U.N. sanctions on North Korea are out and they are going to pinch Pyongyang hard. But they also beg a big question — since sanctions thus far have failed to persuade North Korea to roll over and give up its nukes, are more, but tougher, ones really the most effective way to bring the North out of its hardened Cold War bunker?

Is it time to flip the script?

China, a key broker in the North Korea denuclearization puzzle, thinks so. It wants the U.S. and North Korea to sit down for peace talks to formally end the Korean War. That idea has always been a non-starter in Washington, which insists the North must give up its nuclear ambitions first, but some U.S. experts also think it might be a viable path forward.

For sure, advocates of sitting down with a nuclear-armed North Korea are the minority camp in the United States. And even those who do support the idea generally agree sanctions can be a useful tool in pushing negotiations forward, if there is a coherent and internationally coordinated follow-up plan on where those negotiations should go.

But sanctions can also backfire, pushing an insecure and threatened regime into a more defiant, and potentially more dangerous, direction.

Pyongyang gave a hint at that possibility Friday in its first official response to the sanctions, saying the measures were an “outrageous provocation” that it “categorically rejects.” North Korea threatened to carry out countermeasures against the U.S. and other countries that supported the sanctions.

While such threats usually amount to nothing, the U.N.’s efforts to change the North’s behavior through sanctions haven’t amounted to much, either. [Continue reading…]


North Korea’s Kim Jong-un tells military to have nuclear warheads on standby

The New York Times reports: The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has urged his military to have its nuclear warheads deployed and ready to be fired at any moment, the country’s state-run news agency reported Friday.

Mr. Kim’s comments were reported a day after the United Nations Security Council approved tougher sanctions aimed at curtailing his country’s ability to secure funds and technology for its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency called the resolution unanimously adopted by the Council “unprecedented and gangster-like,” and it quoted Mr. Kim as repeating his exhortation to his military to further advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

“The only way for defending the sovereignty of our nation and its right to existence under the present extreme situation is to bolster up nuclear force, both in quality and quantity, and keep balance of forces,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.

He then stressed “the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired any moment,” the agency said. [Continue reading…]


How to tell the difference between a nuclear test and an earthquake

Patrick Tucker writes: Shortly after North Korea claimed it had tested a hydrogen bomb—a weapon potentially hundreds of times more powerful than the fission bombs the country had already set off—seismologists at the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, went to work trying to understand the event. Their early findings suggest that a nuclear-bomb test did occur but that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb. So how do you tell the difference?

First, you try to rule out the possibility that North Korea was just trying to claim credit for an earthquake. Geologists and seismologists look at several factors to determine whether a seismic event is natural or manmade. One is the location: Is it on a known fault line, a place where there’s a lot of mining activity, etc.? Another factor is the seismological waveform itself—the waving lines that appear on the seismograph. An explosion forms wiggles that are different from the ones generated by an earthquake, according to USGS seismologist Paul Earle.

Lay a Slinky on the floor, grab one end, and move it back and forth to create a wave that propagates down its length. This is called shear wave propagation, the kind created by tectonic plates slipping beneath the surface of the earth. “That side-to-side motion, you’ll get less of it in an explosion,” said Earle. [Continue reading…]


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:


Pentagon used humanitarian NGO as front for espionage

The Intercept reports: On May 10, 2007 in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush presided over a ceremony honoring the nation’s most accomplished community service leaders. Among those collecting a President’s Volunteer Service Award that afternoon was Kay Hiramine, the Colorado-based founder of a multimillion-dollar humanitarian organization.

Hiramine’s NGO, Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, won special praise from the president for having demonstrated how a private charity could step in quickly in response to a crisis. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” read Hiramine’s citation, “HISG’s team launched a private sector operation center in Houston that mobilized over 1,500 volunteers into the disaster zone within one month after the hurricane.”

But as the evangelical Christian Hiramine crossed the stage to shake hands with President Bush and receive his award, he was hiding a key fact from those in attendance: He was a Pentagon spy whose NGO was funded through a highly classified Defense Department program.

The secret Pentagon program, which dates back to December 2004, continued well into the Obama presidency. It was the brainchild of a senior Defense Department intelligence official of the Bush administration, Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin. Boykin, an evangelical Christian who ran into criticism in 2003 for his statements about Islam, settled on the ruse of the NGO as he was seeking new and unorthodox ways to penetrate North Korea. [Continue reading…]


North and South Korea stand their ground as deadline looms

Reuters reports: North and South Korea appeared headed toward another clash, as Seoul refused an ultimatum that it halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts by Saturday afternoon or face military action, and North Korea said its troops were on a war footing.

South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo said on Friday it was likely the North would fire at some of the 11 sites where the loudspeakers are set up on the South’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the countries.

Tension escalated on Thursday when North Korea fired four shells into South Korea, according to Seoul, in apparent protest against the broadcasts. The South fired back 29 artillery shells. Pyongyang accused the South of inventing a pretext to fire into the North.

Both sides said there were no casualties or damage in their territory, an indication that the rounds were just warning shots.

“The fact that both sides’ shells didn’t damage anything means they did not want to spread an armed clash. There is always a chance for war, but that chance is very, very low,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports: A concert in Pyongyang on Wednesday by Laibach, an industrial rock band from Slovenia, was billed as the first live performance by a Western pop act in North Korea. And it left the audience with an eclectic view of just what makes a rock show.

Laibach, which was formed in 1980 in what was then Yugoslavia, is known for embracing fascist imagery in its costumes and videos, but with a wink that signals parody. “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter,” members said in an early 1980s interview. [Continue reading…]


Inside the hack of the century

Peter Elkind writes: On Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, a four-man team from Norse Corp., a small “threat-intelligence” firm based in Silicon Valley, arrived early for an 11:30 a.m. meeting on the studio lot of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. They were scheduled to see Sony’s top cybersecurity managers to pitch Norse’s services in defending the studio against hackers, who had been plaguing Sony for years.

After a quick security check at the front gate and then proceeding to the George Burns Building on the east side of the Sony lot, the Norse group walked straight into the unlocked first-floor offices of the information security department, marked with a small sign reading info sec. There was no receptionist or security guard to check who they were; in fact, there was no one in sight at all. The room contained cubicles with unattended computers providing access to Sony’s international data network.

The visitors found their way to a small sitting area outside the office of Jason Spaltro, Sony’s senior vice president for information security, settled in, and waited. Alone. For about 15 minutes.

“I got a little shocked,” says Tommy Stiansen, Norse’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “Their Info Sec was empty, and all their screens were logged in. Basically the janitor can walk straight into their Info Sec department.” Adds Mickey Shapiro, a veteran entertainment attorney who helped set up the meeting and was present that day: “If we were bad guys, we could have done something horrible.”

Finally Spaltro, who’s worked at Sony since 1998, showed up and led them to a nearby conference room, where another studio information security executive was waiting. The meeting began, and as Stiansen described how Norse scopes out potential threats, Spaltro interrupted: “Boy, that could really help us with that North Korean film!” According to the four Norse representatives, Spaltro explained that he was worried about a Seth Rogen comedy called The Interview that the studio was preparing to release on Christmas Day. It featured a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the country’s actual leader. Recalls Stiansen: “They said North Korea is threatening them.” (Sony denies any mention of a North Korean cyberthreat.)

After about an hour the Sony team declared the session “very productive,” according to the Norse team, and promised to be in touch. They departed, leaving the visitors to find their own way out.

Three weeks later — starting at about 7 a.m. Pacific time on Monday, Nov. 24 — a crushing cyberattack was launched on Sony Pictures. Employees logging on to its network were met with the sound of gunfire, scrolling threats, and the menacing image of a fiery skeleton looming over the tiny zombified heads of the studio’s top two executives.

Before Sony’s IT staff could pull the plug, the hackers’ malware had leaped from machine to machine throughout the lot and across continents, wiping out half of Sony’s global network. It erased everything stored on 3,262 of the company’s 6,797 personal computers and 837 of its 1,555 servers. To make sure nothing could be recovered, the attackers had even added a little extra poison: a special deleting algorithm that overwrote the data seven different ways. When that was done, the code zapped each computer’s startup software, rendering the machines brain-dead.

From the moment the malware was launched — months after the hackers first broke in — it took just one hour to throw Sony Pictures back into the era of the Betamax. The studio was reduced to using fax machines, communicating through posted messages, and paying its 7,000 employees with paper checks.

That was only the beginning of Sony’s horror story. [Continue reading…]


U.S. tried Stuxnet-style campaign against North Korea but failed

Reuters reports: The United States tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program five years ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.

The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uranium. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by U.S. and Israeli forces.

According to one U.S. intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine.

But U.S. agents could not access the core machines that ran Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, said another source, a former high-ranking intelligence official who was briefed on the program. [Continue reading…]