North Korea’s Hydrogen bomb test – the fallout

January 7, 2016 3:54 am

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TV screen shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. His country’s hydrogen
bomb test has been described as defiant and surprising. Photo / AP

Soon after the ground shook around its nuclear testing facility,
trumpeted its first hydrogen bomb test – a powerful,
self-proclaimed “H-bomb of justice” that would mark a major and
unanticipated advance for its still-limited nuclear arsenal.
Pyongyang’s
announcement yesterday was met with widespread skepticism, but whatever
the North detonated in its fourth nuclear test, another round of tough
international sanctions looms for the defiant, impoverished country.
The
test likely pushed Pyongyang’s scientists and engineers closer to their
goal of building a warhead small enough to place on a missile that can
reach the US mainland. But South Korea’s spy agency thought the
estimated explosive yield from the explosion was much smaller than what
even a failed H-bomb detonation would produce.
The test was met
with a burst of jubilation and pride in Pyongyang. A North Korean
television anchor, reading a typically propaganda-heavy statement, said a
test of a “miniaturised” hydrogen bomb had been a “perfect success”
that elevated the country’s “nuclear might to the next level”.

A large crowd celebrated in front of Pyongyang’s main train
station as the announcement was read on a big video screen, with people
taking videos or photos of the screen on their mobile phones and
applauding and cheering.
North Korea’s state media stood firm in
saying the test was a self-defence measure against a potential US
attack. “The [country’s] access to H-bomb of justice, standing against
the US, the chieftain of aggression …, is the legitimate right of a
sovereign state for self-defence and a very just step no one can
slander.”
In Seoul and elsewhere there was high-level worry.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered her military to bolster its
combined defence posture with US forces. She called the test a “grave
provocation” and “an act that threatens our lives and future”. Japanese
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: “We absolutely cannot allow this.”
Washington
and nuclear experts have been skeptical about past North Korean claims
about H-bombs, which are much more powerful and much more difficult to
make than atomic bombs. A confirmed test would further worsen already
abysmal relations between Pyongyang and its neighbours and lead to a
strong push for tougher sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations.
The Security Council was holding an emergency meeting.
Britain’s
ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, says the meeting will
aim to agree on a statement condemning the nuclear test and will follow
up with a new resolution expanding sanctions against North Korea. He
told reporters, “the Security Council needs to be clear in its
condemnation and robust in its response.”
A successful H-bomb
test would be a big advance in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
Fusion is the main principle behind the hydrogen bomb, which can be
hundreds of times more powerful than atomic bombs that use fission. In a
hydrogen bomb, radiation from a nuclear fission explosion sets off a
fusion reaction responsible for a powerful blast and radioactivity.
A
South Korean lawmaker said the country’s spy agency told him that
Pyongyang may not have conducted an H-bomb test given the relatively
small size of the seismic wave reported. An estimated explosive yield of
6 kilotonnes and a quake with a magnitude of 4.8 (the US reported 5.1)
were detected, lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo said the National Intelligence
Service told him. That’s smaller than the estimated explosive yield of
7.9 kilotonnes and 4.9-magnitude quake reported after the 2013 nuclear
test, he said, and only a fraction of the hundreds of kilotonnes that a
successful H-bomb test’s explosion would usually yield. Even a failed
H-bomb detonation typically yields tens of kilotonnes, the NIS told Lee,
who sits on the parliament’s intelligence committee. A miniaturized
H-bomb can trigger a weak quake, but only the US and Russia have such
H-bombs, Lee cited the NIS as saying.
“I’m pretty skeptical,”
said Melissa Hanham, senior researcher at the James Martin Centre for
Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International
Studies in Monterey, California. “The seismic data indicates it would be
very small for a hydrogen test. “It seems just too soon to have this
big technical achievement,” she said. “But North Korea has always defied
expectations.”
While also noting the quake was likely too small
for an H-bomb test, Jaiki Lee, a professor of nuclear engineering at
Seoul’s Hanyang University, said the North could have experimented with a
“boosted” hybrid bomb that uses some nuclear fusion fuel along with
more conventional uranium or plutonium fuel.
Joel Wit, founder of
the North Korea-focused 38 North website, said a boosted bomb “is the
most likely option”, while adding that he isn’t surprised that North
Korea has shifted focus to hydrogen weaponry. “Every nuclear power
essentially moves down the same track as they develop nuclear weapons,”
he said. “And that track is miniaturisation, but also increasing the
yield of nuclear weapons. That’s what the Americans did; that’s what the
Russians did.”
In Pyongyang the announcement was greeted with an
expected rush of nationalistic pride, and some bewilderment. Kim Sok
Chol, 32, said he doesn’t know much about H-bombs, but added that “since
we have it the US will not attack us”.
University student Ri Sol
Yong, 22, said: “If we didn’t have powerful nuclear weapons, we would
already have been turned into the slaves of the US.”
It could
take weeks before the true nature of the test is confirmed by outside
experts – if they are able to do so at all. US Air Force aircraft
designed to detect the evidence of a nuclear test, such as radioactive
particulate matter and blast-related noble gases, could be deployed from
a US base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Japanese media said Tokyo
mobilised its own reconnaissance aircraft for sorties over the Sea of
Japan to try to collect atmospheric data. But North Korea goes to great
lengths to conceal its tests by conducting them underground and tightly
sealing off tunnels or other vents through which radioactive bomb
residue could escape.
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a physicist,
scientist-in-residence and professor at the James Martin Centre, said it
may not be possible for the monitors to ever determine if Wednesday’s
explosion was caused by a hydrogen bomb. “For that, you might need to
have the particulates,” he said. “But maybe we’ll be lucky.”
The
test was unexpected in part because North Korea’s last nuclear test was
nearly three years ago and Kim Jong Un did not mention nuclear weapons
in his annual New Year’s speech. Some outside analysts had speculated
Kim was worried about deteriorating ties with China, the North’s last
major ally, which has shown greater frustration at provocations and a
possible willingness to allow stronger UN sanctions.
Chinese
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that Beijing
“firmly opposes” Pyongyang’s purported test and is monitoring the
environment on its border with North Korea near the test site.
Just
how big a threat North Korea’s nuclear programme poses is a mystery.
North Korea is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs
and has spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range missile
to eventually carry smaller versions of those bombs.
Some
analysts say the North hasn’t likely achieved the technology needed to
manufacture a miniaturised warhead that could fit on a long-range
missile capable of hitting the US mainland. But the debate is growing on
just how far the North has advanced.
North Korea needs fresh
nuclear tests for practical military and political reasons. To build a
credible nuclear programme, the North must explode new devices – and
more advanced ones – so its scientists can continually improve their
designs and technology. Nuclear-tipped missiles could then be used as
deterrents, and diplomatic bargaining chips, against its enemies – and
especially against the United States, which Pyongyang has long pushed to
withdraw its troops from the region and to sign a peace treaty formally
ending the Korean War.
“This is indeed a wake-up call,” Lassina
Zerbo, the head of the Vienna-based UN Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
Organisation, which has a worldwide network of monitoring stations to
detect nuclear testing, said. “I am convinced it will have repercussions
on North Korea and international peace and stability.”

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