What does N Korea's nuclear test reveal?


North Korea’s nuclear test opens a rare, limited window for expert evaluation of its atomic weapons program, with an added urgency lent by Pyongyang’s claim to have detonated a “miniaturized” device.

Seismic monitors and “sniffer” planes capable of collecting radioactive evidence of Tuesday’s test will provide the forensic material for analysts to try to determine the exact yield and nature of the underground explosion.

Pyongyang said the “high-level” test involved a “miniaturised and lighter atomic bomb” with a much greater yield than the plutonium devices it detonated in 2006 and 2009. Miniaturization is needed to fit a warhead on a missile.

South Korea’s defense ministry said seismic data suggested the explosive yield was significantly higher than the two previous tests at six to seven kilotons.

One key question analysts will be looking to answer was whether the North has switched from plutonium to a new and self-sustaining nuclear weaponisation program using uranium.

Judging the type of fissile material requires the detection and analysis of xenon gases produced in the atomic explosion.

“These aren’t necessarily easy to find and, if the test was well contained, may not be found at all,” said Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation based in California.

“The miniaturization claim is provocative because that’s exactly the technology we don’t want them to have,” Carroll said, adding that it was a very difficult claim to confirm or refute.

The same six-seven kiloton yield could equally be achieved with a small, efficient device or a very large, inefficient one, with seismic data unable to differentiate between the two, he said.

Proof that the North had mastered warhead miniaturization would be an alarming game changer—especially given its successful rocket launch in December which marked a major step forward in ballistic prowess.

A uranium test would confirm what has long been suspected: that the North can produce weapons-grade uranium which doubles its pathways to building more bombs in the future.

A basic uranium bomb is no more potent than a basic plutonium one, but the uranium path holds various advantages for the North, which has substantial deposits of uranium ore.

“One alarm it sets off is that a uranium-enrichment program is very easy to hide,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“It doesn’t need a reactor like plutonium, and can be carried out using centrifuge cascades in relatively small buildings that give off no heat and are hard to detect,” he added.

North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit a centrifuge facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Many observers believe the North has long been enriching weapons-grade uranium at other secret facilities.

Another red flag raised by a uranium device relates to proliferation.

Highly enriched uranium is the easiest fissile material to make a crude bomb from, and the technical know-how and machinery for enriching uranium is more readily transferred and sold.

Scientist and nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, who was among those shown the Yongbyon enrichment facility in 2010, had said a uranium test was the most likely scenario given Pyongyang’s stated desire to boost its nuclear arsenal.

Pyongyang has a very limited plutonium stockpile—enough Hecker estimates for four to eight bombs—and it shut down its only plutonium source, a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, in 2007.

Before Tuesday’s test, Hecker had predicted that Pyongyang would claim total success and tout the device’s sophistication.

“It will be difficult to distinguish truth from propaganda, but experience shows there is often a nugget of truth in North Korea’s claims,” he said.

© 2013 AFP

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Giles Hewitt
Giles Hewitt
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    zero comments hey , touchy subject ... maybe, since North Korea won't stop anyway, and neither the states nor japan will just consider an invasion against an enemy that would dump that same bomb on their troops in their own territory... maybe, since a starving country might act like a starving country, the trick in diplomacy is not to issue more sanctions but to see what can be done about the shortage IF they agree to be a bit more open about everything and come towards the outside world. Maybe, from a layman's point of view asking would make more sensew than pushing. Sometimes it feels as if these international high ranking diplomats are as stuck as anyone here who would be trying to manipulate someone into obedience according to 1932 principles .. when the national socialist party was on the high rise in germany. Maybe, but who are we to speak on matters of state, maybe friendly would work better than threat since someone with nothing to lose but everything to gain might not respond very well to threat at all. I'm ranting again, this message will probably go for being off-topic. Wouldn't be the first, no hard feelings about that.

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    It will be more interesting to see what is revealed by the world community's reaction to the test.

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    Not much that we didn't already know. Was surprised to learn that even this 3rd go was only a fraction as powerful as the US bombs dropped on Japan.

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    Other than daddy issues?

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    It reveals that the Dear Blubber doesn't give a damn about the NKoreans dying from starvation.

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    They made nuclear device but to large to fit inside missile. May be is two times bigger then missile.

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