Surge of pride in North Korea over ‘H-bomb test,’ but analysts skeptical
PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) — Skepticism from international experts about North Korea’s claim to have conducted its first H-bomb test isn’t dampening spirits in Pyongyang.
In the North Korean capital, where CNN is the only U.S. broadcaster operating, officials say the announcement has triggered an outpouring of national pride.
North Korean officials plan to take CNN’s crew to a science center today, where people close to the project will explain the science behind it.
Already, the proclaimed test has fueled tensions on this volatile peninsula. In response to Pyongyang’s announcement about the purported H-bomb test Wednesday, Seoul announced that, as of Friday morning local time, it will resume broadcasting propaganda using loudspeakers over the DMZ — the heavily militarized border between the two Koreas.
North Korea considers the broadcasts tantamount to an act of war.
Doubts over H-bomb claims
Outside North Korea, however, Pyongyang’s hydrogen bomb claims are being treated with skepticism.
Wednesday’s test yielded a blast of a similar magnitude to a previous North Korean test in 2013, according to Martin Navias, a military expert at King’s College London.
“We won’t know for another few days or weeks whether this was (a hydrogen bomb),” he said. “It doesn’t look like one; … one would have expected it (the yield) to be greater if it was an H-bomb.”
The United States, South Korea, Japan and China are testing for airborne or ground radiation in the region, but more than 24 hours after North Korea announced a successful test, the hermit kingdom’s closest neighbors say they haven’t found any evidence of radiation.
The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is strengthening its monitoring activities, and the Japan Chemical Analysis Center, which is analyzing dust samples collected by the country’s Air Self Defense Force, said “there was no particular change” in environmental radiation levels, a finding echoed by South Korean monitors.
China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, which was monitoring soil samples near its border with the North, also reported no changed in radiation levels early Thursday.
After being briefed by his nation’s military, South Korean lawmaker Shin Kyung-min questioned the credibility of the hydrogen bomb claim. Joo Ho-young, who heard from the nation’s intelligence service, told reporters, “It could be different from a usual hydrogen bomb.”
Count Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the nonpartisan Rand research group, among the skeptics. He said North Korea has had trouble “mastering even the basics of a fission weapon,” so it’s a big leap to think it could create an even more complicated hydrogen bomb.
According to Norsar, a Norway-based group that monitors nuclear tests, this test took place deeper underground, so it would be harder to monitor radiation and thus determine the type of weapon tested.
The underground test, which happened at 10 a.m. (8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday), corresponded with a magnitude-5.1 seismic event centered 12 miles (19 kilometers) east-southeast of Sungjibaegam, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Norsar said that based on the seismic readings, the event was equivalent to less than 10,000 tons of TNT, smaller than those of the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and far less than thermonuclear weapons that typically are as potent as millions of tons of TNT.
U.N. pursues punitive measures
The U.N. Security Council is set to implement “significant” punitive measures after North Korea’s nuclear test claim and will begin working on a new resolution “immediately,” a statement released by Security Council President Elbio Rosselli says.
After Wednesday’s meeting, the council, which includes China, Russia and the United States, together condemned the test as a “clear violation of (past) resolutions … and of the nonproliferation regime.”
Past U.N. measures included arms, nonproliferation and luxury good embargoes, a freeze on overseas financial assets and a travel ban. None of them have so far stopped North Korea from continuing its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the leaders of South Korea and Japan, who both joined the President in condemning the act. Obama reaffirmed the United States’ defense commitments to both of its regional allies.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s office added that the two leaders agreed “there should be a corresponding price for this nuclear test.”
South Korea will also resume propaganda broadcasts into North Korea, the presidential Blue House announced. In August tensions escalated following a series of broadcasts from near the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
North Korea bragged Wednesday about the “spectacular success” of its first hydrogen bomb test, a defiant act that leader Kim Jong Un, in a statement read on state television, said would “make the world … look up to our strong nuclear country.”
However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The initial analysis is not consistent with the North Korean claims.”
A U.S. official told CNN that the country may send its own “sniffer” plane, a WC-135, to help measure for possible nuclear materials in the air.
If it was an H-bomb, that would be a game changer, said Mike Chinoy, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
“But evidence seems to suggest it wasn’t a full hydrogen bomb,” he said.
With each test, North Korean nuclear scientists get more data and as a result draw closer to being able to miniaturize nuclear weapons, a development that would allow the country to deploy nuclear weapons on long-range missiles, according to Chinoy.
“Whether it was a full H-bomb or not it is still a worrying development,” he said.
One analyst in Seoul cast doubt on whether enough material could be collected to ever find out definitively what Pyongyang has tested.
“After the third nuclear test (by North Korea in 2013) we couldn’t find any radionuclides… it means they can shield the test facilities very well,” says Jiyoung Park, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Park does not believe a hydrogen bomb was detonated during this fourth nuclear test but thinks North Korea could develop one in a few years.
It’s important to know specifics about the nuclear test because it will help the rest of the world ascertain how far along North Korea is in the process of developing nuclear weapons, according Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that focuses on global security.
“If you allow them to continue to test, they will eventually perfect their weapons and they may even get a true hydrogen bomb that would be one hundred, one thousand times more powerful than the devices that have exploded so far,” he said.
‘Boosted’ fission weapon?
It’s possible North Korea tested a “boosted” weapon, one that uses a small amount of fusion to boost the fission process, but is not a hydrogen bomb.
Cirincione says the seismic activity measured after the test makes him believe this was not a full hydrogen bomb but he does not rule out the chances North Korean leader Kim Jong Un approved a hydrogen element to make an atomic bomb more powerful.
“What we think he may have been trying to do is what the U.S. started doing in the late 1940s,” he said. “Boosting our atomic bombs like the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a little bit of a hydrogen isotope called tritium.”
Indeed, given the secrecy surrounding North Korea, it may be difficult to ever know. The last test, in 2013, has experts split over whether the device detonated then used plutonium or uranium.
Even if it wasn’t an H-bomb, there’s little doubt that North Korea did conduct a new significant nuclear test despite persistent calls not to do so.
Will the world stop North Korea?
And that — sticking it to world and regional powers — may be Pyongyang’s aim.
“The present-day grim reality clearly proves once again the immutable truth that one’s destiny should be defended by one’s own efforts,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported. “… The army and people of the DPRK will steadily escalate its nuclear deterrence of justice both in quality and quantity to reliably guarantee the future of the revolutionary cause.”
China spoke out strongly against the latest test, saying it had no notice.
The anger and danger were felt most in South Korea, which was split from the North seven decades ago.
A heavily militarized state
North Korea’s conventional weaponry is dated, with limited effectiveness. That’s one reason, experts speculate, Pyongyang has sought nuclear weapons: to project power internationally.
Combined with its secrecy and seclusion, North Korea’s us-against-the-world perspective and the fact it doesn’t play by traditional rules make it unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst. Add nuclear weapons to the mix — even if they aren’t thermonuclear — and Pyongyang could unleash devastation of a sort not seen in over 70 years.
While it has done little outwardly to develop its economy, North Korea has put a lot of focus on its military, carrying a huge standing army of 1.2 million active soldiers plus 7.7 million reservists in a country of 25 million people.