But We Make Rockets: How to Interpret North Korea’s Hydrogen Bomb Test

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Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

6th January, 2016


Something happened, which had been talked about for so long and was expected –  North Korea conducted a successful underground testing of their first thermonuclear bomb. It was expected because on December 10th 2015, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un stated that his country possesses hydrogen weapons. Thus, they appeared to be the world’s sixth nuclear state. The first five are Russia, USA, China, UK and France.

As was also completely expected, the first countries to raise the alarm were Japan, South Korea and the United States. The North American geological survey immediately registered on the territory of North Korea an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.1 points. The media of Japan and South Korea immediately reported “man-made” tremors. The Meteorological Agency of South Korea said that the epicenter of the aftershocks coincided with the location of the Phungere landfill in the province of Yangkang, which is where the DPRK held the nuclear test. The only disagreement arose over the depth at which the explosion was made. The experts gave it at 10 kilometers, but in South Korea they thought the nuke worked much closer to the surface. Video provided by Pyongyang confirmed the rightness of the South Koreans.

Several hours later, Pyongyang issued an official statement. “Today we successfully conducted the first test of a hydrogen weapon, — said the speaker in the broadcast of the Central television of the DPRK. “Possession of a hydrogen weapon was a historic event”. The North Korean leadership has tried to reassure the world community that nuclear weapons will be used exclusively by them for self-defense.

However, opponents of the DPRK began to whip up anti-North Korean hysteria. The armed forces of South Korea were immediately brought into a state of high alert. According to South Korean news Agency Yonhap, the Ministry of defence of the Republic of Korea “increased vigilance and combat readiness of the armed forces.” The Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe “strongly condemned” the tests and stated that they are a “serious security threat”.

In this case, the neighbours may not understand that Pyongyang had no intention to precede the beginning of the war with them via a thermonuclear explosion. Not to mention the fact that the hydrogen bomb tests and the production of combat-ready copies are two big differences. First of all, because the production of ammunition, after testing, is time consuming and costs a lot of money, and the time between the active substances is a long process. For the DPRK, with a low-power reactor, this is a real problem. For all the time of operation of the reactor at Yongbyon, it could produce “on-mountain” no more than 36 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.

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However, the UN Security Council announced the intention to hold an emergency meeting related to testing. A *closed meeting is tentatively scheduled for 19:00 Moscow time. Given that the DPRK today is under UN sanctions for developing nuclear and missile programs tests, attitudes toward Pyongyang will not improve.

*[O.R: The result of the UN meeting was the decision to apply more sanctions on North Korea]

In fact, by testing a thermonuclear bomb, the DPRK was transferred to a qualitatively different state. If the creation of a conventional nuclear bomb can now be managed by virtually any state or organization that has at least enriched to 80% uranium-235, the design of a thermonuclear bomb is far more complex both in theoretical calculations and in the production and requires the development of high technology, including the production of lithium deuteride-6, a stabilizing sphere of lead and depleted uranium-238, radiation special conductive plastic and a multitude of other, equally high-tech industries.

As of 2015 the most authoritative in the world, the Stockholm Institute SIPRI, assessed the nuclear stockpile North Korea in eight charges. Various American institutions, about 20-40 charges low capacity (about 20 kilotons).

A real threat can be considered only by South Korea. Pyongyang has no means of delivery of nuclear charges at large distances, although attempts are being made regularly. From 1998 to 2012, there were 13 launches of carrier rockets “Taepodong-1”, “unha-2 and unha-3”. None were unsuccessful. One 12th of December 2012 the country managed to successfully withdraw to orbit the Earth satellite “kvanmenson-3”. In March 2014, more missile tests were made — and again failed.

Only North Korea is developing an Intercontinental ballistic missile “Taepodong-2” with the calculated range of 6-10 thousand miles. However tests in 2006 ended in failure 40 seconds after launch, the rocket collapsed.

Today the DPRK really has only tactical missiles “Taxa”, “Hwaseong-5” and “Hwaseong-6”. This is a modification of the old Soviet Scuds with a range of 700 kilometers. Theoretically they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. North Korea has up to 600 of these missiles. There are still a few missiles “Nodong” with the calculated distance of 1.6 thousand kilometers, though it is unknown if they can be tooled up with nuclear warheads. With such an Arsenal, the DPRK can be dangerous as a nuclear power only for nearby States, which really is only for the Republic of Korea.

Credit should be given to the leadership of the DPRK having to suffer long international isolation, chronic food shortages, forcing Pyongyang to agree on the supply of food in the framework of humanitarian aid (last year only by the UN – at $ 111 million), these are a very expensive and high-tech development.

It is likely that in five to seven years, North Korea will be able to deploy Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with nuclear warheads. Then, having the means of delivery, the proven thermonuclear bomb today will be a very serious deterrent not only for the Republic of Korea, but even for the United States.

And then the North Koreans can safely sing the old Soviet song: “But we make rockets…”.

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