Blast hints at North Korea’s nuke

The amount of energy discharged from a nuclear bomb recently tested by North Korea may show the device used plutonium, which would mean the country hasn’t yet found the other route to the weapon, according to an arms-control expert.

North Korea on Feb. 12 announced its third test of a nuclear device. The underground detonation has escalated tensions in the region. The U.S. flew pairs of stealth aircraft over South Korea, including F-22 fighter jets and nuclear-capable B-2 bombers, in a show of force. The North threatened retaliation and on April 2 pledged to restart a closed reactor to boost production of the weapons material.

North Korea has steadily increased the explosive power, or yield, of its nuclear tests, to six to seven kilotons in February, from about two kilotons in 2009 and from less than a kiloton in 2006, according to a Feb. 12 report from the Congressional Research Service. The first two are believed to have used plutonium rather than highly enriched uranium. Obtaining the fissile material is the main hurdle in building a nuclear weapon.

“It looks more as if they’re sort of gradually improving a design that they’ve been working on,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, an arms-control organization based in Washington that supports the reduction of nuclear weapons. “You could argue and say, ‘Well, maybe it’s more likely a plutonium device versus them starting all over on a totally new design based on uranium.'”

Still, because so little is known about North Korea’s activities, “it could go either way,” he said in a telephone interview. “We really don’t know one way or the other.”

The U.S. successfully pursued both paths to the bomb during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, Kristensen said. Early tests of U.S. nuclear weaponry yielded about 15 and 20 kilotons, he said. India and Pakistan’s first atomic devices yielded about 10 to 12 kilotons, he said.

The difference in yields suggests Pyongyang is “still not very good at producing this,” Kristensen said.

A third test of a plutonium-based bomb would also diminish North Korea’s stockpile of the weapons-grade material. The country is estimated to have between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for four to seven weapons, according to the CRS report.

While North Korea has acknowledged a uranium enrichment program, it previously said its purpose was to produce fuel for nuclear power. That may have changed under the regime of Kim Jong Un, which last month called for bolstering its nuclear weapons production.

North Korea’s latest atomic test, along with its December launch of a satellite into orbit using a Taepo Dong 2 rocket and recent display of an intercontinental ballistic missile, demonstrates a “commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said in prepared remarks last month to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

North Korea probably won’t have the capacity to attack the U.S. with nuclear missiles “for many years,” and its ability to strike South Korea is very limited, according to Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor and former Los Alamos National Laboratory director who has repeatedly traveled to the country to report on its nuclear facilities.

“Nevertheless, this is an uneasy situation with a potential for miscalculations from a young and untested leader,” he said in an April 2 article from Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • STemplar

    I bet the writers of South Park are trying to do an episode, but with the amount of looney coming from them they have to keep erasing and revising the script.

    Interesting stuff from inside China where the internet sites are apparently ripping the Norks and calling what’s his nuts ‘fatty kim’. The suspension of the editor guru for the editorial in which he called for abandoning the Norks. I think we should continued with measured responses and let them continue their mental spin out. Seems to be working in our favor with Chinese public opinion.

    • joe

      Not surprising, really.

      Whilst a lot of people don’t like the PRC’s government (for a number of good reasons, let’s not have the debate here), few will argue that they’re not rational.

      A client state you can use to annoy the west and keep South Korea looking over it’s shoulder is useful and something they will support.
      A nutter who’s main contribution to international politics is trying to start a nuclear war is not.

      Right now the Chinese public (and more importantly leadership) is probably doing a collective facepalm and muttering “oh, hell, this one’s even more pants-on-head crazy than the last one…”

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Chinese opinion. Yeah, the US could be indifferent on that. Thankfully, the Chinese are starting to leave NK alone. Maybe they have “seen the light”. For all we know, maybe a misguided missile courtesy of NK may mobilize the Chinese against Kim. I think its safe to say that in the next Korean war, China won’t pull another, “oh, US at my doorstep, lets attack” maneuver. If anything, they may even invade from the north, and plunge south, hopefully stopping at the 38th. Either way, NK is going to fall, I think within 10 years. My question is what is going to happen to the South? It seems there is more attention to the fake threats sent to the US then the real danger for the South. Also, we will be stuck with a population of over 24 million people that hate the US, or people that were ex-North Korean. Eh, doesn’t seem like an easy fix.

    • admin

      I doubt it’s Kim calling the shots. He was educated in Switzerland… He knows well what would happen if he actually started a war. He probably has handlers. Kim Jong Un is just a puppet.

    • whatever

      how do you what’s on Chinese websites when you don’t even read / understand Chinese?

  • Davis

    Well it’s good to hear North Korea cannot strike the US and has only limited capabilities in striking S. Korea but their continuation of nuclear and missile testing clearly shows their intentions. Hopefully, the Kim regime will collapse before they go full nuclear with ICBM’s.

    • Sev

      They won’t. How about we stke all they’re missile facilities before they get the capapbility and still have limited striking power? They have nukes and have said that THEY WILL nuke the US. NOw, if they didn’t have nukes thats one thing, because it’s basically like a crazy guy in a padded cell saying he will kill you. If you let him out, he probably would keep to his word. But now that they have nukes they are more akin to a crazy guy in a barred jail cell with a gun saying he will kill you. I would take him at his word and kill he before he got the chance to shoot me

      • Sev

        As president I would say “It is my job to ensure the safety of this nation and as such since it is the North’s policy to launch a nuclear strike on the US It is now the policy of the United States to use any means at our disposal to destroy North Korea’s missile launch sites every time we see them raising a missile until such time where Dear Leader changes his policy from nuking the United States to full dismantlement of their nuclear program.”

        • whatever

          in that case you are more of a brain dead nut job than Kim, and a threat to all people on earth, including the fat asses in America.

          • whatever

            wait a minute, why are you people down voting my post? did i say something wrong?

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      I doubt they will ever get ICBMs before the next OPEN Korean conflict. They supposedly tried to skip a step, and decided to build a nuke that would fit above a missile. To bad it backfired. Personally, the threats to the US are WAY overrated. To South Korea, not so much. US missile defense systems will polish off any NK missiles. The South Koreans are the ones in most trouble; the have to LIVE next to these village idiots.

  • Musson

    How about we unilaterally draw down our own stock of nuclear weapons? I am sure that the NORKs and Iranians would follow our lead and renounce atomic weapons if we just show them the way.

    /s

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      I doubt that. Until there are government changes in both countries, they have no reason to yield on their nuclear weapons. Both countries think that the world is against them; and its is pretty much true. The only way nukes will leave Tehran and Pyongyang is by war or some extensive talks and treaties. They won’t abandon.

    • orly?

      Its called the “START” (STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty).

      We’ve been drawing down our stockpiles since 1991.

      • USS ENTERPRISE

        Albeit slowly. I don’t think that we will ever need nukes, at least on Earth. Cold War ended a while back. I say pack ’em up, and if outfit them on spacecraft. Even thought its illegal.

    • Mitch S.

      Musson,
      Looks like you have to make it clearer you’re being sarcastic than just a “/s”.

      • Musson

        Thanks!

    • Kim

      Could this be called ‘reverse trolling’?

      • whatever

        are you the great leader from North Korea?

        what does ‘reverse trolling’ mean? define it please.

    • whatever

      Musson, if the US wants other countries to renounce nuclear weapons, it should renounce them first, not merely draw down the stock.

      • crackedlenses

        These are weapons and the national security of all the world’s powers we are talking about; no one is going to play nice or play fair. That is why unilateral disarmament never works.

      • orly?

        Only fools would think it takes a snap of a finger to disarm thousands of nuclear warheads.

  • anonymous

    Keep beating those war drums. It worked so well for Iraq.

  • USS ENTERPRISE

    Ok, NK does not pose a threat to mainland USA. Simple truth. Their “missiles” would be detected minutes after launch. And missile defense will take care of them. Also, this is assuming that these missiles get past the boost phase of launch, and have the ability to target, well, anything. Finally, whatever missile they want to wave at the US, it doesn’t have a nuclear weapon duck (or is it duct) taped to the tip. They don’t have the technology, and it will most likely stay that way unless Russia and China go back to freely backing NK, which is the opposite of what we have seen both parties do. No matter what happens, I sense that there will be a MASSIVE dispute on this article. Man, where are those Palestinian monkeys?

  • superraptor

    Japan and South Korea hopefully will move forward to quickly develop their own nuclear deterrence. The US has become militarily weak and unreliable

    • greg

      Yes our show of force was weak and unreliable.

      • superraptor

        2 B-2s are a show of farce, not force, the Chinese are still laughing how we are degrading our military through sequestration while they are building hundreds of new ICBMs.

  • brad

    I want to believe that China has to understand that if North Korea manages to stock pile a few nukes, then it will pose an actual threat to China also.

    • STemplar

      That’s one of the points the Chinese editorial head made in his article that got him suspended.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      I don’t know. It depends on how extensive China is helping NK. They maybe publicly moving back, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that they might be propping up the Koreans in shady, under-the-table deals.

      • STemplar

        There is nothing shady or under the table going on, china provides them like 75% of their fuel oil and the bulk of their food. The Norks exist because of China. A nation that dedicates like 50% of its GDP to the military like the norks do does not exist on its own, its impossible. They are very much still around because of Chinese assistance. That worked for the Chinese as long as they asked the norks to do things the norks wanted to do anyway, now that they are asking for things the norks don’t want to do the Chinese are learning the uncomfortable truth that all their money might not have been all that well spent.

        • USS ENTERPRISE

          True, but they have been sort of moving backwards with the aid, in all forms. Overall, I doubt that China will do the whole attack thing it did back in the original Korean war. They will probably caution US troops to not cross the border. But attack? Doubt it.

  • Tribulationtime

    A few questions to share. How can Little Big Kim (aka The Great Leader) save the face?. Someone Knows What F…king Shht NKorea wants?. How do affect this crisis to Iran affair?. What if Nkorea bombs damaged nuclear power central in Japan? Can China afford a bridgehead in the peninsula without Nkorea buffer?. Do a Tactical Nuke bring International Green Light to attack Iran?. I can´t foresee the future but i very sad why i feel this time war gonna re-start. I hope the whole thing don´t exceed operations in DMZ and near around.

  • Taylor

    North Korea working with Iran, so the Iranians could have purchased a plutonium nuke already and could probably test their own weapon designs in North Korea to maintain the cover that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Well, Iran hasn’t kept that cover well. No matter what the situation is, we know for sure that NK is making nukes. Iran is developing them, but actually having one is doubtful. They are working together, trading Uranium and Plutonium and scientists. Just I doubt that their actual nuclear bombs are joint projects.

    • STemplar

      Maybe, kind of shows why this endless dithering with the various negotiations that have nothing to show for 10 years of effort are probably pointless.

  • Skyler the Weird

    Let’s call North Korea Austria-Hungary. The PRC is Imperial Germany. the US is the British Empire. They will back their Ally cause there is no way their number one trading partner will go to a world war with them for backing an inavasion of Serbia/South Korea.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      I don’t think you can compare this to WWI or WWII. WAY to many variables to deal with that. Just stick to what it is. If SK is attacked, US will go in. If SK attacks, notice now I am saying that SK is doing the attacking, then the US will back them up, but not as readily. Either way, NK will have US fighters and bombers flying over it, and US naval ships in its waters.

  • Simple Man

    That’s all we need. Nuclear proliferation.

    South Korea, and particularly Seoul, would bear the brunt of the damage, from artillery fire mainly.

    Our own missile defense system is in question as the results have not been spectacular. But at the same time deception is critical to success. Let’s hope that if they do launch we can knock them down without detonating them.

  • Mikey

    It’s my hope that before Fat Kim can do anything rash, the Generals will step in and kick his *&# . This kid is about as smart as a bowl of soup. At least the Generals have got some brains between their ears. Fat Kimmey is trying to keep hold of Daddies country. And he’s not very good at it.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Ehmm. No, the won’t give Kim the boot, as he is basically a god to NK. And the Generals are just as bit as crazy as Kim-jong-un, if not more so.

  • Engineer

    Ok – this has stopped being funny. Time for us to get the Chinese on board and tell them they need to make their boy Kim to go away – he is bad for business – Chinese Business!

    • whatever

      N Korea is playing the US as if it were a monkey.

      a few NK announcements here and there, and the donkeys in the US spend hundreds of millions moving tons of ships, aircraft and other military assets around, staging silly monkey exercises and patrols that NK doesn’t give a damn about.

      sounds like good business to China.

  • Speedy

    WHY?

  • todd

    I think we will soon take out NK’s nuclear and ICBM program and stockpiles. Possibly even regime-change. SK has already begun pursuing nuclear weapons, with other regional countries likely to eventually follow. This nuclear proliferation is a long-term threat to US and everyone. If you doubted our policy on denying Iran nuclear weapons, because of the Mideast nuclear arms race that would ensue, what’s happening in Asia, with SK (and soon others) considering/asking for/pursuing nuclear weapons technology, is vindication. I think we need to shut it down. All the US steps thus far seem like a logical progression in that direction.

  • blight_

    Clearly people need some re-education about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the titles of greatness that come with its hilarious leaders.

    It goes (Great Leader->Eternal President), (Dear Leader->Great Leader->Eternal Leader),(Brilliant Comrade->Great Successor->?)

    Wonder if the Great Successor will make it to Eternal Successor.

    And some bomb targets. You know, for…defense.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_leader%

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      I just call them all foolish fat fellows.

  • Benjamin

    With Russian diplomats being told to look at evacuating by Pyongyang, things do not look to well.
    My thinking is that these missiles (http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/05/world/asia/koreas-tensions/index.html?hpt=hp_t1) being readied will actually be sent on a trajectory to overflight Japan and maybe Guam. Either way, we are going to be forced to attempt to intercept them.