NORTH KOREA — Sticking it to its foes, North Korea on Wednesday celebrated what it called a successful hydrogen bomb test — a milestone that, if true, marks a colossal advancement for the reclusive regime and a big test for leaders worldwide on what to do about it.
“Make the world … look up to our strong nuclear country and labor party by opening the year with exciting noise of the first hydrogen bomb!” read a document signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on state television.
Pyongyang has been very vocal about its nuclear ambitions, pressing on despite widespread condemnation, sanctions and other punishments. Having a hydrogen bomb — a device far more powerful than the plutonium weapons that North Korea has used in three earlier underground nuclear tests — ups the ante even more.
Still, is this boast legitimate? The purported 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, a Norway-based group that monitors nuclear tests, said Tuesday’s quake was comparable in strength with readings from North Korea’s most recent plutonium test, in 2013.
In this story
- Russia and NATO join those condemning North Korea's purported hydrogen bomb test
- The event spurred a magnitude 5.1 earthquake in North Korea, according to the U.S. Geological Survey
- A hydrogen bomb is more powerful than plutonium weapons, which is what North Korea used in its past nuclear tests
Norsar estimated the yield of Tuesday’s blast to be less than 10 kilotons, or 10,000 tons of TNT, smaller than those of the atomic weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thermonuclear weapons yields typically are measured in millions of tons of TNT.
Yet no one besides North Korea reported the test. A senior U.S. official told CNN it could take days to get scientific data to determine if there was a test, if it was successful and if it indeed was of a hydrogen bomb.
Mike Chinoy, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, noted that Kim hinted a few weeks ago that his country was working on a hydrogen bomb. But just because Pyongyang talked about and claimed it doesn’t make its true. In fact, there’s little about North Korea that can be said definitively beyond that is a poor, isolated, mysterious nation that talks a big game but hasn’t gone to battle yet.
Count Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the nonpartisan 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.
“Unless North Korea has help from outside experts, it is unlikely that it has really achieved a hydrogen/fusion bomb since its last nuclear test just short of three years ago,” Bennett said.
U.N. Security Council to convene meeting
Whether or not it’s true, the claim got the world’s attention. And that may be Pyongyang’s main aim.
“If there’s no invasion on our sovereignty, we will not use nuclear weapon[s],” North Korea’s state news agency reported. “This H-bomb test brings us to a higher level of nuclear power.”
With discord raging over things like Syria’s civil war, the Shiite-Sunni Muslim divide, Ukraine, migrants and much more, it’s rare nowadays to get unanimity on anything. Yet North Korea’s hydrogen bomb bluster appears the exception, drawing harsh criticism from the likes of Russia, NATO, China and beyond.
The anger and danger were felt most in South Korea, which split from the North more than six decades ago.
“This is clearly a provocation and threatening the lives of people and safety,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said. “We have been continuously warning that [North Korea] will pay a price for conducting a nuclear test.”
The United Nations Security Council will hold a meeting later Wednesday on this topic at the request of the United States and Japan. The question is: What can be done, and will it make a difference?
Past U.N. resolutions have included arms, nonproliferation and even luxury good embargoes, a freeze on overseas financial assets and a travel ban. None of these have stopped North Korea from continuing its nuclear program.
Three of its four nuclear tests — in 2009, 2013 and now — have taken place during the tenure of U.S. President Barack Obama, who’s made inroads toward curtailing Iran’s atomic aspirations but not North Korea’s. This latest one, in particular, “puts the U.S. on the spot,” according to Chinoy.
“Will any of their steps do anything to restrain North Korea?” the analyst mused. “My guess is probably not.”
A heavy militarized state
Does it matter? It depends partly on whether Kim is telling the truth, which is hard to tell given his government’s tendency to cloak its efforts in secrecy and trumpet claims through through propaganda outlets, leaving the rest of the world to try to connect the dots.
Regardless, North Korea’s us-against-the-world perspective and the fact it doesn’t play by traditional rules makes it unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst. If you add nuclear weapons to the mix — even if they aren’t thermonuclear — then Pyongyang has the potential to unleash devastation of a sort not seen in over 70 years.
U.S. forces used atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. With minuscule power compared with H-bombs, the two blasts nonetheless killed about 200,000 people, according to the most conservative estimates.
And while it’s 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).
“If a nuclear device has been detonated… it underlines the very real threat that North Korea represents to regional and international security,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.
Expert: Stakes are high
But its conventional weaponry is dated, with limited effectiveness. That’s one reason, experts speculate, that Pyongyang has sought nuclear weapons — to project power internationally.
Last May, North Korea claimed it had the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons, a development that would allow it to deploy nuclear weapons on missiles. A U.S. National Security Council spokesman responded at the time that the United States did not think the North Koreans had such a capability.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, told CNN last year that Pyongyang could already have 10 to 15 atomic weapons, and that it could grow that amount by several weapons per year.
He believed then that Pyongyang had the capability to miniaturize a warhead for shorter missiles, but not yet for intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
And that’s Kim’s main target, according to Jasper Kim with Ewha Womans University’s Center for Conflict Management in Seoul.
“What Kim Jong Un wants is a conversation with the U.S. President,” he said. “That’s why the test is happening now. That’s why the stakes are so high.”