More split nuclei

On 16 July 1945, the United States did it. The Soviets followed suit on 29 August 1949, followed by the UK on 3 October 1952. The French followed on 13 February 1960, followed by China on 16 October 1964. On 18 May 1974, India joined the club, with Pakistan doing so on 28 May 1998. Israel and/or South Africa may have tested on 22 September 1979, in an incident detected by an American satellite.

As of 9 October 2006, North Korea seems to have tested a nuclear bomb. It makes you wonder how many more states will do so in the next fifty years, as well as what the security character of the Southeast Asian area, in particular, will be by then.

That said, while they seem to have scientists and engineers capable of making nuclear weapons, the North Koreans don’t seem to have staff capable of producing a particularly cogent English press release:

The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the KPA and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability.

Since this test was pretty clearly meant for American audiences, you might have expected them to pay more attention to their wording. I suppose multi-kiloton underground blasts speak louder than press releases.

Despite such nationalist rhetoric, the test seems more likely to endanger the average North Korean than help them. In the short term, there is the danger that someone will try to strike their nuclear capability before they develop credible delivery systems. Also, as The Economist identifies: “[T]he immediate threats from North Korea’s new capability come from radioactive leaks into the atmosphere and North Korea’s groundwater.” Finally, the test risks sparking a nuclear arms race in Asia that threatens the security of the whole region, at least.

[Update: 1:30pm] Based on my server logs, lots of people have been looking for these photos of test sites in Nevada during the last few days. Google still hasn’t figured out that this site has moved to WordPress. In any case, the photos show one of the ugly legacies of testing and reinforce the point that, while world should be moving towards nuclear disarmament, the converse seems to be taking place.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

33 thoughts on “More split nuclei”

  1. So, what is the electoral fallout from this?

    Do people punish the Republicans for partially letting this happen with their Iraq and Iran obsessions? Or do people abandon the Democrats for the sturdy seeming arms of the ‘daddy’ party?

  2. The Chinese-Japanese joint statement telling North Korea not to test was certainly a surprising show of cooperation.

    Of course, look at how well it worked…

  3. It does seem as though this could prove to be a big strategic mistake. If China, Japan, the US, and South Korea manage to coordinate policy, the North Koreans could really lose out from this – both in terms of the leadership and the people in general.

  4. The probable strategic fallout is much more worrisome.

    Of course, this might actually push China, Japan, and the US to cooperate. Together, they could probably manage both N. Korea and the region generally.

  5. Governments Urge Security Council Action

    Published: May 25, 2009

    PARIS — Across the globe from Washington to Moscow to Beijing, North Korea’s underground nuclear test met with strong opposition Monday and some governments threatened to punish the secretive regime in Pyongyang with deeper isolation and possible tighter sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.

    Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan said his government will seek a new United Nations resolution to condemn the test. He said an urgent meeting of the Security Council was expected to be held on Monday in New York at Japan’s request.

    China, a key player whose response was closely watched around the world, said it was “resolutely opposed” to the test, according to a Foreign Ministry statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency, Reuters reported.

    Russia said the test breached a United Nations Security Council resolution and would “endanger security and stability in the region,” according to the Russian foreign ministry in a statement.

  6. First, Take a Deep Breath
    Obama shouldn’t respond too quickly, or too aggressively, to the North Korean nuclear test.
    By Fred Kaplan
    Posted Tuesday, May 26, 2009, at 3:06 PM ET

    So North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb. What should President Barack Obama do about it? Ideally, nothing. A shrug may be the response that Kim Jong-il fears most.

    This, after all, was only the second A-bomb that Pyongyang has ever tested. (The first was in October 2006,) And recent long-range missile test, last April, seems to have been a dud—as were both of the other such tests it’s attempted in the past decade. If the big fear is that this loathsome dictatorship might fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile with the range to hit Japan or beyond, the worry seems premature by many years.

  7. North Korea: The Implications of Weak Seismographic Data

    As far as nuclear weapons go, almost everything can be learned from less-than full-scale testing except the actual yield of the untested device. Thus, this could have been a scaled-down test. It also would fit with a geological concern particular to North Korea — the water table is so high that an underground test runs a very real risk of irradiating a portion of the nation’s water supply. And, of course, the water tables of the Korean Peninsula do not split nicely along the 38th parallel. In a nation the size of Nevada — the state in which the United States has done much of its weapons testing — there will very likely be observable environmental consequences regardless of whether the test was full-scale.

    Ultimately, however, the possibility of a scaled-down test is unconvincing. Environmental considerations aside, hydronuclear and hydrodynamic testing — two common forms of subcritical experimentation with weapons design — both have yields much lower than those observed Oct. 9, on the order of tens of tons and lower. These experiments test the function of the weapon without using enough fissile material to create a supercritical mass. Also, scaled-down tests with yields in the hundreds of tons often indicate boosted fission and thermonuclear devices with yields measured in megatons and of substantially greater complexity. Such complexity is almost certainly beyond North Korea’s current reach.

  8. N Korea showed US scientist ‘vast new nuclear facility’

    An American nuclear scientist says he was shown a vast new nuclear facility when he visited North Korea last week.

    Dr Siegfried Hecker said he had been shown “more than 1,000 centrifuges” for enriching uranium, which can be used for making nuclear weapons.

    The Stanford University scientist was stunned at how sophisticated the plant was, according to reported remarks.

    When international weapons inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009, the plant did not exist, officials say.

    Dr Hecker’s discovery was first reported in the New York Times, where he spoke of being taken to see an “ultra-modern control room”.

    In subsequent remarks obtained by AP news agency, he said that unlike other North Korean facilities it “would fit into any modern American processing facility”, and spoke of more than 1,000 centrifuges “all neatly aligned and plumbed below us”.

  9. “Monitoring for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty had already reached such a sophisticated level by 2006, when the monitoring network was only 60 percent complete, that more than twenty CTBT seismic stations detected the first North Korean nuclear test of 9 October as far away as South America, even though the explosive yield was less than one kiloton. [The Hiroshima bomb was 13.5 kilotons.] Besides 170 seismic stations arrayed across the world, the CTBT’s monitoring system includes eleven hydroacoustic stations capable of hearing the explosion of a fifty-pound TNT test charge ten thousand miles away; sixty infrasound stations listening for low-frequency sound waves from above-ground nuclear tests; and eighty radionucleotide stations sniffing for bomb-derived radioactive particles and radioactive nobel gases. Once the CTBT is fully in force, wrote the Science magazine reporter Daniel Clery, “its executive council, if faced with a suspected test… can call on the CTBT’s ultimate verification measure: an on-site inspection. Within days of a suspected test, a team of up to 40 people can be on the scene and scouring an area of up to 1000 square kilometres using overflights, mobile radionucleotide detectors, microseismic arrays to detect aftershocks, gamma-ray detectors, ground-penetrating radar, magnetic and gravitational field mapping, and electrical conductivity measurements.””

    Rhodes, Richard. The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons. (2010) p.295 (hardcover)

  10. North Korea nuclear test: live

    North Korea says it has carried out a successful nuclear test, drawing widespread international condemnation. Follow the latest reaction from around the world as the UN prepares to hold an emergency meeting.

  11. It will take a while to know what exactly went on at the Punggye-ri test site. The official news agency, KCNA, said the bomb was smaller, lighter and more powerful than the previous two tested in October 2006 and May 2009. Whether that is true or not, the regime’s goal is surely to make a warhead compact enough to sit atop its Unha-3 rocket, one of which put a satellite into space in December. With the right re-entry and weapons-guiding technologies, North Korea would then have an intercontinental ballistic missile with the ability to strike America.

  12. North Korea’s nuclear programme
    A nuclear nightmare

    No country in history has spent such a large share of its wealth on nuclear weapons. North Korea is thought to have a stockpile of around 20 devices. Every six weeks or so it adds another. This year the pace of ballistic missile testing has been unprecedented. An underground nuclear detonation in January, claimed by the regime to be an H-bomb (but more likely a souped-up A-bomb), has been followed by tests of the technologies behind nuclear-armed missiles. Although three tests of a 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) missile failed in April, North Korean engineers learn from their mistakes. Few would bet against them succeeding in the end.

    Understandably, therefore, Mr Obama has preferred to devote his efforts to Iran. Because the mullahs depend on sales of oil and gas to the outside world, embargoes on Iran’s energy exports and exclusion from the international payments system changed their strategic calculus. But this logic will not work with North Korea.

    Without any good options, what should America’s next president do? A priority is to strengthen missile defence. New THAAD anti-missile systems should be sent to South Korea and Japan, while America soothes objections that their radar could be used against China’s nuclear weapons. China should also be cajoled into accepting that sanctions can be harsher, without provoking an implosion. Were that to lead initially only to a freeze on testing, it would be worth having. Because a sudden, unforeseen collapse of Mr Kim’s regime is possible at any time, America needs worked-out plans to seize or destroy North Korea’s nuclear missiles before they can be used. For this China’s co-operation, or at least acquiescence, is vital. So clear and present is the danger that even rivals who clash elsewhere in Asia must urgently find new ways to work together.

  13. For a start, North Korea was a lot further down the road to a nuclear-weapons capability than Iran, which had remained within the NPT and was still a few years from being able to test a device. And Mr Obama realised there was also much more leverage to be had over Iran than North Korea. Bill Clinton had come close to authorising an air strike on Yongbyon in 1994, but pulled back in the belief it would trigger a new war on the peninsula that, by some estimates, could cost a million lives. After the nuclear test in 2006 the military option was off the table for good. That was never true of Iran. The Iranian leadership could not fully discount the threat of a pre-emptive strike by either Israel or America.

    Lastly, Iran always (if implausibly) denied that it was seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons—the supreme leader Ali Khamenei even issued a fatwa that described possessing nuclear weapons as a “grave sin”. Mr Kim believes that nuclear weapons are essential. Like his father before him he has built them into the national narrative and iconography, seeing them as fundamental to the dynasty’s survival. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran is a regional power that America has to take seriously. North Korea has no other claim to fame except its nastiness. Its ruler sees nuclear weapons as the key to gaining the respect he demands from the outside world. They are not bargaining chips to be traded for other benefits.

    The next issue is whether the North Koreans have graduated from devices that can be tested to devices that can be fitted onto either its existing medium-range Nodong missile (developed from the Soviet-era Scud C) or its two missiles under development, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Mr Schilling thinks that they would not have carried out four nuclear tests on something they did not think they could deliver. On March 9th, Mr Kim was photographed paying a visit to what may have been the Chamjin missile factory outside Pyongyang. In a hall packed with several ballistic missiles, Mr Kim posed beside a plausible-looking re-entry vehicle that would be consistent in size with a fission device about 60cm in diameter and weighing up to 300 kilograms. Both American and South Korean officials are convinced that North Korea can indeed make a warhead small enough to fit on the Nodong, which can reach targets in Japan, including American bases.

    Another ground test on April 9th has, according to Mr Schilling, put to rest any doubts about North Korea’s ability to build an ICBM sooner rather than later. Two engines from Soviet-era R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missiles were coupled together to provide the propulsive power and range for a warhead carried by a KN-08 to hit the east coast of the United States. It is not known how many R-27s North Korea has, but up to 150 went missing from Russia in the post-Soviet 1990s. Mr Schilling reckons flight testing of a KN-08 enhanced in this way could begin soon, leading to a “limited operational capability by 2020”.

    Mr Pollack says that if Mr Kim wants the sort of bells-and-whistles deterrent deployed by the large nuclear powers, with submarine-launched and mobile missiles, the ruinous expense would make such a policy impossible. If, on the other hand, Mr Kim just wants what Mr Pollack calls a “don’t fuck with us” deterrent—one that keeps outside powers from interfering with his regime—he probably has one now.

    Mr Elleman has calculated that, faced with 50-missile salvoes, a layered defence consisting of two THAAD batteries and South Korea’s existing Patriot systems would be able to stop all but 10% of what was fired. He and Michael Zagurek, in a paper for 38 North, base their calculations on what is known in the jargon as “single-shot probability of kill” (SSPK). With two layers of defence, the SSPK of each interceptor need only be a bit over 0.7 for 90% of the incoming missiles to be destroyed.

    That would be an impressively effective defence against conventionally armed missiles. But only one or two nuclear warheads need to get through for the casualties to be immense (420,000 killed and injured in Seoul for each 20 kiloton warhead, reckon Mr Elleman and Mr Zagurek). And if nuclear-tipped missiles were launched alongside or behind conventional decoys the system would be clueless as to which was which. If Mr Kim were to add submarine-launched missiles to his arsenal, defence would be harder still; they could be fired out of sight of THAAD’s radar.

  14. WASHINGTON — The online ad reads like something only a metallurgist could love: an offer to sell 22 pounds of highly pure lithium 6 every month, set for delivery from the port of Dandong, China.

    But it caught the attention of intelligence agencies around the world for a simple reason: Lithium 6 offers a fast way to turn an ordinary atom bomb into a hydrogen bomb, magnifying its destructive power by up to 1,000 times. The seller listed in the ad — who even provided his cellphone number — was identified in a recent United Nations report as the third secretary in the North Korean Embassy in Beijing.

    But experts say the offer to sell excess lithium is evidence that North Korea has produced so much of the precious material that it is too late to prevent the nation from becoming an advanced nuclear power.

  15. It is unclear how close North Korea is to constructing a hydrogen bomb. But Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford University professor who once directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, and has visited the North’s main nuclear complex, said the ad for lithium 6, while surprising, was a reminder that North Korea, though a backward country, was still capable of major technical advances.

    “I can’t imagine they’re not working on true thermonuclear weapons,” Dr. Hecker said in an interview.

  16. Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.

    North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.

    But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counter-strike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid – unless people like Kim Jung-un are literally crazy.

  17. The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.

    One of the reasons it is so difficult to resolve conflict is that we fail to look at our own behaviour and how it is perceived by those we see as our foes. We do business with our friends and not with our enemies. De-escalation and dissolution of tension is seldom achieved by looking though a one-way lens. To Americans, US-led war games in the region may look like a defensive manoeuvre, but to North Korea they look antagonistic.

  18. (Preventive strikes against North Korea would be carried out by submarine and bomber crews, because land-based Minuteman missiles would have to fly over Russia and China, possibly triggering mistaken retaliation by these countries.)

    Yet Trump indulges in issuing such threats, and he has unchecked authority to order a preventive nuclear strike against any nation he wants with a single verbal direction to the Pentagon war room. Under the current nuclear strike protocol, he can consult any and all — or none — of his national security advisers, and no one can legally countermand his order. If he gave the green light using his nuclear codes, a launch order the length of a tweet would be transmitted and carried out within a few minutes . I could fire my missiles 60 seconds after receiving an order. There would be no recalling missiles fired from silos and submarines.

    I believe the nuclear commanders at all levels would obey such an order, despite deep misgivings about its wisdom and legality. The military’s thorough subordination to civilian control and deeply ingrained attitude of deference to presidential direction; its well-greased and practiced protocols from top to bottom of the nuclear chain of command, geared to carry out his orders quickly (and to pressure a hesitant president to give the order) — as well as widespread ignorance among the rank and file about the dubious legality of striking first — leave little doubt in my mind that a presidential decision to strike a preventive blow, however misguided and reckless, would not be thwarted. It might be opposed strenuously by his advisers if they had a chance to weigh in, but in the end, they would acquiesce.

  19. Why Kim Jong Un wouldn’t be irrational to use a nuclear bomb first

    Yes, Kim is brutally rational. And that is precisely why he may have to use nuclear weapons, but not in a first strike against American cities. Kim’s nuclear arsenal exists to stop his enemies’ quest for regime change. If North Korea and the United States wind up shooting at each other, it might make sense for Kim to use nuclear weapons first in a way that increases his chances of survival. The basic idea is to use one set of nuclear devices to stave off the conventional invasion, and hold in reserve longer range, more powerful devices that threaten the enemy’s cities to deter nuclear annihilation. It’s a doctrine called “asymmetric escalation,” employed by states that are conventionally weak. France articulated it during the Cold War to deter the more powerful Soviet Union, and Pakistan does the same today against a more powerful India.

    The strategy turns on Kim’s main calculation that the United States will say it’s not worth losing a major American city to get rid of him. This would allow him to avoid the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, who did not have nuclear weapons. Deterrence worked uneasily during the Cold War — albeit with close calls and some hair-raising moments — but it worked. Many of the same principles about mutual destruction still obtain today between major powers.

    Yet the equation for North Korea, which cannot ensure mutual destruction, is slightly different. Faced with the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion, Pyongyang’s conventional inferiority requires it to degrade the United States’ ability to sustain the attack against it. This means it essentially has no option but to use nuclear weapons first against targets such as Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, which stations American bombers, and a variety of allied bases in Japan and South Korea. North Korea has to use nuclear weapons there because it does not have enough conventional warheads to damage the bases meaningfully; a conventional response would not slow or stop a U.S. onslaught. It is for these bases that North Korea has tested the medium-range missiles, reportedly developed a compact nuclear fission warhead and honed guidance for the missiles that would carry it.

    Wouldn’t such an attack mean the retaliatory annihilation of North Korea? Not necessarily. This is why the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the H-bomb are so important. Kim’s survival theory is that North Korea could threaten to destroy an American city with a thermonuclear-tipped ICBM if the United States continued an invasion or retaliated with nuclear weapons. Anytime its cities can be held at risk, the United States’ deterrence equation changes, as it did during the Cold War. Are we willing to risk losing millions of civilians in our homeland? Possibly not. And it’s unlikely that we could reliably destroy all of Kim’s ICBMs on the ground or intercept the warheads in the air, particularly as he builds more. So the prospect of losing San Francisco thanks to our nuclear retaliation may cause us to pause conventional operations and elicit a cease-fire, thereby preserving Kim’s regime and rule. Kim may surmise that if he doesn’t use nuclear weapons first, he is certain to lose; if he does, he may have a fighting chance of surviving.

  20. Another option is for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons. It tried this twice in the 1970s but was pressed by America to stop. Experts believe it could have its own bomb within three years if it chose to do so. Most South Koreans have been keen on the idea for two decades. Another paper, Chosun Ilbo, said the government must consider it: “A nuclear threat must be met with a nuclear deterrent. There is no other option.”

    Yet South Korea will probably remain nuclear-free. Making its own bombs could jeopardise the alliance with America and risk sanctions for violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1968. Mr Moon and his party continue to oppose asking the Americans for some of theirs. Even if they change their minds, American generals are unlikely to back such a scheme.

  21. President George H.W. Bush took unilateral action, removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing America’s troop levels in the region, hoping to incentivize good behavior; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions; President Barack Obama mostly averted his eyes. North Korea defied them all.

    Those four presidents hesitated to bring a forceful end to the North Korean nuclear program, because there is no good policy move for Washington to make. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly emphasized, a war on the Korean peninsula would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” The inescapable constraint on U.S. action is, of course, that the capital of South Korea lies in range of the 8,000 artillery pieces North Korea has aimed at its kin. Even if the United States could pull off a military campaign of exceptional virtuosity—identifying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, targeting dispersing mobile launchers, knocking hundreds of missiles out of the sky before they reach their targets in Korea, Japan, and America, and destroying North Korean conventional forces along the Demilitarized Zone in the first couple of hours of a preventative attack—hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely die. Americans, too, would perish, since more than 130,000 of them reside in South Korea. The more likely course, as Vipan Narang and Ankit Panda have argued, would be North Korea launching on warning—“fail deadly” (as opposed to fail safe) mode. That would drive the numbers much, much higher.

    Nor is a negotiated settlement likely. North Korea’s leaders are unmoved by the domestic or international costs of their nuclear program. The list of agreements violated by the Kim regime is long and distinguished: two IAEA safeguards, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the denuclearization agreement, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005 joint statement, the 2007 and 2012 agreements. And they kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor on their long-range missile programs, conducting 15 missile tests in the last year, the most recent evidently intended to demonstrate their ability to reach the U.S. territory of Guam.

  22. Broadly, then, the two countries are in unprecedented agreement over North Korea. Alas, it may be too late. Kim Jong-un is painfully close to developing his great ambition, the nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting American territory that he sees as an insurance policy against attack, and as his ticket to being treated as a near-equal by America. In particular, senior officials and ex-officials on both sides see no reason why he will stop now. They privately call sanctions deserved and necessary, but insufficient. The problem is that any embargo brutal enough to have a chance of bringing the Kim regime to its knees would risk a humanitarian catastrophe, including mass starvation. Even that might not be enough. In 1990s North Korea’s Stalinist, quasi-feudal rulers rode out a mass famine without falling.

    Listen to insiders in Washington, and it is easy to wonder if this will one day be seen as a high point of Chinese-American agreement. For if and when North Korea unveils a full-scale nuclear arsenal, America will be left with no choice but to pursue Cold War style policies of deterrence and containment. Experienced folk worry that China will hate a lot of what America has to do at that point, to contain a nuclear North Korea. America might have to deploy tactical nuclear weapons once more. More anti-missile THAAD systems may need to be installed in South Korea, bringing powerful radar systems that can see deep into China. American missile defence batteries will need beefing up in such places as Fort Greeley, Alaska, in such a way that China may feel its “second strike capability”, or ability to retaliate after a nuclear attack, is jeopardised.

  23. Mistrust and verify
    How to denuclearise North Korea
    Mike Pompeo is due in Pyongyang. Here is how one of the CIA’s North Korea-watchers might advise him

    6. Holy of Holies. Let’s face it. The Norks are most likely back to their old game of winning some short-term relief from international isolation while they keep the nuclear programme sacrosanct. It is still, after all, in their constitution. In that case, the best that can be hoped for is a tough regime that curbs the growth of their arsenal and maybe even begins to cut it. At least that should leave us a little better prepared when the current love-in gives way to the next hissy fit.

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