North Korea’s H-Bomb: BS or Game Changer?

Rumors started flying on the morning of January 6th, 2016 when a small earthquake was detected near a region of North Korea known for hosting underground bomb tests. Within a few hours, North Korean state TV announced that this “earthquake” was no natural tremor, but rather a successful detonation of an “H-bomb of justice” necessary to fend off the United States and other “ferocious wolves” threatening the state. The broadcast also claimed that the test was conducted with the “indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts” of North Korea, and has elevated the country’s “nuclear might to the next level.”

North Korean State TV announces successful H-Bomb test
North Korea’s most famous news anchor, Ri Chun-hee, making the hydrogen bomb announcement on state TV.

A rather startling statement, indeed. Though this proclamation is not being taken lightly by world leaders, not everyone is completely convinced that North Korea has successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb. Scientists and intelligence agencies the world over have been quick to dismiss the report, saying the size of the blast was too small to have come from such a powerful weapon, and was likely just camouflaged to resemble one.

“The seismic data that’s been received indicates that the explosion is probably significantly below what one would expect from an H-bomb test,” said Crispin Rovere, an Australia-based nuclear policy and arms control specialist. “So initially, it seems to be that they’ve successfully conducted a nuclear test, but unsuccessfully completed the second-stage hydrogen explosion.”

A North Korean citizen looks on as media reports on "successful" H-bomb test.
A North Korean citizen looks on as media reports on “successful” H-bomb test.

Joe Cirincione, another nuclear expert and president of global security organization Ploughshares Fund, said that North Korea likely just experimented with a “boosted” hybrid bomb, mixing a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb. “Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb, but it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce,” he said.

More evidence pointing toward a faulty claim by North Korea stems from the “normal” radiation levels found near the supposed detonation site. Authorities evaluating the environmental impact of the nuclear test have not found any increase in the levels of radioactive activity in the area, though it is possible that this is because the tests took place underground, which historically produces little detectable radiation.

If the skeptics are correct and North Korea doesn’t actually possess H-bomb capabilities, then what exactly is Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, trying to prove with this alarming declaration?

Kim Jong Un Poses with the North Korean military.
Kim Jong Un Poses with the North Korean military.

One theory is that after last month announcing that he had illegally developed a weapon that is lighter and hundreds of times more powerful than an atomic bomb, and being met with much skepticism by international experts, he is simply trying to prove his claim and save his credibility.

Another theory is that this H-bomb test, as well as previous nuclear tests, will more strongly establish Kim’s authority domestically and his clout internationally. By developing North Korea’s nuclear capability, Kim will be able to cut the budget of the conventional military and bring them to heel.

It has also been said that Kim had been looking for a display of heightened bravado to mark his 33rd birthday on January 8th, as well as to highlight a rare ruling party congress scheduled for May, during which he plans to discuss how to build North Korea into a “thriving nation.”

Kim Jong salutes.
Whether or not North Korea really did pull off a successful H-bomb test is unclear, but also unlikely. What is clear is that they are testing their nuclear capabilities, likely for the purpose of creating this powerful weapon, which is unnerving knowledge and cause for considerable anxiety for the world at large.


Photo credit: The New Yorker

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