A 5.1-magnitude “seismic event” was reported near North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site late Tuesday evening.
North Korea’s government is claiming the event was a hydrogen bomb test. Hydrogen bombs are a more powerful type of nuclear weapon than the North has previously tested, one that North Korea first claimed to have developed in December.
There is a real chance that this is a nuclear test: South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese authorities have said they believe the earthquake is manmade, and it is the same magnitude as a 2013 North Korean underground nuclear test.
However, experts caution, we do not yet have conclusive evidence that the earthquake was, in fact, caused by a nuclear detonation. Nor do we yet know if it was a hydrogen bomb even if it was nuclear.
Is it a hydrogen bomb? And why would that matter?
According to top experts, it’s very plausible this was a test. “I think it is *probably* a test,”Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies , tweeted. “DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name of North Korea] event epicenter close to test site and on 1/2 hour.” Generally, earthquakes don’t just happen on exactly the half hour.
This isn’t yet conclusive. It “may take a few hours to sort out the initial readings,” Daryl Kimball, the director of the Arms Control Association, writes. “Let’s wait and see,” Lewis cautions. So we don’t yet know for sure whether it was a test, let alone specifically a hydrogen bomb.
Hydrogen bombs differ from other nuclear weapons by harnessing energy created by fusing hydrogen atoms together rather than by tearing atoms apart (atomic fission). This makes them much more powerful. “Nuclear weapons based on fission typically have a yield of around 10 kilotons or so, while nuclear weapons employing fusion can have a yield measured in megatons. (A kiloton is 1,000 tons; a megaton is 1,000 kilotons.),” Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, explains in a piece for CNN published when North Korea first claimed to have developed a fusion bomb in December 2015.
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It’s also possible North Korea is using a sort of in-between weapon called a “boosted” nuclear device. This involves a very small amount of fusion to “boost” the explosive capability of a fission bomb. According to Bennett, these weapons generally have a yield around 50 kilotons.
Lewis thinks that if the seismic event was a test, it was much more likely to be a boosted device rather than a full fission (or “staged”) bomb. “Maybe boosted. Definitely not a successful staged device,” he tweeted.
This, according to Bennett, is more consistent with North Korea’s technology level. “North Korea appears to have had a difficult time mastering even the basics of a fission weapon,” he writes. “Because some fusion is involved in such a weapon, Kim may be claiming that he has achieved a hydrogen bomb when in practice he only has a boosted weapon.” North Korea does have a long history of exaggerating its military prowess.
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If this turns out to be a successful test, hydrogen or otherwise, it won’t fundamentally change the status quo in the Korean peninsula. North Korea has had nuclear weapons since 2006, and last tested one in 2013. A hydrogen bomb would be a major technological step up for the North, but would be more a change in degree than in kind in military terms.
Regardless, it would represent a significant provocation on the North’s part. Why North Korea would do this is very hard to say: The country is notoriously secretive, and so the reasons for its actions are often difficult to interpret. One reason could be extracting concessions out of its enemies: North Korea occasionally heightens military tensions with South Korea and then demands increases in aid from international actors in exchange for backing down.
Another could be domestic politics. North Korea is a country “where the leadership culture demands a powerful leader, one capable of achieving great accomplishments,” Bennett writes. “So it is not surprising that [ruler Kim Jong Un] needs to periodically demonstrate his power. His claim that he has achieved a major advance in nuclear weaponry could be just such a demonstration, focused significantly on his internal audience.”
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What’s A Hydrogen Bomb, And Should We Be Worried If North Korea Has Tested One?
Today, it has been widely reported that North Korea apparently detonated a hydrogen bomb near the Punggye-ri nuclear site in the northeast of the country.
“The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted at 10 o’clock [local time, 4 a.m. GMT] on January the 6th 2016,” North Korea’s state news network reported. “We will not give up a nuclear programme as long as the United States maintains its stance of aggression.”
While the veracity of the country’s claim that it was a hydrogen bomb is debatable, the fact that detected seismology readings of 5.1 were caused by an explosion – and not a natural event – are widely agreed.
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The action, whatever it was, has been widely condemned. Even China, once regarded as North Korea’s closest ally, said it “firmly opposed” the test. Japan said it was a “major threat” to its national security.
This would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear bomb test, following tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. But what do we actually know about this latest one and what does it mean? Let’s take a look.
North Korea says successfully conducts first H-bomb test
What is a hydrogen bomb?
A “regular” atomic bomb, like the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, uses nuclear fission to split atoms and produce energy. Upon detonation, this energy is released, resulting in a large explosion.
Hydrogen bombs, on the other hand, come in a variety of configurations. Also known as a thermonuclear bomb, they generally involve a layered system where one explosion triggers another – such as nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, the latter of which occurs in the Sun.
In one type of hydrogen bomb, the fission reaction emits X-rays that trigger the fusion of two hydrogen isotopes, tritium and deuterium. This in turn triggers an enormous release of energy. They are considerably more powerful than atomic bombs.
How do we know they detonated a bomb?
We know thanks to seismology readings from various seismometers around the world. These are able to detect waveforms from large seismic events. In this case, the waveform started abruptly and then faded, consistent with an explosion – and not a natural event like an earthquake.
Was this definitely a hydrogen bomb?
No. The seismology readings, between 4.9 and 5.1, are consistent with their previous tests, which were plutonium bombs. North Korea, though, claims this was a “miniaturized” hydrogen bomb.
However, some experts have been very sceptical of the claims. “The bang they should have gotten would have been ten times greater than what they’re claiming,” said Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, reported the BBC.
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“So Kim Jong-un is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they didn’t, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon – or the hydrogen part of the test really didn’t work very well or the fission part didn’t work very well.”
Would this be their first hydrogen bomb?
If confirmed, then yes. The other three tests were plutonium, i.e. regular atomic bombs.
What could North Korea do with it?
If it is a miniaturized bomb, it would be possible for them to put the bomb on a missile. Of course, it’s pretty unlikely they’d do this. This latest test was likely just meant as a show of power to the rest of the world.
What will happen now?
It’s unclear. Countries including South Korea and the U.S. will hold emergency meetings. It’s likely that further sanctions will be placed on North Korea.
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