North Korea keeps testing nuclear bombs and missiles; what has it tested now?
On Sunday, North Korea claimed that it had tested a hydrogen nuclear bomb. The underground blast was very powerful — international news organisations said experts had estimated the explosion was at least four, and up to 16 times stronger than any that Pyongyang had set off earlier. Experts also said, however, that it was possible what was tested was actually a “boosted” atomic bomb that uses tritium, a common enhancement technique for a higher explosive yield. Sunday’s nuclear test was North Korea’s sixth overall and fourth under President Kim Jong-un — the first this year after two last year and one in 2013. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, first tested in 2006, and again in 2009. North Korea has also launched as many as 14 missiles between February 11 and August 29 this year, including inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). More than 80 missiles have been tested since Kim Jong-un took power, many of which have been successful.
Is this the first time that North Korea has claimed to have tested an H-bomb?
No. It had claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb in January 2016 as well. Experts assessed at the time that the claim was exaggerated, because the yield was very low. The scepticism about the North Korean claims stems also from reasons of its economic backwardness and diplomatic isolation.
So, why is Sunday’s test so worrisome?
If the North Korean claim of having exploded a hydrogen device is correct, it would mean that it has arrived at a major technological milestone well ahead of all predictions. Sunday’s test follows the North’s testing, on July 28, of an ICBM that, for the first time, appeared capable of reaching the mainland United States. The Hwasong-14 missile, the second to be launched that month, followed a steep trajectory that took it roughly 3,700 km into space. If this trajectory were to be flattened, the missile could cover a distance of 9,000-10,000 km, and theoretically hit the US.
On Sunday, Pyongyang followed up its claim of having tested a hydrogen bomb with the claim that this bomb can be fitted on the Hwasong-14 missile — saying, in effect, that it can now nuke America. The Trump administration reacted with the warning that even the threat to use such a weapon against the US or its allies “will be met with a massive military response”, and the President tweeted that the “United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. That list would be, of course, be topped by China — and the fallout of suspending all commerce with Beijing would be crippling economic disruption in the US.
But is a North Korean missile actually capable of delivering a hydrogen bomb on the US mainland?
There are several if’s. Most experts believe that North Korea is yet to master the “re-entry” technology needed for the nuclear warhead to survive the intense heat as the missile re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere from space. There are also question marks about the reliability of a guidance and stability control system that can direct the Hwasong-14 missile accurately and intact up to the target. Finally, the missile will have to get past US missile defences before it hits its intended target. However, there is still the fear that considering the pace of its progress and testing, North Korea can have all these capabilities within a year. And the fact remains that not only has the US never tested its antiballistic missiles to shoot down an incoming missile in a real war, even in choreographed tests, these missiles have often missed their mock targets.
Hadn’t Pakistan supplied nuclear bomb technology to North Korea? Was it involved this time too?
Unlike in the past, there have been no reports of nuclear proliferation from Pakistan or any other country for the current tests. But the basis for North Korea’s uranium nuclear weapons programme was laid in the 1990s by the substantial help it got from Dr A Q Khan, the Pakistani scientist associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.
Khan led the clandestine transfer of uranium centrifuges, enrichment machines and technical data to North Korea over many years, according to Mark Fitzpatrick’s book, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A Q Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks. Some of Khan’s deals were tied to existing official agreements between the two countries, under which North Korea provided ballistic missile technologies to Pakistan in exchange for the help on nuclear programme. It has also been reported that Benazir Bhutto was personally involved in finalising this exchange deal with Pyongyang during her official visit to North Korea in December 1993.