What does NK having a nuclear weapon really mean?

The most recent reports out of the secluded dictatorship of North Korea are that they have successfully managed to detonate the most destructive, most awesome weapon ever known to mankind – the hydrogen bomb. The information is, as per usual, sketchy with many question remaining. Condemnations are piling up from the world community led by the usual suspects. China is this time joining the chorus and has issued a strongly worded statement regarding its ‘ally’. However, what has actually happened behind the veil in the communist state? What will the implications be?

Let’s shed some light on what is actually going on. A magnitude 5 earthquake has been detected in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, an earthquake that shows explicit signs of an underground nuclear explosion. This was followed by an announcement by the regime that they, successfully, had tested a hydrogen bomb. Initial analysis points towards a device larger than previous tests, but it is smaller than what would be expected from a hydrogen bomb. Further analysis will be necessary before any firm conclusions can be made but it is unlikely that this was a ‘normal’ hydrogen device and rather some kind of hybrid. Regardless, North Korea has yet again reaffirmed the vitality of its nuclear weapons programme and that the state, savaged by starvation, is making progress towards joining the exclusive club of nations with hydrogen weapons.

So how does a hydrogen bomb differ from ‘normal’ nuclear bombs, and why are analysts saying that North Korea is not technologically advanced enough for such a device? The key is its design, yet most parts of the actual mechanisms are classified. A ‘normal’ fission bomb is quite simple to design and construct. The most important design feature is to achieve a supercritical mass in the core. One needs to assemble enough fissile material (certain isotopes of uranium or plutonium) for a self-sustained nuclear reaction. This is the only step in a fissile bomb, however for a hydrogen bomb this is only the first step. A fissile core is used to create nuclear fusion by fusing hydrogen isotopes stored in the bomb. Getting this right, with sufficient amounts of fuel and designing a bomb that is useable, is a considerable challenge. This is of course a simplification of the bombs, but its enough to understand the underlying designs of both weapons.

Due to the design of the device, any state aspiring to wield this advanced weapon must meet a number of technical requine nets. Firstly, they must be able to enrich order doxycycline usa uranium or create plutonium in sufficient amounts for stage 1. This is also needed for a conventional fission bomb. In addition, one must be able to produce and store two types of hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – that are needed for step 2. They are integral to the fusion stage of the bomb, but they are both present a significant technical challenge. It is currently unclear whether the regime posses the expertise needed for this, therefore increasing the likelihood of a hybrid device with a small fusion component but far from the necessary amount to be considered a ‘proper’ H-bomb.

This test would of course be a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), bur as seen before, this is something that the North Korean. Regime does not adhere too. These violations also serve as a reminder that states committed to acquiring these weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) cannot be stopped in an efficient manner by the world community. North Korea is under one of the heaviest sanctions regimes even seen by the world, yet they have successfully tested a number of nuclear devices. The fear of nuclear weapons worldwide is uregent, as seen last year when the P5+1 struck a deal with Iran (perceived as removing the threat of Iran going nuclear). It should be noted that Iran, with its industrial might and superior infrastructure to that of North Korea, could easily achieve a breakthrough capacity if it was so minded. It was not, and through skilful negotiations the Iranian regime managed to secure a very beneficial deal from the West, lifting sanctions without really removing the threat of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

The implications of this news therefore is likely to be limited. This type of testing and aggressiveness from Pyongyang has been seen before. Regardless of whether or not it indeed was a hydrogen bomb that was successfully tested the situation will not change. The people of North Korea will continue to suffer under this oppressive regime. Increasing sanctions is by and large impossible as the arsenal of these has been emptied. We also already know of their nuclear capability, which makes an outright war unlikely, thus achieving the feeling of safety that is the likely driver behind these programmes. A nuclear attack from North Korea is also unlikely as this would spell imminent annihilation of the regime. Hence, spending too much time on this issue is wasted as the status quo will be unchanged.

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John Lindberg 32 Articles
John Lindberg is a former policy adviser to Sir Jamie McGrigor MSP and a self-declared science geek. His main interests are energy and environmental issues, with a burning passion for nuclear power. He recently graduated with a First from the University of Glasgow, MA (Hons) in Politics.

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