Does North Korea Really Have a Nuclear Bomb?
Then there was a three year pause before the three big explosions of January 2016, September 2017 and the granddaddy of them all in September 2017. The first two were repeats of the 2013 performance, though North Korea again claimed major technical advances—this time to a weaponized thermonuclear device. Yet both explosions were estimated at around ten kt., far too small to be H-bombs. Though experts did not believe North Korea's claims of a thermonuclear device, they continued to take it as given that North Korea was exploding fission bombs.
Finally, on September 3, 2017, North Korea staged what seemed to be its first unambiguous, unfakeable nuclear test, a 108 kt. explosion accompanied by a burst of xenon gas. That would seem to have settled the issue. But once again, strange facts clouded the picture. Yield estimates are based on the size of the seismic shocks created by the explosion, and the 2017 detonation was grossly irregular. "Seismologists stumped by mystery shock after North Korean nuclear test" was the headline in Nature magazine.
The leading theories were that the secondary shock was caused either by a cave-in or a landslide, not a second bomb or secondary explosion. A week later, a second series of collapses under North Korea's nuclear mountain reportedly killed more than 200 workers on the site. Nothing like this has ever happened in association with any other country's nuclear tests. Whatever is going on at North Korea's Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, it is unlike anything that has ever gone on anywhere else in the world. And apparently the North Koreans are still digging in a big way, though why they would need huge tunnels to test warhead-sized nuclear bombs is anyone's guess.
A Nuclear Potemkin Village?
Last month, Stanford University Professor Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and America's leading expert on North Korea's nuclear program, told the story of how he was allowed to see North Korea's uranium centrifuges in 2010. He was taken to the roof of a building where he was allowed to look down through "big glass observation windows" at two centrifuge halls below, where he saw "2000 centrifuges." North Korea has reportedly since doubled its centrifuge capacity—by erecting a second building next door. That's 4000 centrifuges, conveniently on display under glass roofs.
Until the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Iran's more than 20,000 centrifuges were mostly underground, many of them in reinforced bunkers. Iran spent at least twenty years striving to develop a nuclear device. Despite ever-tightening international sanctions, it had multiple open land borders, huge oil revenues, cadres of engineers studying overseas and myriad other advantages over the Kim’s Hermit Kingdom. Yet Iran never succeeded in building a bomb.
North Korea may in fact possess an arsenal of 30–60 nuclear bombs that have been successfully miniaturized to fit inside a nuclear warhead of an ICBM. Or Kim Jong-un may be sitting on top of a collapsed nuclear Potemkin village that he accidentally destroyed in a final hubristic attempt to prove to the world just how powerful he really is. His "sudden willingness" to use his nuclear empire as a bargaining chip can be interpreted either way.
The only certain thing in the North Korean nuclear story is that everyone involved in it—the North Koreans, the Western experts, the political analysts, the news media and the U.S. government—has a vested interest in believing it. The truth lies buried somewhere under North Korea's tortured Mount Mantap. If Kim has his way, it just might stay there.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.