Did North Korea Conduct a Secret Nuclear Test in 2010?

What does the evidence tell us? 

North Korea continues to rattle the nuclear saber. Just how potent is the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal? Can North Korea hit the United States with a nuclear weapon? In order to do any of this, proper testing would need to be done. It is with these questions that we present the latest from our friends at 38 North, where this piece first appeared, who ask the question: Did North Korea test a nuclear device in 2010?

In 2010, two radionuclide stations in Northeast Asia detected radioactive particles that seemed to indicate that a nuclear explosion had taken place. While there are other possible explanations, other evidence seemed to suggest that North Korea had conducted a very small and otherwise undetected nuclear test. In the past few years, there have been a number of studies of radionuclide data, seismic data and now, on 38 North, satellite imagery.

While some of the evidence is intriguing, I don’t buy it. My objections are largely methodological—and methodological objections are important to me. Everyone who does analysis will be wrong from time-to-time. I try to be methodologically cautious so that, when I inevitably get it wrong, I will still feel like I made the right judgment based on the evidence available to me.

I think the hypothesis that North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May 2010 is a reasonable one worth considering. North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapons tests, presumably reducing the size and mass of the nuclear device, fixing whatever went wrong in 2006 and possibly confirming a design using uranium. It is possible that, along the way, North Korea conducted a low-yield science experiment or simply tested a dud.

Frankly, I’d love to be the person who proves that North Korea conducted a secret nuclear test. But, based on the evidence we have, I just don’t think it is more likely than not.

The 1979 Flash in the South Atlantic

First, a little history. In many ways, the debate over whether North Korea conducted a May 2010 test reminds me of a similarly ambiguous event in 1979.

The 1979 “flash in the South Atlantic” was precisely that—an optical detector called a “bhangmeter” on a US satellite detected a flash of light that looked a bit like a nuclear test somewhere in the South Atlantic. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that pointed to Israel as the culprit. And I don’t mean ‘circumstantial’ in an insulting way. I mean that the prospect of a covert Israeli test seemed then, and still does today, totally plausible based on all kinds of evidence.

After the flash, the scientific community started scrutinizing every pool of sensor data to find the slightest corroboration. A few interesting things turned up, but nothing conclusive. There was some hydrophone data, but it required a sound wave to bounce off of Antarctica. There were claims of radioactive sheep thyroids that I’ve never been able to confirm. And so on. A full review of the evidence is beyond the scope of this little essay, but the approach raised a methodological concern. Spurious correlations are a statistical fact. A 90 percent confidence level means you’re still getting fooled 10 percent of the time. So, if you look hard enough for corroboration, you will find a few things, even if they are spurious. As a scientific panel charged with reviewing the data concluded:

We surmise that had a search been made for corroborating data relevant to a nonexistent event chosen to occur at a random time, such a search would have provided ‘corroborative data’ of similar quality and quantity to that which has been found during analysis of the September 22 signal.

To put it simply, one must be careful to avoid collecting coincidences that support a hypothesis while ignoring data that undermines a hypothesis.

Ultimately, the scientific panel decided to reject the hypothesis that the bhangmeter had seen a nuclear test for a simple, elegant reason: the satellite’s bhangmeter, like a pair of eyes, was two sensors, which saw different events. If something is far away—like on the surface of the earth—the two sensors are close enough that they should see the same thing. The fact that the two sensors saw something different, the panel reasoned, suggested the flash occurred in space very near to the satellite and not on the ground. This was an elegant answer. It also persuaded no one. People just simply accused the scientific panel of covering up for the Carter administration, Israel, etc.

I feel precisely the same way about the alleged May 2010 nuclear tests. As in the case of Israel in 1979, I have no trouble accepting that the DPRK might have conducted a nuclear test in May 2010. But, as in the case of 1979, the assembled evidence seems to be merely a collection of coincidences that we could collect for a nonexistent event on a randomly chosen day.

Radionuclide Signatures