North Korea's nuclear claim could raise threat of war

2016-01-07 09:41
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures as he watches a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea said on January 6, 2016, it has conducted a hydrogen bomb test. (Wong Maye-E, AP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures as he watches a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea said on January 6, 2016, it has conducted a hydrogen bomb test. (Wong Maye-E, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Washington – North Korea's claim to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon in an underground test has raised worldwide worry about what really happened, whether the isolated nation is closer to being capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear missile, and whether it brings war closer.

Some questions and answers about what the Pentagon called an "unacceptable and irresponsible provocation" that threatens peace in Asia.

Q: Why is this a big deal?

A: The weapon test, if confirmed, could mean North Korea is on a path to possessing a bomb of far greater destructive power than the types it detonated in three previous underground tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. So if the North Koreans were to field such a weapon, known as a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb, then it could raise the stakes in a long-running struggle to reunite the Korean peninsula under its own terms. That, in turn, would force tough decisions on the United States, which has a treaty obligation to defend South Korea – with nuclear weapons if necessary.

On the other hand, North Korea is believed to already possess a number of atomic bombs and is developing longer-range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads.

Q: Might the North Koreans be bluffing?

A: That's a possibility. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that early US analysis of the underground explosion is "inconsistent" with the North's announcement that it conducted a successful hydrogen bomb test. Private analysts also expressed doubts about Pyongyang's declaration. Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the North might have tested an enhanced atomic weapon, rather than a hydrogen bomb, as a means of celebrating the rule of its leader, Kim Jong Un.

Q. What's the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb?

A. In technical terms, the difference lies in the manner in which they release energy. An atomic bomb uses nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms, to create its energy. Hydrogen bombs use fusion, in which atoms are combined rather than split. The "H bomb" actually is a two-stage device that uses the implosion of a "primary" fission device of plutonium or highly enriched uranium to set off a "secondary" fusion component fuelled with hydrogen isotopes. Details of the hydrogen bomb design are highly classified by the US government.

A hydrogen bomb is vastly more powerful than an atomic bomb. Robert Norris, a nuclear historian, makes this illustrative comparison: The American atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945 had a yield of about 15 kilotons, whereas a "starter" hydrogen bomb is 1 000 kilotons.

Q: How can the U.S. tell whether North Korea did test a hydrogen bomb?

A: The US and the international community have a variety of means of analysing an underground explosion, including seismometers that measure ground motion. Also, the US Air Force operates aircraft specially equipped to detect tell-tale airborne signs of a nuclear explosion, and it operates a global network of nuclear event detection equipment called the US Atomic Energy Detection Systems, which can detect nuclear activity underground, underwater, in the atmosphere or in space.

The UN Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has monitoring stations around the world that detected radioisotopes from earlier North Korean nuclear tests. Lassina Zerbo, who heads the organisation, said its monitors are looking for radioisotopes from Wednesday's explosion to determine that Pyongyang carried out a nuclear test — and whether it was a hydrogen bomb as Pyongyang claims.

Q: Is it reasonable to think the North Koreans could have graduated to the technical skill required to build a hydrogen bomb?

A: One way of looking at that is to compare how long it took other nuclear powers to move from the atom bomb to the hydrogen bomb. For the United States, which was first in both cases, it took 87 months, or more than seven years, to go from its first atomic bomb test in 1945 to its first hydrogen bomb test in 1952. It took China 32 months, or less than three years, according to Norris. North Korea conducted its first atomic bomb test in 2006, which some think was unsuccessful, followed by a second test in 2009 and a third in 2013. So it has been working on this for at least 10 years.

Q: If North Korea did obtain a nuclear weapon that it could attach to a long-range missile, would the U.S. have a way to defend against it?

A: The Pentagon has built a battery of ground-based missiles designed to knock down long-range missiles before they hit US territory, and the system is configured specifically to defend against missiles launched from North Korea. But whether the interceptors would work as intended is anyone's guess. The interceptors are based in underground silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. But they have never been used in combat.

Read more on:    us  |  north korea  |  north korea nuclear programme

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24


Men.24 Model of the Week: Wendy from Cape Town

Find out more about our featured model, Wendy from Cape Town


You won't want to miss...

Who are the highest paid models of 2017?
10 gorgeous plus-sized models who aren't Ashley Graham
WATCH: Pornhub is giving users free access to premium content these holidays
5 top leg exercises for men
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.