Asia Watch

Will North Korea violate a global norm on atmospheric testing?

An atmospheric test by Pyongyang  would ensure that North Korea could become a pariah state for the rest of Kim Jong-Un’s lifetime...However, their technologies in terms of making nuclear and thermonuclear bombs and rocketry that was acquired from late Pakistani scientist A Q Khan network and the Chinese/Soviet sources merits scrutiny, writes Pinaki Bhattacharya for South Asia Monitor.

Sep 24, 2017
By Pinaki Bhattacharya 
 
If North Korea conducts a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean, as it has threatened to in  response to the stern warning issued by the US President Donald Trump,  this would represent the most serious threat to the global norm on a test ban of  nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere or even in the deep waters of an ocean.
 
Pyongyang seems to be teetering on the edges of a global precipice if  they feel they have the impunity to break a treaty that has held for 54 years – the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT). India, led by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal  Nehru, played a leading role in  creating the global consensus over the PTBT which ensured the cessation of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The ban was partial - since it  did not extend to underground testing.
 
An atmospheric test by Pyongyang  would ensure that North Korea could become a pariah state for the rest of Kim Jong-Un’s lifetime. Considering that he is only in his 30s, it means two full generations of North Korean may have to remain in conditions that appear archaic, repressive  and antediluvian at the very least.  
 
However, their technologies in terms of making nuclear and thermonuclear bombs and rocketry that was acquired from late Pakistani scientist A Q Khan network and the Chinese/Soviet sources merits scrutiny. The critical  question is how much have they advanced on those paths?
 
The Hwasong-12 ballistic missile that streaked through the skies of Hokkaido island on 28 August  – the largest in the chain of islands that constitute Japan – for nine minutes, carried a payload of 3,200 kgs for a range 2,700 kms at 550 km elevation on a total flight time of 900 seconds (15 minutes).   This test  was actually showing the world that North Korea has the capability of MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle)ing their missiles or being able to fire multiple warheads. 
 
The implication is Pyongyang  could overwhelm American missile defence systems like THAAD or AEGIS based systems. This is a reading of a group of scientists based in Bangalore-based National Institute Advanced Studies (NIAS).
 
At a June, 2017, press conference in Stanford University where he now teaches, Prof Siegfried Hecker had pointed out that North Korea was inching close to developing a hydrogen bomb because it has in its possession tritium trigger developed from lithium 6. He, had, however stated that Pyongyang is finding it difficult to weaponise the explosive. Prof Hecker was of course more focussed on managing the threat to the USA.
 
In his scheme of things, the effort at denuclearisation of North Korea should begin with a ‘no use’ accord. In mid-June this year, the Pyongyang’s ambassador to India had offered a conditional moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile development. It was largely ignored by the western capitals as they were busy managing the fallout of the death of a young American student, Otto Warmbier. 
 
But the media din is drowning out these scientifically sound assumptions. Dr Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, told the famous American television talk-show host Charlie Rose a fortnight ago that the US government should send a private emissary to Beijing for holding ‘philosophical discussions’ with the Chinese leaders about the Korean peninsula.
 
What do we know about the most declaratory nuclear weaponisation program  of the world – the growing North Korean arsenal, besides what the Indian scientists have extrapolated? We have come to know that that the North Korean IRBM plus range missiles that can target  Guam, a Pacific Island territory, under the US control, is now credible and  battle-ready.
 
Public domain data  indicates  that North Korea  has  exploded an augmented nuclear device (thermo-nuclear!) whose yield has been variously described to be ranging from 120 Kt to 50 Kt.  The  last test has been measured across the 38th Parallel in South Korea.
 
If we go with what Seoul has measured as the yield of the ‘Big Bomb’ it could be a boosted fission bomb with a small fusion material or a ‘fizzle’ of a proposed H-bomb. The reason so much is in doubt about the North Korean claims about the bomb and the delivery systems is based on some debatable empirical data. 
 
For example, of the six nuclear explosive tests it undertook till this month, only the last was 15 Kt. So from that base. a quantum jump to an H-Bomb is certainly not an impossibility but requires a VERY  high degree of technological skill that is tough for a  country under the most punitive trade and economic sanctions the world has ever seen. Even its traditional 'friend' further north, China, did not veto the last full UN Security Council meeting on the North Korean sanctions
 
At this stage it may not be incorrect to introduce some scientific deductions by those who do this morbid exercise as a living. Daniel Wertz and Matthew McGrath of the (US) National Committee on North Korea wrote in paper entitled ‘North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program’, published in 2016 that the Islamabad-Rawalpindi-blessed A Q Khan’s nuclear proliferation gang had sold 2,000 P-2 grade centrifuges along with centrifuge designs to Pyongyang. 
 
Satellite imagery of the US has shown a structure designed to house another 2000 centrifuges. Considering that plutonium separation is time-consuming and technically challenging, the uranium enrichment route is comparatively easy for Pyongyang. 
So the inference is that Pyongyang as fewer plutonium devices, while there may be about a 25 HEU  (highly enriched uranium ) based nuclear bombs, according to Hecker, with a capacity to develop about seven annually. 
 
Actual weaponisation and marriage with delivery systems is another story. For now the global focus will be on the sanctity of the PTBT. 
 
(The author is a strategic security researcher and an analyst. He can be reached at pinaki63@gmail.com or @pinaki63 on Twitter)

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