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What if North Korea tests a nuclear bomb?

It announced plans Tuesday for a test, prompting a closed-door session at the UN.

By , Donald Kirk / October 5, 2006


In all its years of saber rattling and boasts of nuclear-weapons capabilities, North Korea has never gone beyond talk to proving that it has the bomb.

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Now Pyongyang says it will conduct a nuclear test – a move that would remove any doubt about the accession of the secretive and volatile regime of dictator Kim Jong Il to the nuclear club. With no international inspectors having set foot in the country for four years, a test would provide clues about the kind and power of weapons and the level of technology it possesses.

"At a minimum, a test would be a clarifying moment," says Jonathan Pollack, director of the Strategic Research Department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

In addition, a test would hold geopolitical ramifications for the northeast Asian region, experts say, and for international efforts to keep the proliferation genie in its bottle. "The political effects of a nuclear test would be at least as consequential – and destabilizing – as any technological leap it might provide the North Korean nuclear program," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

A test would shake up northeast Asia, sending shock waves through South Korea and possibly inciting a regional arms race – causing Japan and even South Korea to consider it a necessity to reverse course and develop their own nuclear deterrents. That, experts say, would very likely mean that the international nonproliferation regime is dead.

North Korea's ability to do harm

North Korea has claimed since 2005 that it has a nuclear arsenal, and intelligence specialists believe Pyongyang probably possesses enough plutonium for as many as 10 average-size plutonium bombs. A missile test Pyongyang conducted this summer demonstrated its continuing progress in missile technology, but experts say it still does not have the capability – or a miniaturized weapon – to deliver a weapon by missile.

The only way North Korea at this stage could stage a nuclear attack would be to drop a bomb from an airplane that might be detected as it left North Korean airspace. Besides, notes Mr. Kimball, the North does not possess anything like the B-29 the US used to deliver the first nuclear weapon to its target.

"Their bomb is a standard bomb comparable to the one on Hiroshima," says Kim Tae Woo, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, an adjunct of the defense ministry in Seoul. The Hiroshima bomb, dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, had an explosive effect of 12.5 kilotons, while the one dropped three days later on Nagasaki had an impact of 20 kilotons.

"They have missiles capable of mounting nuclear weapons," says Mr. Kim, "but they should continually minimize the size of weight" so the warheads are small enough for missiles to be able to carry them long distances.

Analysts in South Korea say a nuclear test by the North could cause Seoul to reconsider its policy of reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Still, many observers say North Korea's new threat is primarily directed at the United States – designed to pressure the US into calling off financial sanctions that have been hurting the North, and accepting the direct talks, and the security guarantees, that Pyongyang wants.

Washington's careful response

Washington's response since North Korea announced its intentions Tuesday has been deliberate but nonreactive, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying a test would be "provocative."