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Pyongyang's nukes: How dangerous are they?

North Korea's recent blast was tiny, but its commitment to nuclear weapons is long.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2006



WASHINGTON

In July 1955, researchers from North Korea's Academy of Sciences traveled to Moscow to attend a conference on nuclear energy. Shortly thereafter, the Kim Il Sung regime began sending specialists to a new institute in Dubna, a city devoted to Soviet nuclear physics. Their mission: learn the basics of splitting the atom.

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From that seed, a bomb may have grown. On Oct. 9 – more than a half century after that first delegation left Pyongyang – North Korea conducted a nuclear test in the northeastern region of Kilju.

The test was small, and possibly a failure. But US experts say that given the length of time the North Koreans have been at work, and the apparent importance of nuclear weapons to the country's leadership, they may now continue to test until they get it right.

They might not have labored five decades just to produce a scientific demonstration. At this point, they could be perfecting something else: a deliverable nuclear arsenal.

"My own view is that they are building a smaller weapon in line with a device that could fit on a ballistic missile," says David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington.

Possibility of a second test

At the time of writing, North Korea had not conducted a second nuclear explosion. But US satellite imagery reportedly has revealed increased activity around several possible test sites.

"We're concerned about further action by the North Koreans, but further action by the North Koreans will only deepen its isolation, which is pretty deep right now," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday in Tokyo.

North Korean officials, for their part, did not rule out a second test. In a rare interview with a Western news organization, Ri Gun, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's American affairs bureau, told ABC News that another test would be "natural."

That is just what worries nuclear experts in the United States.

According to a statement issued by the office of John Negroponte, US director of national intelligence, the explosive yield of the Oct. 9 test was "less than a kiloton." It is possible that this relatively low yield was intentional, the result of a proof-of-principle design using minimal fissile material. But it is much more likely to indicate a test fizzle, say experts.

"They will want to test until they get it right," said Michael Swaine, a senior associate in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, at an Oct. 12 seminar on the North Korean situation.

Such misfires aren't necessarily symbols of incompetence. Almost all declared nuclear powers have had them. In October 1951, a US bomb test named Buster Able failed not once, but twice. The Soviets had a misfire in 1954. In May 1957, Britain's first attempt at exploding a hydrogen bomb produced only a quarter of the expected yield.

In the case of North Korea, whatever went wrong, it probably was not due to haste. Satellite photos of the suspected test site released Oct. 13 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) show that neither buildings nor roads changed much from late 2005 to October 2006.

"The North Koreans probably did not rush the test," wrote physicist Matthew McKinzie, an NRDC consultant, in an analysis of the photos.

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