Pyongyang's nukes: How dangerous are they?
North Korea's recent blast was tiny, but its commitment to nuclear weapons is long.
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Indeed, the photos show that excavation activity for the test may have been carried out in February 2005.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, the misfire may indicate that the device was a somewhat sophisticated plutonium-fueled bomb, according to the NRDC.
Via atmospheric sampling, US intelligence has determined that plutonium was used in the North Korean test, according to news reports. For such a weapon to explode efficiently, the plutonium core must be "squeezed" by conventional explosives in a highly precise manner.
"It is possible that the detonators igniting the high explosive that compresses the plutonium did not fire simultaneously and thus only produced a partial yield," concludes the NRDC analysis.
Though North Korea's interest in nuclear science was well known in the West, it was not until the mid-1980s that US intelligence began to become alarmed about Pyongyang's intentions.
Until 1984, North Korea was not viewed as a serious nuclear proliferation threat. The Central Intelligence Agency had thought the country's nuclear program to be rudimentary, and not capable of producing the fissile material needed for weapons, according to "Spying on the Bomb," a recent book about US nuclear intelligence by Jeffrey Richelson.
But in 1986, a top-secret CIA reassessment titled "North Korea: Potential for Nuclear Weapons Development," drawing on unspecified new information, held that Pyongyang might indeed be capable of a making a bomb. The CIA speculated that North Korea's motives might be forcing political concessions from South Korea, hedging against other Asian powers going nuclear, or deterring a US nuclear response in case of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, according to Mr. Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive.
US concerns then began to mount by the year. In 1987, North Korea received from a West German company a small annealing furnace capable of helping to produce centrifuge rotors for uranium enrichment. An inquiry by German intelligence concluded in 1990 that North Korea had possibly obtained crucial information on uranium melting from Pakistan in the late 1980s.
Media reports indicate that North Korea allegedly did business with the notorious Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan throughout this period. Dr. Khan might have provided everything from rotor designs to a Chinese design for a basic atomic device, according to a Congressional Research Service study on North Korea's nuclear trade.
When North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, it apparently moved quickly to process weapons-grade plutonium from power reactors that had been subject to international inspections. It is that fuel that probably powered this month's test.
Further tests might increase North Korea's confidence in its weapons design. Pyongyang might also decide that another explosion would increase the deterrent value of its arsenal.
However, more tests might also shrink North Korea's small plutonium stockpile. That makes it all the more likely that North Korea's scientists are perfecting a deliverable weapons, says Mr. Albright of ISIS.
"If you have a chance to test, you want to test something more in line with what you want to deploy," he says.