North Korea claims successful nuclear fusion test

Turning nuclear fusion into a viable energy source has long eluded the world, but North Korea on Wednesday claimed success. Analysts are dubious and say the claim likely meant for leverage in six-party talks.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A South Korean woman passes by a diagram showing the theory of nuclear fusion reactor at the Seoul Science Park in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. North Korea said Wednesday that its scientists succeeded in nuclear fusion reaction, a technology that some hope will one day provide a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.

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North Korea says it has successfully achieved nuclear fusion, an efficient yet difficult-to-control technique for creating power. But experts doubt the claim, noting that even the world's most advanced countries have yet to successfully harness fusion as a power source, and North Korea lacks the technology and resources to fulfill even its basic electrical power needs.

Pyongyang announced the creation of a "Korean style" thermonuclear reaction Wednesday in state-controlled media.

"The successful nuclear fusion marks a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]," wrote Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling communist party, as quoted by Agence France-Presse. The Rodong Sinmun said the North's experts had worked hard to develop the "safe and environment-friendly new energy" technology.

BBC News notes that controlled laboratory demonstrations of nuclear fusion are not uncommon, but that North Korea appears to be claiming something more than that, as Pyongyang mentions having created a "unique thermo-nuclear reaction device." Nuclear fusion generates heat when two atomic nuclei fuse together. Research has been conducted into creating power with fusion for over 50 years.

Unlike the fission reaction used in all nuclear power plants -- which generates energy when an atom's nucleus is split apart -- there is less risk of dangerous uncontrolled nuclear reactions with a fusion reactor and the radioactive waste one would generate would have a much shorter half-life than that produced by fission reactions. That makes it attractive from both an environmental and safety standpoint, but so far commercial reactors have eluded researchers, because the conditions to produce fusion must be tightly controlled and maintained.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking anonymously to Yonhap News, called the claim "absurd," and said South Korean intelligence indicated North Korea lacked the resources to make such a technological leap. Yonhap also cited experts on North Korea, who say that the claim is likely meant to give Pyongyang more leverage in the six-nation nuclear talks with China, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the two Koreas.

"The North may demand it be allowed to retain its presumed nuclear fusion technology when it is pressed to abandon its existing plutonium-based atomic weapons," Lee Jung-chul, a North Korea specialist at Soongsil University in Seoul, told Yonhap.

"The technology can be a way for the North to also reserve an option to newly develop bombs after it is denuclearized through the talks," he told the Korean news agency.

Nuclear fusion is the process that occurs within the cores of stars, where lighter elements are combined into a single heavier element with a huge amount of energy as a byproduct. Though nuclear fusion is the process behind the hydrogen bomb, no country has yet successfully harnessed fusion as a power source. Nonetheless, scientists hope that international projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which among others involves every six-nation talk participant except North Korea, will start to bear fruit in the coming decades.

As a result, there is much skepticism about North Korea's claim.

The Daily Telegraph writes that experts "dismissed Pyongyang's claims as propaganda to mark the ongoing birthday celebrations of the country's founder and eternal president Kim Il-sung. "Kim's name means 'to become the sun' and North Korea said its nuclear fusion success was akin to building 'an artificial sun,' " according to The Telegraph.

"Maybe if two suns show up in the sky tomorrow, then people could believe the claim," Kune Y. Suh, a nuclear expert at Seoul National University, told The Telegraph. "This seems highly inaccurate and grossly exaggerated," Suh added to the British newspaper. "They probably conducted some small-scale experiment."

Reuters similarly notes that North Korea's state-controlled media "routinely makes claims about the laws of nature bending to coincide with the birthdays of its founder or his son and current leader, Kim Jong-il, that include the appearance of double rainbows and sunrises so brilliant that frost explodes with the sound of firecrackers."

North Korea is widely known to be unable to generate sufficient power to light its city streets at night.


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