North Korea- a new nuclear test creates new problems
Another nuclear test will make it impossible for the new South Korean government or the second Obama administration to look for resolution of long-standing enmities by focusing on issues beyond the nuclear dispute.
What to Expect from a North Korean Nuclear Test, Foreign Policy, Pyongyang is about to make some more trouble. Here’s what to look for when Kim Jong Un debuts his new bomb. BY SIEGFRIED S. HECKER | FEBRUARY 4, 2013 Pyongyang lashed out harshly at the United States following the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning its December missile test. The Kim Jong Un regime threatened to increase its nuclear deterrent both quantitatively and qualitatively and vowed to conduct a third nuclear test at a “higher level.” So what might we expect from another test? Why, what, how will we know, when, and what difference will it make?
During my previous visits to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which housed both its plutonium production and its uranium enrichment facility, North Korea’s nuclear specialists told me that the first two nuclear devices tested used plutonium as the bomb fuel. Pyongyang voluntarily suspended its plutonium production in 2008 and I estimate it has only 24 to 42 kilograms of plutonium, sufficient for 4 to 8 primitive nuclear devices, with no more in the pipeline. Yet with only two plutonium tests, one successful and one only partially successful, they need more tests to have confidence that they can build a smaller nuclear warhead.
The next test, however, could just as well be designed to demonstrate a highly enriched uranium (HEU)-fueled bomb. For years, Pyongyang had consistently denied having a uranium enrichment program, but in 2010 North Korean officials showed my Stanford University colleagues and me a modern centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment, ostensibly dedicated to making low-enriched uranium reactor fuel for electricity production. Based on what we were shown and our subsequent analysis of the time scales for constructing this facility, I concluded that Pyongyang must have a covert centrifuge facility, and that it has likely also produced HEU. I believe the amount of HEU produced to date is relatively small, but quite likely sufficient for a nuclear test.
What will they test? The most likely choice is an HEU device. Pyongyang threatened to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal; it can only do so with HEU, but it has a limited plutonium inventory and has decided to suspend plutonium operations. One can only speculate why it made that choice. Its plutonium facilities could have continued to produce one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year. It is possible that the North Koreans believe they can develop a significantly larger HEU production capacity. In addition, the reactor operations necessary to produce plutonium are fully visible from satellite imagery because the reactor’s cooling tower emits a visible steam plume, whereas the location and operations of uranium centrifuge facilities cannot be monitored from a distance, as was clearly demonstrated when we were shown the previously undiscovered Yongbyon centrifuge facility.
The apparent decision to pursue HEU devices is also puzzling because plutonium bomb fuel is more suitable for miniaturized nuclear devices than HEU (which is why the modern nuclear arsenals of established nuclear powers use plutonium). Yet Pyongyang may have decided it would require too many tests and too much plutonium, which is in short supply, to demonstrate a miniaturized plutonium device. And, it is likely that A.Q. Khan sold the North Koreans a Pakistani HEU design that could be mounted on some of North Korea’s short or medium-range missiles. If Khan provided both design and test-performance data, Pyongyang may have decided that HEU, albeit less effective than plutonium, was a quicker and more certain route to miniaturized nuclear devices……
How will we know? A successful nuclear test will be easily detected because its seismic signals will be monitored around the world by the International Monitoring System established under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to monitor potential clandestine nuclear tests anywhere in the world. Both the 2006 and 2009 tests gave indisputable seismic evidence of nuclear tests. This one may be even easier to detect because Pyongyang has vowed to test at a higher level……
When will they test? Overhead imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site demonstrates conclusively that North Korea is prepared to test…..
What difference will a test make? A successful test will make Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons appear more threatening and make its deterrent more credible because it may then possess a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon. It may also set North Korea on a path of substantially expanding its nuclear arsenal through stepped-up HEU production. It may make Pyongyang more aggressive and provocative in dealing with South Korea and Japan. However, one more test does not fundamentally change the security threat North Korea poses. Pyongyang can threaten South Korea, Japan, or U.S. regional assets, but it can only use its nuclear weapons if it is prepared to accept the destruction of the regime.
A successful test will, however, destabilize the region — precisely the scenario China has tried to avoid by supporting Pyongyang over the years, and the reason it is in China’s interest to use all its influence to stop the test. The combined military forces of South Korea, Japan, and the United States will be forced into higher alert status. A test will likely drive them to increase their ballistic missile defense protection against North Korea, which will clearly complicate relations with China…..
Another nuclear test will make it impossible for the new South Korean government or the second Obama administration to look for resolution of long-standing enmities by focusing on issues beyond the nuclear dispute. …. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/04/what_to_expect_from_a_north_korean_nuclear_test?page=0,1
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