North Korea's N-test triggers new questions.
North Korea's nuclear test opens a rare, limited window for
expert evaluation of its atomic weapons programme, with an added urgency
lent by Pyongyang's claim to have detonated a
"miniaturised" device. Seismic monitors and
"sniffer" planes capable of collecting radioactive evidence of
Tuesday's test will provide the forensic material for analysts to
try to determine the exact yield and nature of the underground
explosion. Pyongyang said the "high-level" test involved a
"miniaturised and lighter atomic bomb" with a much greater
yield than the plutonium devices it detonated in 2006 and 2009.
Miniaturisation is needed to fit a warhead on a missile. South
Korea's defence ministry said seismic data suggested the explosive
yield was significantly higher than the two previous tests at six to
seven kilotons. One key question analysts will be looking to answer was
whether the North has switched from plutonium to a new and
self-sustaining nuclear weaponisation programme using uranium. Judging
the type of fissile material requires the detection and analysis of
xenon gases produced in the atomic explosion. Proof that North Korea had
mastered warhead miniaturisation would be an alarming game changer -
especially given its successful rocket launch in December which marked a
major step forward in ballistic prowess. A uranium test would confirm
what has long been suspected: that the North can produce weapons-grade
uranium which doubles its pathways to building more bombs in the future.
A basic uranium bomb is no more potent than a basic plutonium one, but
the uranium path holds various advantages for the North, which has
substantial deposits of uranium ore. North Korea revealed it was
enriching uranium in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit a
centrifuge facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Many observers
believe the North has long been enriching weapons-grade uranium at other
secret facilities. Another red flag raised by a uranium device relates
to proliferation. Highly-enriched uranium is the easiest fissile
material to make a crude bomb from, and the technical know-how and
machinery for enriching uranium is more readily transferred and sold.
Scientist and nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, who was among those shown
the Yongbyon enrichment facility in 2010, had said a uranium test was
the most likely scenario given Pyongyang's stated desire to boost
its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has a very limited plutonium stockpile -
enough Hecker estimates for four to eight bombs - and it shut down its
only plutonium source, a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, in 2007.
Before Tuesday's test, Hecker had predicted that Pyongyang would
claim total success and tout the device's sophistication. "It
will be difficult to distinguish truth from propaganda, but experience
shows there is often a nugget of truth in North Korea's
claims," he said.
Gulf Times Newspaper 2013
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