News / Asia

N. Korean Nuclear Test Reveals Progress in Weapons Program

An analyst monitors from a computer screen in the control room of the international nuclear test monitoring agency CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization) in Vienna, February 12, 2013.
An analyst monitors from a computer screen in the control room of the international nuclear test monitoring agency CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization) in Vienna, February 12, 2013.
Analysts say North Korea's test of what it says is a miniaturized nuclear device is a step forward in its goal of developing a weapon capable of striking the United States.

North Korea on Tuesday said its third underground nuclear test used a smaller and lighter atomic bomb than in previous tests in 2006 and 2009. Initial reports suggest it was also more powerful, generating significantly more explosive yield than its previous bombs.

Though it is impossible to confirm the exact nature and success of the test, the development suggests Pyongyang is making real progress at developing a nuclear bomb small enough to be placed on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The issue is of even more concern given North Korea's recent success in launching a satellite into space using a long-range rocket that experts say is specifically designed to fit a nuclear warhead. If perfected, the two technologies pose a threat long feared by the international community.

"Their goal is clear - they want to have both a weaponized nuclear device, basically a warhead, and also a missile that is capable of delivering this warhead to targets in the United States and other distant countries," says veteran North Korea analyst Andrei Lankov. "They are advancing toward this goal and the advance is faster than most people have expected."

But while Lankov says North Korea has made "very significant" steps toward that goal, he acknowledges that years of research, development and tests likely need to be completed before Pyongyang's weapons could threaten the U.S. mainland.

N. Korean nukes don't yet threaten continental U.S.

North Korea's first goal, Lankov says, is designing a re-entry vehicle that could guide an intercontinental ballistic missile back to Earth once it has reached orbit.

"If you launch a space satellite, it's not supposed to go back (to earth). But if you're sending a warhead, it should descend into the target city to the target," he says. "So this means they have to develop a re-entry vehicle that will protect a warhead against high temperature and pressure of the re-entry."

Although Lankov calls this task "do-able," he says it is expensive, time-consuming, and would likely require multiple tests that North Korea is not believed to have even begun undertaking.

Another key question is whether North Korea's recently tested nuclear bomb is small and reliable enough to be placed on a missile and sent into space. Lankov says North Korea has not yet reached that goal, but warns that recent advances mean it will likely soon have the ability, "and possibly the will, to launch weapons directed at the United States."

Pre-emptive military action not on the table

But Lankov is quick to add that he does not believe North Korea would ever strike first. "They are not madmen. They are described as madmen, but they are essentially a bunch of cornered dictators who are fighting for their survival," he says. "They are not going to attack anybody unless provoked."

And Rory Medcalf with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy says the likelihood of the United States or its allies preemptively attacking North Korean nuclear sites is practically non-existent.

"I think even if there ever was an opportunity for that, that horse has bolted," says Medcalf. "The (North Korean nuclear) program is well-advanced, and there's obviously a huge risk of retaliatory action against South Korea if a conflict ever were to ensue."

  • An extra edition of a Japanese newspaper was delivered reporting North Korea's nuclear test, in Tokyo, February 12, 2013.
  • South Korean protesters burn a North Korean flag following a report of the nuclear test conducted by North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea, February 12, 2013.
  • Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake and tsunami observations division director Akira Nagai points to a spot on the map showing the quake center during a news conference in Tokyo, February 12, 2013.
  • South Korean soldiers check military fences as they patrol near the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in Paju, north of Seoul, February 12, 2013.
  • A screen grab of the Nuclear Test Facility site in North Korea, via Google Maps satellite view.
  • South Korean soldiers monitor computers at the Seoul train station following a report about a possible nuclear test conducted by North Korea, February 12, 2013.
  • A video grab from KCNA shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at North Korea's West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control center in Cholsan county, North Pyongang province December 12, 2012.
  • North Koreans celebrate the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang December 14, 2012. The sign reads: "Let's glorify dignity and honor of great people of Kim Il Sung and of Korea of Kim Jong Il in the world!"

N. Korea not likely to abandon nuclear weapons

The strategic value and possible danger of North Korea's nuclear weapons lies not as much in the threat that it will use them against the United States or its allies, but in its potential to use them as a deterrent against U.S. forces in a possible future crisis, according to Medcalf.

"If the U.S. were to seek to deter North Korea from some course of action, North Korea will have a counter-deterrent - it will be able to call America's bluff on that, therefore damaging the credibility of America's extended deterrent over Japan and South Korea," he says.

North Korea's nuclear program has also proven useful as a bargaining chip that can be used to obtain foreign aid with little or no conditions attached.

Because of these benefits, Lankov says North Korea is not likely to give up its existing nuclear weapons program anytime soon. He says it is time for the world to realize that, despite all its efforts, North Korea will become a nuclearized state, and will likely stay that way.

"I don't think the North Korean leaders will ever consider denuclearization," says Lankov. "What they have got, they have got."

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This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: bill collins from: USA
February 13, 2013 3:38 PM
China should pull the rug from under North Korea !

by: Itani from: USA
February 13, 2013 1:36 PM
It's business as usual until the big brothers talk

by: Cristobal Williams from: NY
February 13, 2013 12:37 PM
I would like VOA or the bloggers to consult some physicist about the real power of this explosion. Most reports claim that it hit 5.1 in the Richter scale. My calculation, on the basis of Wikipedia info, is that this equates to only 0.7 kiloton of TNT. See they show that Richter 5.0 equates to 0.48 kiloton, and my logarithmic interpolation gives 0.7 kt for Richter 5.1 - Even Richter 5.5 equates to only 2.7 KT, which is much less than the 6-7 mentioned in the reports. THere seems to be a contradiction between the Richter magnitude and the energy release reported. They don't correspond to each other if you go by WIkipedia. Unless WP is wrong?

by: Davis Thanjan
February 13, 2013 11:02 AM
While the UN, EU, US and Israel are pre-occupied with condemnation of Iran for their nuclear development, Israel has fixed a threshold level for nuclear developments in Iran for a pre-emptive strike at Iranian nuclear sites. But DPRK has already advanced much farther and developed nuclear bombs and delivery system posing more threat to the security of South Korea, Japan and the US. But there is not even a mention of a threshold level of WMD developments in DPRK for a pre-emptive strike at DPRK nuclear facilities by any country.

The world community has accepted the nuclear capability of DPRK, similar to what happened in Pakistan and India who developed nuclear bombs and delivery systems.

Israel is the only nation determined and capable of pre-emptive strikes at nuclear sites of any nation, as they have conducted strikes at nuclear sites of both Iraq and Syria. But Israel lack support of UN, EU, US or any other country for pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear sites.

The world is pro-active for condemnations and reactions to nuclear capability of emerging nations, but lack the will, determination and action to stop the rogue nations from developing nuclear WMD.
In Response

by: kpitikos from: Las Vegas NV
February 13, 2013 4:47 PM
I do understand that the north Korea nuclear weapons but what was in the Loaded supertankers from N.K to Iran in 2010 and 2011?? N.K. have no oil fpr export.
What was doing the Pakistani father of nuclear weapons in IRAN from 2005 to 2009??
What was doing the 15 North Korean Missiles sintists Working in IRAN from 2006 to 2010?? IF i was Israeli i will be thinking before i will attact IRAN . The may allready have some Nuclear bombs from N.K.

by: Tony from: Ma
February 13, 2013 7:48 AM
This type of written nonsense angers and is disappointing. Why does the U.S feel that they should be the only ones capable of having the most powerful weapon in the world. If they are concerned about countries with nuclear weapons then they themselves should disarm and lead by example instead of threatening other nations with sanctions and pre-emptive war. The only reasons other countries pursue this type of weapons program is because they want to deter the United States from pointing a gun at their heads and blowing their brains out. As an American I think the U.S government is following the wrong foreign policy and that their policies only create more enemies of the state and also creates an unstable world.
In Response

by: kpitikos from: Las Vegas NV
February 13, 2013 4:54 PM
I do understand the North Koreans. There are 40.000 US soldiers in the DMZ looking at them in the last 60 years.
They know sooner the N.K. will be weak the usa will attact them.
The same with the Iranians they have to be strong because the Israelis will attact them the same way they did to Syria, Lebanon Gaza,. Iraqis palestine..

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