North Korea yesterday said it successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device, claiming a significant advance in its strike capability and setting off alarm bells in Japan and South Korea.
The test, the fourth time the state has exploded a nuclear device, was ordered by young leader Kim Jong-un and successfully conducted at 10am, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
“Let the world look up to the strong, self-reliant nuclear-armed state,” Kim wrote in what North Korean state TV displayed as a handwritten note.
The reported nuclear test drew condemnation abroad.
While a fourth nuclear test had been long expected, the claim that it was a hydrogen device, much more powerful than an atomic bomb, came as a surprise, as did the timing.
However, South Korean intelligence officials and several analysts questioned whether yesterday’s explosion was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device.
The device had a yield of about 6 kilotonnes, according to a South Korean lawmaker on the parliamentary intelligence committee — about the same size as the North’s last test, which was equivalent to 6 to 7 kilotonnes of TNT.
“Given the scale, it is hard to believe this is a real hydrogen bomb,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum and a policy adviser to the South Korean navy.
“They could have tested some middle stage kind [of device] between an A-bomb and H-bomb, but unless they come up with any clear evidence, it is difficult to trust their claim,” he said.
Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert who is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security organization, said North Korea might have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb.
“Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb,” he said. “But it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce.”
The US Geological Survey reported a magnitude 5.1 earthquake that South Korea said was 49km from the Punggye-ri site where the North has conducted nuclear tests in the past.
The claim of miniaturizing, which would allow the device to be adapted as a weapon and placed on a missile, would also pose a new threat to the US, Japan and South Korea.
However, the North’s previous miniaturization claims have not been independently verified.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo would make a firm response to North Korea’s challenge against nuclear non-proliferation.
South Korea said it would take all possible measures, including possible UN sanctions, to ensure Pyongyang paid the price after its fourth nuclear test.
“The government must now work closely with the international community to ensure that North Korea pays the commensurate price for the latest nuclear test,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in a statement.
“We must respond decisively through measures such as strong international sanctions,” she said.
The EU said that the test, if confirmed, would be a grave violation of international obligations.
NATO condemned the test, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was “extremely worried” and China urged the North to honor its commitment to denuclearization.
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