North Korea Conducts Nuclear Test

By Davenport, Kelsey | Arms Control Today, March 2013 | Go to article overview

North Korea Conducts Nuclear Test

Davenport, Kelsey, Arms Control Today

Defying warnings from the international community, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test Feb. 12 at its underground testing site, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced. The blast prompted discussion of the need for a new policy toward North Korea, which had conducted a rocket launch two months earlier.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) confirmed seismic activity in the area "with explosion-like characteristics," the organization said in a press release later the same day. In his State of the Union address, also on Feb. 12, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned Pyongyang's "provocations," saying they will only "further isolate" the country.

The nuclear test was not unexpected. On Jan. 24, North Korea announced that it would conduct a nuclear test, but did not give a specific date. The announcement came two days after the UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening sanctions against Pyongyang in response to North Korea's Dec. 12 satellite launch. UN Security Council resolutions prohibit Pyongyang from such launches because the technology required for a satellite launch is directly applicable to ballistic missile development.

North Korea conducted previous nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009, although the 2006 test likely misfired partially, according to experts. Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in April 2003. Other parties to the treaty have not formally recognized the move, and UN Security Council resolutions from 2006 and 2009 require Pyongyang to halt its nuclear activities and refrain from nuclear testing.

In the KCNA statement, which was issued shortly after the test, Pyongyang said it would continue testing and building its arsenal unless the United States recognized its right to launch satellites and develop its nuclear program.

North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for approximately four to eight weapons. As a result of a 2005 denuclearization agreement, Pyongyang currently does not have the ability to produce more plutonium, but has been developing the capabilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). A key question about the February test is whether the device was made from HEU.

Experts say that determining which fuel was used for the nuclear core of the bomb will be very difficult even if the radioactive gases produced by the test are detected by remote monitoring systems. To date, CTBTO radionuclide stations have not detected signs of the test, nor have any national governments publicly reported radionuclide readings from their systems.

According to the CTBTO press release, the seismic activity picked up on Feb. 12 by the organization's global monitoring system was 4.9 in magnitude, making the explosion about twice as large as the May 2009 test, which was estimated to have produced a yield of two to six kilotons. North Korea's 2006 nuclear test explosion is estimated to have had a yield of less than one kiloton.

During the run-up to the test, experts had said another possible goal would be to test a miniaturized device so that North Korea eventually could place nuclear weapons on its missiles. The KCNA statement said the test had used a miniaturized device. That claim is difficult for outsiders to substantiate, and the statement did not provide additional details

"The 2006 and 2009 tests demonstrated that North Korea can build a nuclear device, but that its nuclear arsenal is likely restricted to bulky devices that would need to be delivered by plane, boat, or van, thereby greatly limiting their deterrent value," Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview published Feb. 14 on the website of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, where Hecker now is a senior fellow.

"This test makes Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal appear more threatening by taking it one more step closer to possessing a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon," but the North Koreans "have yet to demonstrate that they have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile" (ICBM), he said. …

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