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What You Need To Know About North Korea’s Pacific H-Bomb Threat

After more than a dozen missile launches and one nuclear test this year alone, what could happen next?

23/09/2017 8:10 AM AEST | Updated 23/09/2017 8:25 AM AEST

The international community has watched in dismay as U.S. President Donald “Dotard” Trump and North Korean leader “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un trade escalating taunts and insults. On Thursday evening, days after Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, Pyongyang responded by warning it might detonate a hydrogen bomb.

“It could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific,” said North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, according to Yonhap News. “We have no idea about what actions could be taken as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong Un.”

While provocative rhetoric is not uncommon from North Korea, expert observers of that isolated nation warn that such a statement should not be taken lightly. It comes just weeks after the country conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date, triggering sanctions and fierce condemnation from the United Nations Security Council.

Analysts estimate that the latest test, which North Korea claims was an H-bomb, was approximately 17 times as strong as the bomb that devastated the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II. Yet as tensions rise, neither Kim nor Trump appears ready to back down or seek a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

After more than a dozen North Korean missile launches and one nuclear test this year alone, what could happen next? And what might it mean for America and the world?

What Is An H-Bomb?

A hydrogen bomb is a thermonuclear weapon that fuses atoms to unleash an incredibly powerful blast, with a much greater energy yield than other nuclear weapons. The United States conducted the first full-scale test of such a bomb in 1952. The United Kingdom, China, France and Russia are also known to have tested hydrogen weapons.

Experts are urging international leaders not to underestimate the dangers of North Korea detonating an H-bomb over the Pacific.

“The risks of carrying a nuclear bomb and exploding it over the ocean are significantly greater than any other risk [Kim] has taken,” said Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “This is a very dangerous time in the relations between North Korea and the rest of the world.” 

Such a detonation “would be a huge provocation,” Vipin Narang, a professor of international relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told HuffPost on Thursday. “We are talking about putting a live nuclear warhead on a missile that has only been tested a handful of times and overflying potentially populated areas,” he added. “The very prospect is pretty terrifying.” 

Will North Korea Really Detonate One?

The odds that North Korea will actually conduct an H-bomb test over the Pacific “are probably close to even,” Elleman speculated, “but I think [Kim] will opt to be more prudent and not do it. If I had to bet, I would say no, but it wouldn’t be a very confident bet.” 

Due to the long-range nature of the proposed test, the North Koreans “would have a limited capacity to actually measure what occurred, because they wouldn’t have a line of sight,” Elleman added. “That may be the ultimate determinant of why they opt not to do the test: They’re not going to gain the information that they would really want.”

The Pyongyang regime also threatened to launch an “enveloping fire” around the U.S. territory of Guam with medium- to long-range missiles in August, but it has not done so.

The odds of North Korea detonating an H-bomb over the Pacific 'are probably close to even.' Michael Elleman, a missile defense expert

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, suggests that the foreign minister’s statement may have been issued as a way to measure the international community’s reaction.

“On the one hand, his remarks do not represent the official North Korean position. He himself acknowledged that. But on the other hand, there is no statement on North Korean nuclear weapons that would not be vetted before he said it,” Hanham said.

“It may have been a kind of trial move to see how people react,” she added. “Doing a surprise atmospheric test would be extremely dangerous.” 

How Would It Happen?

The North Koreans would likely need to use a missile, rather than a plane or other method, to deliver the purported H-bomb to the Pacific, according to Elleman. “If they were to fly a plane out, it would be much more vulnerable to pre-emption,” he said, adding that it’s doubtful they would fly over Japan.

There has been some speculation as to whether the foreign minister’s comment about a detonation “in the Pacific” meant in the ocean or over the ocean, but Elleman and Hanham think the latter was implied. The last atmospheric nuclear test was conducted by China nearly four decades ago.

If Kim chose to conduct a “purely technical exercise” to test his device’s abilities, Elleman suspects the detonation would be set to occur about 600 to 800 meters above the earth’s surface.

It’s a matter of balancing “technical imperatives of testing and the political objectives [North Korea] is trying to achieve, because there is a lot of messaging in everything they do,” he explained. A detonation actually in the ocean might signify a failure, he said, or it might be an attempt to minimize the potential radioactive fallout.

As for the timing, Elleman said he had always assumed such a test “was a year or two away from being strongly considered,” but “given the political circumstances right now, [Kim] may have moved up that date.”

“I would not expect it this weekend, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was,” he said. 

What Are The Risks?

Beyond the environmental impact of an H-bomb detonation in the Pacific, Elleman sees another pertinent concern: “Do [the North Koreans] believe their missiles are reliable enough to overfly Japan with a nuclear payload without crashing?”

The Hwasong-12, a North Korean intermediate-range missile, has worked successfully in only three of six tests, Elleman noted. So putting an H-bomb on that missile “would be a tremendous risk to take. It would be even riskier to put it on their ICBM,” he said, referring to the intercontinental Hwasong-14 missile, which has only been tested twice.

Indeed, he said, “the larger risk is of the missile failing and having a terrible result” like crashing into Japan.

Hanham agrees there is a chance the missile could fail, although she suggests the risk posed to Japan would be minimal.

An atmospheric test by North Korea would be detrimental to the world. Melissa Hanham, a nonproliferation expert

Furthermore, Elleman wonders, if American intelligence or surveillance agencies had strong indications that North Korea was preparing a nuclear-tipped flight test, would the U.S. attempt a pre-emptive strike? That, too, could have devastating consequences for U.S. allies in the region.

At a press briefing earlier this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. had military strategies at its disposal that wouldn’t place South Korea in peril of North Korean retaliation, but he declined to offer details.

Analysts are highly skeptical that any such plan exists. “I cannot conceive of a way where you would militarily engage with North Korea and not put Seoul at risk,” Hanham told HuffPost at the time.

But the White House has repeatedly insisted that military intervention remains on the table as an option to rein in Pyongyang.

Elleman said what keeps him up at night is “possible miscommunication or misinterpretation of events, where we stumble into an escalating conflict that neither side wants.”

“That scares me a lot,” he said. “Once you’re in a crisis, you begin losing some control over what will or can happen.”

Hanham is hopeful, but not confident, that the international community will deliver a unified response to the North Korean threat.

“China, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Russia ― these are countries that don’t always agree with each other about how to deal with North Korea, but I think they can all agree that an atmospheric test by North Korea would be detrimental to the world,” she said. “They should work together to communicate to North Korea that this type of test would be regarded in the worst possible light, and it may not be possible to prevent some of these countries from a retaliatory act if they do it.”

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