North Korea released a statement early Wednesday asserting that they have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, "a measure for self-defence the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces." If this is true, it's bad news. But we won't know if it's true for a while.
It seems clear that the hermit nation tested something last night: A 5.1 magnitude earthquake was recorded in the DPRK, close to where earlier nuclear tests were conducted, just an hour before officials released their news. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in the past, and each has lead to a seismic event of similar size. Plus, South Korea's weather agency seems confident that the quake was not a natural one.
The question, then, is what type of weapon was tested last night. Experts doubt what we saw resulted from a proper H-bomb, but have a few thoughts on what else might have happened. The BBC reports:
Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, was among those casting doubts on Pyongyang's test: "The bang they should have gotten would have been 10 times greater than what they're claiming. So Kim Jong-un is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they didn't, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon — or the hydrogen part of the test really didn't work very well or the fission part didn't work very well." The data "doesn't support suggestions that the bomb was a hydrogen bomb", Chinese military expert Du Wenlong told state broadcaster CCTV.
The United Nations Security Council is meeting Wednesday to discuss the situation, but it will likely take weeks before detectors deployed by world powers would be able to verify reports. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was joined by other world leaders in denouncing the news, saying, "It's not only grave provocation of our national security, but also an act that threatens our lives and future. It's also a direct challenge to world peace and stability."
According to the statement released by Pyongyang, as blustery as ever, "the DPRK's access to H-bomb of justice," allows it to take a stand against the U.S., "a gang of cruel robbers." The statement contains other gems, like:
"People of the DPRK are making a giant stride, performing eye-catching miracles and exploits day by day"
"Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb."
"It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no advper erse impact on the ecological environment."
"While kicking up all forms of economic sanctions and conspiratorial 'human rights' racket against the DPRK with mobilization of the hostile forces, the U.S. has made desperate efforts to block its building of a thriving nation and improvement of the people's living standard and 'bring down its social system'."
"The DPRK's access to H-bomb of justice, standing against the U.S., the chieftain of aggression watching for a chance for attack on it with huge nukes of various types, is the legitimate right of a sovereign state for self-defense and a very just step no one can slander."
Still, it would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the possibility that North Korea is developing sophisticated weapons. From the New York Times:
Lee Sang-cheol, the top nonproliferation official at the South Korean Defense Ministry, told a forum in Seoul last month that although Mr. Kim’s hydrogen bomb boasts might be propaganda for his domestic audience, there was a “high likelihood” that North Korea might have been developing such a boosted fission weapon.
And according to a paper obtained by the South Korean news agency Yonhap last week, the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Command of the South Korean military “did not rule out the possibility” of a boosted fission bomb test by the North, although it added it “does not believe it is yet capable of directly testing hydrogen bombs.”
And North Korea's oppressive regime apparently has no regard for human life, so let's not underestimate them.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.