Did North Korea even detonate a nuclear bomb?

I expressed a certain level of skepticism about North Korea's nuclear test this week because of the low estimated yield and the failure of the earlier test of their Taepodong-2 missile. Basically, I question the ability of North Korea to make a nuclear weapon that will actually work, given the strict controls on their society and the limited ability to innovate. I think that we need to factor into our strategic calculations in dealing with North Korea -- serious as they are -- the possibility that they may not have the beef.

Now it would appear that North Korea's nuclear test -- in addition to producing a small blast -- has failed to generate any measurable radioactivity:

Two U.S. government officials with access to classified information tell CNN that the initial air sampling over North Korea shows no indication of radioactive debris from the event Monday that North Korea says was an underground nuclear test.

The U.S. Air Force flew a WC-135 Constant Phoenix on Tuesday to collect air samples from the region.

A third official reiterated that at this point "there isn't information to allow confirmation it was a nuclear test."

The intelligence community and the military will continue to fly satellites and collect air samples in the region to try to collect radiological data that would provide confirmation of a nuclear test, officials said. But as time goes on, it will be increasingly difficult to achieve confirmation.

Officials emphasize this is preliminary data, and it provides no conclusive evidence about the North Korean event.

It is possible there was no radiological data. That could be the case if: the North Koreans successfully sealed the site; it was such a small detonation and so deep underground there was no escape of nuclear debris; or the test was actually conventional explosives.


Government experts continue to emphasize they will continue to sample from air, ground and maritime sensors and they could get a positive reading.

One intelligence official said "lack of confirmation is not proof of a non-event."

Now the sources are correct to note that we can't prove they didn't do it by radioactivity data alone. It is possible that they just sealed the cave very well or we just haven't measured anything yet.

However, let's consider the possible scenarios:

1) They actually did detonate the bomb; it had a deliberately small yield to save plutonium. The cave was sealed well enough that we have not detected the radiation.

2) They detonated a bomb, but it failed to work properly explaining the small yield. No radiation was detected because the cave was well sealed and/or the explosion was small.

3) They detonated a large quantity of conventional explosives to convince us that they have the bomb when they do not.

Which one do you think is the most likely? I don't know.

However, I am beginning to wonder if the reality is number 3. Kim Jong Il has never done anything to suggest he can be trusted. He likes to do something provocative every time he feels we aren't paying enough attention to him. Furthermore, I genuinely doubt they have the technology to build the bomb. And how competent do we think these guys are that they can totally prevent any and all radioactive leakage? All my experience with government suggests to me that no government program is capable of doing something that cleanly -- American government included.

I like my contrasting them with Japan. Japan is an open and technologically advanced society. They will never have any trouble building anything. North Korea, on the other hand, is a society built on fear, and fear does not make for rapid technological advance.

We need to think hard about this. I and many other people in this country were convinced that Saddam had WMD. He did not. Saddam wanted us to believe he had them as a strategic ploy against Iran and because he didn't think we would actually invade. Do we want to make the same mistake twice?

Hat-tip: Slashdot.


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I knew from the day that they tested their first Nuclear bomb that they had them. It looks like I was right, haha. Hopefully we can stop them before it's too late. I really hope they don't use their bombs on South Korea or other countries :(

3) They detonated a large quantity of conventional explosives to convince us that they have the bomb when they do not.


However, I am beginning to wonder if the reality is number 3.

Perhaps. But if so, wouldn't they had to have transported trainloads or even many truckloads of explosive to the site, and wouldn't that activity have been observed by spy-cams?

Basically, I question the ability of North Korea to make a nuclear weapon that will actually work, given the strict controls on their society and the limited ability to innovate

How much ability to innovate do you really need to be the ninth or tenth group to successfully build a nuclear bomb?

I agree with your analysis of the N. Korean situation.

It's nice to see a medical person interested in international politics. I actually have very similar types of posts on my own blog; you and I even have many of the same links. (I read pretty much everything you list here, I just don't link all of them on my site)

Your blog is so much better though. Hope you don't mind if I stop by to learn more from time to time.

Well we know they have been working with those spent fuel rods. And it's supposedly not that hard once you got the right material -especially if you claim a very low efficiency is a success. So at this point they have demonstrated the capability to make a dud.

Now I know it's been some time since this first hit the news. But I haven't heard much since this event about the success or failure of this test. Almost as if everybody assumes it was an actual nuclear test. Has this been proven or not.

I also thought it was a big propaganda hoax by Kim Jong Il , and like you, had relied on early assessments of the test as being the much more reliable.

Incidently Jake, I don't know how long it normally takes, or if I just lost something in your humour. But will it actually take you 25 years to graduate. I mean, there comes a point when drinking that much just starts to get old.