Wednesday, January 06, 2016

DPRK Says It Has Tested Its First Hydrogen Bomb
People watch a television news program showing North Korea's announcement, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-Joon/AP)

By Anna Fifield January 6 at 2:04 AM

TOKYO — North Korea claimed Wednesday that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, a claim that, if true, would mark a huge step forward in its nuclear capability.

"The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a statement issued shortly after a special announcement was broadcast on state-run television.

Calling the device an "H-bomb of justice," North Korea said it needed the weapon for defense against the United States, which it described as "the chieftain of aggression, watching for a chance for attack on it with huge nukes of various types."

"Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves," the statement said in North Korea's trademark colorful prose.

But there was some skepticism about the claim, with nuclear experts noting that the yield appeared to be similar to North Korea’s three previous atomic tests, rather than the “enormous” yield that would be expected if it had been a thermonuclear explosion.

In Washington, the State Department said it was monitoring the situation.

"While we cannot confirm these claims at this time, we condemn any violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and again call on North Korea to abide by its international obligations and commitments," said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. "We have consistently made clear that we will not accept it as a nuclear state. We will continue to protect and defend our allies in the region, including [South] Korea, and will respond appropriately to any and all North Korean provocations."

Either way, Pyongyang’s provocative action will present a new challenge to the outside world, which has struggled to find ways to bring about an end to North Korea’s nuclear defiance.

“North Korea’s fourth test — in the context of repeated statements by U.S., Chinese, and South Korean leaders — throws down the gauntlet to the international community to go beyond paper resolutions and find a way to impose real costs on North Korea for pursuing this course of action,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kim Jong Un’s regime hinted in December that it had built a hydrogen bomb to “defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation.” Some analysts were doubtful, saying the young leader appeared primarily concerned with trying to bolster his legitimacy.

Hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bombs are exponentially more powerful and destructive than atomic devices. An atomic bomb uses fission to break up the atomic nucleus and release energy, while a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb uses fusion to add to the nucleus. This leads to an enormous explosion resulting from an uncontrolled, self-sustaining chain reaction.

Kim has repeatedly asserted North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed country and has resolutely refused to return to multilateral talks aimed at persuading it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

A confirmed North Korean nuclear test would be the 2,055th since 1945 VIEW GRAPHIC
North Korea had conducted three nuclear tests since 2006 but only one during Kim’s reign, in February 2013.To the surprise of many analysts, there had been no fourth test.

Then, there were signs of unusual seismic activity around North Korea’s main nuclear test site Wednesday morning, sparking fears that Pyongyang had ordered the detonation of another atomic device two days before Kim’s birthday.

Earthquake agencies in China, Japan and the United States all recorded unusual seismic activity in the northeastern corner of North Korea at 10 a.m. local time. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded a 5.1-magnitude quake at ground level about 20 miles from the facility at Punggye-ri, where North Korea has carried out its three previous nuclear tests.

Many analysts have been surprised that such a long period has passed without another test, because it is by testing that North Korea can advance its program.

“I think they have a technological path in mind,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif.

In December, Lewis noted that satellite pictures showed North Korea appeared to be building a new tunnel at its nuclear test site, warning that the Pyongyang regime might be preparing to conduct a fourth atomic test. “There is a lot of tunneling at the test site, which could mean they have a bunch of tests planned,” he said.

Although analysts were still awaiting more data, Lewis said that Wednesday’s explosion looked very similar to past tests and was not enormous, suggesting it was not a hydrogen bomb.

Joel Wit, a former U.S. diplomat who runs the 38 North website dedicated to North Korea, added that the purpose of the test remained unclear.

“What is clear is that North Korea is moving forward with its nuclear weapons program and that the United States, China and the international community need to come up with more effective ways to deal with this growing threat,” he said.

Previous nuclear tests have been met with international condemnation, including resolutions from the U.N. Security Council, but have done nothing to deter Pyongyang. The Security Council Wednesday scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss the test.

In Seoul and Tokyo, the governments called emergency national security meetings. “This nuclear test by North Korea is a major threat to our country’s security, and I absolutely cannot accept it,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. “Also, it is clearly a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions so . . . we will take strong measures, including steps within the U.N. Security Council.”

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said North Korea would pay the price for the test, which she called a “grave provocation.”

"Now, the government should closely cooperate with the international community to make sure that North Korea pays the corresponding price for the nuclear test," Park said in a national security council meeting, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

China, North Korea's closest ally and a veto-wielding permanent member of the security council, also condemned the test.

“Today the DPRK ignored the general objection from the international community and conducted a nuclear test once again. As to this matter, China strongly opposes,” Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters in Beijing Wednesday.

“China will resolutely promote the goal of denuclearization on the peninsula, and stick to solving the peninsula nuclear issues through the six party talk framework,” she said, referring to long-defunct multilateral talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

She said China knew nothing in advance about the nuclear test.

“China will keep fulfilling its international obligations that it should fulfill, and make efforts together with the international community to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula,” she told reporters.

“China strongly opposes North Korea’s nuclear test and will summon North Korean high officials, ambassador, to lodge our solemn representations,” she said.

Although China remains North Korea's biggest patron, relations have been severely strained since Kim took power and detonated a nuclear device a month before Xi Jinping took over as president of China.

In Russia, which has bolstered its ties with North Korea in recent years, one senior official condemned the detonation.

“Any action of the DPRK in this area directly affects the national security of our country,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, on Facebook.

But turning the focus on Russia’s conflict with the west, Kosachev complained that the United States had not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He said that the failure to do so had emboldened North Korea to do as it pleased.

Simon Denyer in Beijing, Michael Birnbaum in Moscow, Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

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