The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK = “North Korea”) detonated a nuclear device (a.k.a. “bomb”) on 9 October 2006, at 10:36 a.m. local time, at Hwaderi, near Kilju City in North Harnkyung province.
What does this mean?
Weapon (noun) 1: an instrument of offensive or defensive combat : something to fight with, 2 : a means of contending against another, 3 : an accumulation of economic activity stored up as potential force for coercion. Definitions 1 and 2 are from Webster.
The DPRK Test & Nuclear Weapons Program
We know three facts about this test:
1. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recorded an Earth tremor at 10:36 a.m. local time at the North Korean test site, with a Richter magnitude of 4.2.
2. This explosion had a “yield” — the quantity of energy released — equivalent to an explosion of 800 tons of TNT [0.8 kilotons (kT) = 3.4*10^12 joules = 3400 giga-joules (GJ)].
3. There has been no measurable radioactivity released.
We know one rumor about this test: a North Korean official told the Chinese that the planned yield was 4 kT, so the test result was “low.”
It is known that North Korea has separated Pu239 (plutonium, isotope 239) from nuclear reactor fuel rods. The DPRK test was of a plutonium fission assembly.
Nuclear fuel is enriched to have a higher percentage of unstable isotopes (fissile material) than occurs in natural ores (e.g., 0.7% U235 in nature). Uranium fuel rods for power reactors are a few percent U235, while being primarily the relatively stable U238. The processing of natural ores can be continued to produce highly enriched fuel — “weapons grade” — at 90% or more.
Plutonium does not occur naturally, it is produced in uranium reactors when a U238 nuclei captures a low energy neutron (a U235 nuclei would fission). Uranium reactors “breed” plutonium; this effect can be exploited to produce feedstock to a “waste processing” or a “reprocessing” technology that produces weapons grade material, plutonium 239.
Nuclear Weapons Design
Basic facts about nuclear weapons design are in the public domain. The idea is to use chemical explosives to force a quantity of weapons grade fissile material into a minimal volume with maximal compression. The natural reactions of radioactive decay are vastly increased in number because a neutron released by the fissioning of one nucleus will almost certainly collide into a neighboring atom within the compressed mass, initiating the breakup of another unstable nucleus. This chaining of reactions creates a crescendo of energy release and an burst of high energy radiation (neutrons, gamma rays, x-rays, radioactive particles).
To achieve “nuclear yield,” a minimum mass of fissile material is needed to ensure the self-capture of neutrons emitted by fission reactions. This is the “critical mass.” If the mass is below critical, it will still see an increase in fissioning beyond the natural rate, heat up by absorbing the energy released, and blow the assembly apart as a thermal explosion before the runaway acceleration of chain reactions can occur. An even smaller assembly might simply melt.
The critical mass of a spherical shell of weapons grade material being imploded to a ball is listed for two materials and two cases (four separate examples):
* Bare spheres: 56 kg U235, 11 kg Pu239;
* Thick tamper: 15 kg U235, 5 kg Pu239.
A tamper is a dense container to hold in the energy of the implosion as well as reflect neutrons back in.
Plutonium assemblies can be smaller and lighter for the same explosive yield, a desirable attribute in the design of a ballistic missile warhead.
“Simple” designs are most likely to produce about 10 kT, within a factor of 2; the Pu239 bomb dropped on Nagasaki was 21 kT.
Designing a “low yield” device (e.g., a 0.5 kT to 2 kT “bunker buster”) is a challenge, primarily because the warhead must fit within the small dimensions, and operate under the high acceleration forces of the intended gun and missile systems.
Conventional Wisdom About the DPRK Test
Published commentaries on the DPRK test arrive at three speculations: “dud,” “spoof” and “hoax:”
Dud: yield was low because the Pu239 bomb was a dud; an imperfectly symmetrical implosion by high explosives; or
Spoof: the bomb was placed in a cavern to decouple the shock from solid ground, and thus send out a smaller seismic signal, disguising a larger magnitude of explosive force (it is noted that Russia claims the DPRK test yielded 5 kT to 15 kT); or
Hoax: the test was a hoax, hundreds of tons of chemical explosives were used to simulate a low yield nuclear blast, presumably for some political purpose.
Observations on the Value of Testing
What I have observed from the U.S. Test Program is:
Tests always yield instructive data about one or more of:
* design performance,
* material quality,
* manufacture and testing procedures.
There is never a failure to learn, only failures to achieve expectations. Even when you cannot pinpoint “what” failed or “why,” you learn from the exercise of analyzing the data you do have. If all your sensors worked and recovered data as planned, and if calculations can be brought into accord with this data, then you validate your theoretical and calculation methods.
You can never be sure of what you’ve got (in terms of capability) and how it will work (in terms of design) unless you test. This is why the non-proliferation treaties are “test bans” rather than “design work” bans.
My Speculations on the DPRK Test
1. I don’t think the “hoax” idea would be a benefit to the DPRK. Sure, maybe it would seem a way to bluff the U.S. into temporarily backing off for fear the DPRK really has a nuclear deterrent. But, as they wouldn’t, it would mean that once the fraud was detected, the U.S. could attack with impunity, as with Iraq.
2. An unintentionally low yield for a Pu239 device would mean the test was a success; the DPRK nuclear weapons program demonstrating it could:
* produce nuclear yield,
* contain the radioactivity from an underground test — so far,
* collect data on their whole range of weapons production and testing procedures,
* make improvements for the next test.
3. An intentionally low yield Pu239 device would mean:
* proof of a sophisticated warhead design capability, or
* proof of containment engineering sophistication (seismic spoofing).
You will notice that speculations 1 & 3 involve conspiracy theories. So, without more data, I am inclined to believe speculation 2 — like a kid learning to ride a bike, the DPRK nuclear weapons program has had its first long wobbly run, and we can see them getting the hang of it soon.
The Political Significance of the DPRK Test
What the DPRK leadership would probably want for a real nuclear deterrent would be warheads of 1 kT to 10 kT yield that would fit its missiles (a size and weight constraint) and survive the g-forces of flight (a strength and integrity of design constraint). A warhead only becomes a deterrent when you have demonstrated a credible delivery system. The DPRK’s missile program may actually be more of a threat than its bomb program; if DPRK develops missiles that can hit India, Japan, China, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet near these last three, then a nuclear armed DPRK would have “deterrence.”
The size of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal will depend on the magnitude of plutonium production, and to a lesser extent the sophistication of their design and manufacturing. Better designs that produce higher yield with lower masses of plutonium would mean more warheads from a given stock of plutonium.
The DPRK test is a huge failure of US policy. In brushing aside the Non-Proliferation Treaty as an obstacle to unilateralism, and by the example of the Iraq War, the U.S. has signaled to all that the only protection they can be assured of is having nuclear weapons.
As in the U.S., the DPRK nuclear program may be an aspect of a wider elite subsidy program, where technocrats and econocrats channel national wealth into elite classes by an analogy to the “Pentagon system.” Public resources are monopolized by a “national security” industrial complex, subsidizing its elite management class.
Nuclear weapons enable the continuation of the simplified diplomacy practiced in the Bronze Age — pure threat by superior force. We certainly cannot see the Bush-Cheney policy, as exhibited with Iraq and Iran, as having any advancement over that of Agamemnon at Troy.
The restraint on aggression by industrial powers in post-colonial modern times has been their unwillingness to sustain continuing losses in colonial wars — recall France in Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam. This psychological restraint, purchased by formerly colonized nations at such terrible cost during the 19th and 20th centuries, has been their major deterrent force: “occupy us and you will sink into a quagmire.” The industrialized nations use nuclear weapons to threaten each other with the destruction of their respective economic engines. This is relatively ineffective in the Third World since “there is nothing there to nuke.” The Neoconic “mad dog” policy of persisting in the Iraq War aims to destroy the quagmire psychological shield — the “Vietnam Syndrome” — that small, less developed and militarily weak nations have relied on as their protection. The message from Armed Globalization is “to us the cost of crushing you is minor enough to sustain indefinitely — submit.” As Thucydides wrote 2500 years ago “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they must.” Nations fearing that the Washington Empire is no longer restrained by the quagmire psychological shield have two options: submit or acquire nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons have a deep psychological meaning to those who have them. They are a matter of “racial pride,” and a way for nationalities that feel they have been treated disrespectfully by former (and continuing) colonial powers to “get back,” to “show them” that they, too, can have power and be deserving of respect, and even awe and fear. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate race weapon, they would be the means to try to wipe out “another race” of people, where we make the Bronze Age assumption that each “population” or “race” occupies a unique territory. Their only use in war fits this model.
The DPRK test may elicit quiet approval from people in many parts of the world, who feel they are hopelessly dominated by the Security Council Nuclear Powers. Nations like the DPRK, Cuba, Iran and increasingly Venezuela are the forward, activist agents of a much broader Third World sentiment of resistance to the capitalist integration of world economies. Others of these countries will look at the DPRK, compare it to Iraq, remember their own history, and contemplate starting their own nuclear weapons program. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate penis enlargement pills.
The DPRK nuclear weapons program has got to be a very interesting card in the 2-hand poker game for power in East Asia, being played out between China and the U.S.
The DPRK nuclear test was a signal — a political flare — to the U.S., saying “pay attention to us — and, yes help — but beware, don’t try to harm us.” The message to the rest of Asia is “if you help the U.S. attack us, you will pay dearly.” The condemnation of the DPRK’s nuclear test, from Asian nations including China and Iran, is a reaction to the local message only; it is easy to see that most of them agree with the DPRK’s message to Washington. So yes, North Korea will be sanctioned and no, the sanctions will not be life-threatening.
As long as the Bush-Cheney policy of stonewalling to save face continues, the DPRK nuclear weapons program will advance. When the United States agrees to talk again with North Korea, and in good faith, then the Bush-Cheney policy will have fallen and the DPRK’s nuclear deterrence will have succeeded. This new equilibrium could be termed “nuclear armed quagmire,” a “syndrome” for the U.S. and a “deterrent” to be contemplated by those being “globalized.”
Real nonproliferation is to be had with real — and respectful — help to the less developed nations in expanding sustainable (non-nuclear) energy technology and in rapidly achieving the Millennium Development Goals (see the United Nations Development Programme, MDG).
What I find tragic is that if small countries did not have the fear that drives some, like the DPRK, to invest heavily in nuclear weapons development and weapons acquisition generally — to deter being colonized, or “globalized” — they would have many more resources to meet the needs of their people. It is this “waste investment” of nuclear weapons, wherever they are maintained, that I see as their most destructive effect. Every nuclear weapon is an actively exploding economic bomb, and only potentially a physical explosion.
MANUEL GARCIA, Jr. is a physicist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org