North Korean Bellyflop

In between all the political fireworks at the moment, the really big news from Southeast Asia this morning is that the ‘nuclear test’ yesterday was at best a ‘mini’ nuke, at worst a dud and at weirdest a fake. Jeffery Lewis, Arms Control Wonk  is saying that the whole thing was a flop, just like the long range missile test this July. (Remember the dong that dropped into the ocean this summer?)

This story is being run on page 12 in the Washington Post (for shame WP, for shame) under the headline ‘Low Yield Of Blast Surprises Analysts.’

The explosion set off by North Korea yesterday appears to have been extremely small for a nuclear blast, complicating U.S. intelligence efforts to determine whether the country’s first such test was successful or signaled that Pyongyang’s capabilities are less advanced than expected, several senior U.S. and foreign government officials and analysts said.

A variety of seismic readings around the world yesterday appear to have resulted from no more than a half-kiloton explosion, three officials said — equivalent to 500 tons of TNT and far smaller than the 21- to 23-kiloton plutonium bomb the U.S. military dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945.

A senior intelligence official called it a “sub-kiloton” explosion detonated inside a horizontal mountain tunnel and said its low yield caught analysts by surprise. “For an initial test, a yield of several kilotons has been historically observed,” the official said.

The situation is perhaps more clearly shown in the story by the AFP (those pesky French again! Hat tip again ACW.)

Scientists took a dour wait-and-see attitude after North Korea claimed to have successfully conducted a nuclear test on Monday.

Only careful analysis of data returned by seismic or atmospheric sensors will say whether the blast was a success or a damp squib, they said.

Nor could they rule out the possibility of a scam, in which North Korea blew up a huge stock of conventional explosives to bolster its claim to have joined the nuclear club.

James Acton of Vertic, an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) in London that specialises in verification research, noted enormous discrepancies in the estimated size of the blast. [my emphasis]

But remember my prediction yesterday that they really don’t need to test the science. There was a reason for that comment. The mechanics of a simple nuclear device aren’t that difficult. It’s not like rocket science and we know how the Koreans are with that branch of engineering. I quote a rather smug Jeffery Lewis.

A plutonium device should produce a yield in the range of the 20 kilotons, like the one we dropped on Nagasaki. No one has ever dudded their first test of a simple fission device. North Korean nuclear scientists are now officially the worst ever.

Away from the physicists feeding frenzy and moving to the political front, Donald Gregg has a post in the PostGlobal blog again at the Washington Post explaining the current situation and problems with North Korea. Gregg is the former NSA under G. H. W. Bush and was the US ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 so he should have some perspective on this issue. As he explains, even if the test was a success, North Korea isn’t about to start tossing nukes around but is trying to force the US to the bargaining table. The problem is on both sides with the Bush administration unwilling to talk to regimes that don’t toe the line.

Hit, miss or fake, this act by North Korea shows that the government is up against a wall, is not willing to back down and is willing to do just about anything to stay in power. Ever try to broker a truce between two fighting children? At some point it doesn’t matter whose fault anything is, you just want them to shake hands and get along. Pity the American president doesn’t have the moral strength of a five year old.

I just wonder if, after this flop, Kim is feeling a bit ill right now.

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