North Korea: Even the nuclear weapons are starving


Sunday night's murmuring about a faked nuclear test by Kim Jong-Il (the Corky of international supervillains) is getting louder. Was it just a mass of TNT piled up Wile E. Coyote-style? It doesn't look like there will be a clear answer anytime soon:

"There are lots of questions about this test," said Jim Walsh, a nuclear weapons expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who visited North Korea last year. While the tremors detected were within the range of nuclear tests, they were on the lower end, he said.

"It's very unusual for countries that are testing for the first time to have such a small test," Walsh said. "People are going to ask whether this was a failed test—in other words, a fizzle—of a much larger bomb that only half went off, or a fake."

So Kim Jong-Il's petulant campaign for more attention seems likely to go on. In the Washington Times, Bill Gertz says U.S. officials are already writing off the hermit kingdom's seismic hiccup:

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that seismic readings show that the conventional high explosives used to create a chain reaction in a plutonium-based device went off, but that the blast's readings were shy of a typical nuclear detonation.

"We're still evaluating the data, and as more data comes in, we hope to develop a clearer picture," said one official familiar with intelligence reports.

"There was a seismic event that registered about 4 on the Richter scale, but it still isn't clear if it was a nuclear test. You can get that kind of seismic reading from high explosives."

The underground explosion, which Pyongyang dubbed a historic nuclear test, is thought to have been the equivalent of several hundred tons of TNT, far short of the several thousand tons of TNT, or kilotons, that are signs of a nuclear blast, the official said.

The official said that so far, "it appears there was more fizz than pop."

Because where weapons of mass destruction are concerned, everybody knows unnamed U.S. officials are your top source for solid info…

NEXT: Good, Good, Good, Good Penetration

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I DO too have nucrear weapons! I DOOOO! *stamps foot*

  2. Does this remind anyone of the ending to Alan Moore’s Watchmen? It’s the best case scenario: The USA, Russia, and China are all on the same page and working together, the world is forced to realize they’d damned well better start worrying about nuclear proliferation as much as the US (Sorry, Iran, you were just a bit too slow), and by the way, turns out the threat wasn’t quite there yet anyway.

    Of course, this is an ideal situation, who knows how it will turn out. This may be Kim’s blessing to the world though. The very event that got the USA and China working together also tipped Kim’s hand. The emperor has no nuclear clothes. Yet. Or something.

  3. Bill Gertz, writing as Mr. Science, informs the women readers

    A successful nuclear detonation requires a properly timed and triggered conventional blast that splits atoms, setting off the nuclear chain reaction that produces the massive explosions associated with atomic bombs.

    Women are offended by technical detail, so they dumb it down.

  4. In Tom Clancy’s The Sum Of All Fears (the book) terrorists stash a nuke in Denver, but Gur obzo vf vzcresrpgyl ratvarrerq, naq vafgrnq bs n shyy-fpnyr ahpyrne rkcybfvba, gur qrivpr “svmmyrf.” Vg vzcybqrf naq qbrf qnzntr, ohg abguvat yvxr n fhpprffshy vtavgvba jbhyq qb.

    Translate spoiler here.

    The NK attempt may have suffered a similar fate.


  5. conventional blast that splits atoms,
    Women are offended by technical detail, so they dumb it down.
    There’s a difference between dumbing it down and just getting it wrong.

  6. You know, it is possible to point out a piece of bad writing without assuming that it has something to do with pandering to women readers.

    Just a thought.

    To give you an idea of how easy it is to assemble a nuclear bomb, the US government got it right on the first try. So did the Soviets. (OK, they cheated by stealing secrets, but still.)

    NK? At the very least their first try fizzled, even though they presumably had decades worth of data to work from.

    I’m beginning to suspect that NK is, as mediageek would say, a clownshoes operation.

  7. If this one was a dud, the dog-eating, pot-bellied, pig-faced “dear leader” will just have to blow another one to prove he’s really got nukes. Or maybe he will just blow one aboveground.

  8. AndrewP-

    Kim Jong Il should do whatever it takes to make sure that the next test works, even if that means standing right beside the bomb to make sure it goes off.

  9. To give you an idea of how easy it is to assemble a nuclear bomb, the US government got it right on the first try. So did the Soviets. (OK, they cheated by stealing secrets, but still.)

    Easy? Maybe after all the hard physics was done;
    after all the calculations were done to design the equipment used to produce fissile material, bomb components, and so on; and the engineering to build said stuff; a nation like Japan or Canada could build a bomb with in a year or less. But easy? Not for some two bit hell hole ran by the Norks.
    It?s not a good ideal to underestimate the Norks, but giving the complexity to design a build an efficient small yield modern device, the yield they seem to have gotten, in my humble estimate is damn close to a dud. I think they were shooting for 10 to 20KT yield and got something like 500 tons or so. A whole bunch of PU-238, a sorry design, and who knows… maybe the bomb was starved for thermal neutrons. Everyone else is starving there.

    Eric Atkinson…Precision guesswork for free.

  10. I have to imagine that the crack about women was to intentionally tweak those who have previously confronted Ron Hardin for his sexist views. I think that was said with a wink.

    No, I just checked his blog. Ron Hardin actually may just be a nut.

    No offense, Ron.

  11. Let’s make a deal with China. They free Tibet, we give them carte blanche to invade, conquer, and keep North Korea. Yeah, I know, who’d want it, but I see this more as a good PR opportunity for China and a way for us to get one monkey off our back without actually doing anything.

  12. Even the Nukes are Starving……..

    That’s great, lol.

  13. There’s no one
    Just me onry
    Sitting on my rittle throne
    I work very hard and make up great prans
    But nobody ristens, no one understands
    Seems that no one takes me serirousry

    And so I’m ronery
    A little ronery
    Poor rittre me

  14. Before I commence with the snark, I’d like to state that I really, really hope the Nork bomb fizzled. The world is better off if fewer raving lunatics have nukes.

    Now, I have some advice for Kim to get back his Evil Overlord mojo. First, he needs a better tailor. I have to go with yesterday’s suggestion that he get a Ming the Merciless outfit, including the silver skullcap. Especially the silver skullcap. Next, instead of having his picture taking reviewing troops, he needs to build a throne room, with an Art Deco throne at the top of a broad, rounded flight of stairs, and with big, angular, stained glass windows behind him. Get new uniforms for his Imperial Guards with cloaks and helmets that completely obscure their faces except the eyes. (I’m thinking something like the Senate Guards in Revenge of the Sith (yes, I know it wasn’t that great a movie, but the Emperor’s Guards had awesome costumes.) If the world has to have Evil Dictators, I want them to at least have some style.

  15. Damn! I did it again… I should have written” PU-239.” What a dumb ass I be.

  16. Damn! I did it again… I should have written” PU-239.” What a dumb ass I be.

  17. Ron, you have to pay for sex, don’t you?

  18. I strongly suspect a fizzled test, though I guess a complete fake is possible — I don’t believe the DPRK is a signatory of the Test Ban Treaty, so they have no particular obligation to test underground, other than obfuscation. Would they be concerned about fallout for health reasons? They don’t seem overly concerned about famine.

    I think some Chinese source was quoted as claiming that this was a neutron weapon test. That could very well be a leaked tale either to cover up a fizzle, or rationalize why a faked test was unusually small.

    Worst case is that this was a deliberate test of a compact subkiloton weapon for delivery via artillery shell (harder to knock out than a missile site, and adequate to reach Seoul) or sale to interested terrorist parties. It seems unlikely that they’d be technologically capable of such a thing, but that’s why it’s a “worst case”.

  19. “I’m beginning to suspect that NK is, as mediageek would say, a clownshoes operation.

    Comment by: thoreau at October 10, 2006 08:49 AM”

    Good call.
    (This citizen happens to think that “Al Qaeda” is also the terror group analog to the Yugo, too, tho.)

    We’re actually seeing the real-life equivalent of the famed character Wimp Lo!

    (“we trained him wrong, as a joke”)

    oh – Media: I have to pay to spank. And I rejected my own credit card…. sigh. 🙂

    Maybe Ron has some tips?

  20. The Moose is loose!

    Glad to see ya again!

  21. To give you an idea of how easy it is to assemble a nuclear bomb, the US government got it right on the first try.

    Thoreau, the Manhattan project had many of the best physicists in the world working on it. Fermi, Bethe, Oppenheimer, Teller, Bloch, …. These guys were also superb engineers, especially Fermi. Oppenheimer was able to create the open environment at Los Alamos that scientists and engineers work best in. Money was pretty much no object. I don’t recall the details, but the Manhattan project used healthy portions of the total US GDP, electrical power, and people.

    So yes, the US was able to succeed on the first try, but it had some serious advantages. North Korea has several things stacked against it. NK simply doesn’t have that many top notch people, it certainly doesn’t have an open environment, and it’s financial resources are lacking.

    Remember that Japan and Germany failed. They both had some pretty good scientists and lots of resources.

    I know it is easier now, but it still isn’t easy. My bet is also with fizzle.

  22. My bet is inching towards “outright fakery”. There’s a giant, pyramid-shaped skyscraper dominating the Pyongyang skyline that remains unfinished. The country has been wracked by famine for the last twenty years – the first time I looked at the numbers, I probably went pale. KJI is bugnuts, and certainly wants the world to think he has nukes.

    I suspect the NK nuclear program is a bust, and they faked the test with a conventional explosion. If some madman stuck me in charge of dealing with North Korea, I’d have a press conferences with dubious analysts unwilling to say that the detonation was nuclear. If the NK government complained, I’d suggest they make a surface test as proof that anyone with satellites pointed at them could confirm – with that tonnage, the fallout would not spread very far at all.

  23. ****Breaking News!!!!!****

    (Beijing) Sources within the Chinese government have indicated that the explosion observed in North Korea earlier this week could not have been caused by a nuclear device. The explosion lacked the proper radiological signature and the blast strength associated with such a device. However, a cloud of aspartame has been detected near the North Korean border, leading experts to believe that Kim Jong Il was engaging in the world’s largest Mentos and Diet Coke experiment.

    Video is expected to be available on YouTube later this week. Coca-Cola executives refused to comment on this news.

  24. I’m thinking the whole thing was fake. A nuclear bomb does not use tonnes of explosives as a primary charge. If it was a dud, a much, much lower conventional blast would have been detected.

    A high yeld conventional blast was detected so NK probably loaded a cave with that much conventional explosive to try to fake us out.

    NK needed to pretend to detonate a nuke to get our attention. We’ve been spending alot of time on Iran, I think NK was feeling ignored.

  25. stuartl-

    I was being mostly facetious. I’m well aware that the Manhattan Project was done under highly optimal circumstances. Nonetheless, some of the expertise gained at Los Alamos has been disemminated to the world. Some of it by spies, some of it by officially sanctioned disclosures, and some of it has been worked out by advances in nuclear physics, neutron transport, etc.

    Bottom line: The task before them was one that several governments around the world have successfully completed, including at least 4 developing countries, 2 of which were also Communist countries. They still screwed up.

    That’s not to say that they aren’t dangerous. But if I were in charge of information warfare, I’d do everything possible to tell the people of NK that the bomb was a dud, and let them draw their own conclusions. Anything to break through the fog of propaganda.

  26. Sure, insult my Dear Leader when he cant strike back……so you stooges think! The bomb was a mere diversion…….to unleash THIS!!!!!!!!

  27. However, a cloud of aspartame has been detected…

    OH NO!! Not the deadly aspartame cloud! At least my generation only had to worry about Strontium 90 from all those atmospheric H-Bomb tests.

    It’s a damn good thing the North Koreans can’t grow any crops otherwise we might be facing a corn syrup attack.

  28. It’s important to note here that the progressive, open, and prosperous nation of Pakistan managed to explode its own nuke. I believe that Pakistan’s chief scientist actually provided N. Korea with their starter kit. With all that, the Norks still couldn’t get it right. Yet.

  29. I believe that Pakistan’s chief scientist actually provided N. Korea with their starter kit.

    You know, I’m starting to wonder if someone set up North Korea the bomb. Do you think that “starter kit” and the whole scandal with that scientist was a CIA plot all along? Dare I suggest that the starter kit contained. . .yes, Diet Coke and Mentos?

  30. Pro Libertate-

    But why would someone set up North Korea the bomb? Unless…it was so all their base belong to us! Prepare to zig!

  31. Reminds me of a book I read in high school called The Jesus Factor. The premise, as I remember it: the atom bomb doesn’t work (how do you explain Hiroshima/Nagasaki? Don’t ask); all the superpowers try to bluff each other out by stockpiling (useless) nukes.

    Say, you don’t suppose…?

  32. Dave,

    For great justice.

  33. The premise, as I remember it: the atom bomb doesn’t work (how do you explain Hiroshima/Nagasaki? Don’t ask); all the superpowers try to bluff each other out by stockpiling (useless) nukes.

    It’s not exactly the same thing but back in the 80s there actually was some speculation that the inertial guidance systems on ICBMS might not work properly on an over the Pole flight path. All the tests of rockets had been done by firing them pretty much due west from California out over the Pacific.

    According to the doubters there was a possibility that an ICBM lauched from North Dakota over the North Pole might not come anywhere near it’s intended target.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.