North Korean Nuclear Test Could Use Uranium Fuel

Experts warn that North Korea may even conduct two devices simultaneously
February 5th, 2013

If North Korea tests a third nuclear device it will be fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the first time,  South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan and U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker said yesterday.

Foreign Minister Kim yesterday attended a meeting of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee and when asked if the North could have already manufactured a powerful hydrogen bomb, responded, “There is a possibility that they could use enriched uranium fuel.”

Speculating of when North Korea might test, Foreign Minister went on to say that it was possible that North Korea might test on an important date for the United States, either February 12 (the date President Obama will deliver the State of the Union) or February 18 (President’s Day). The previous two North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, which both used plutonium as the bomb fuel, were held on Columbus Day and Memorial Day respectively.

Sig Hecker, writing yesterday for the Foreign Policy website, said that the North was likely going forward with an HEU bomb despite the fact that “plutonium bomb fuel is more suitable for miniaturized nuclear devices.” This was because while North Korea has a sizable supply of uranium within the country, its plutonium stocks have not been growing since the country voluntarily suspended plutonium production in 2008.

But while Hecker is confident that HEU will be used to fuel any third test, he also speculates that Pyongyang might attempt to conduct both plutonium and uranium tests at the same time in order to gain valuable information on warhead miniaturization at a similar political cost. He concludes that while a successful test will make Pyongyang’s nuclear program appear more threatening, it will not change the fundamental security balance on the peninsula.

Echoing Hecker’s sentiment, outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak today warned that North Korea would likely conduct at least two nuclear tests simultaneously in order to advance warhead miniaturization work. Referring to North Korea’s recent statement that it would conduct a nuclear test at a “higher level” than before, Lee told the Chosun Ilbo that North Korea appears to be trying to produce smaller nuclear warheads that could be mounted on missiles.

For its part, North Korea today raised tensions even further by suggesting that even a nuclear test would not be sufficient to “cope with the hostile force’s nuclear war moves”.  An editorial posted by KCNA explained that as a result of increasing tensions, Pyongyang had “drawn a final conclusion that it will have to take a measure stronger than a nuclear test”. It did not specify what was meant by the warning, though in the past the DPRK has often followed nuclear detonations with a round of short range missile tests.

Meanwhile, Kim Sook, the South Korean ambassador to the UN, said that the UN Security Council, which coincidentally this month is being led by the Republic of Korea, would take “very and resolute” action in the event of a DPRK nuclear test. Kim pointed out that “very busy activities” at the North Korea’s Punggye-ri test site indicated a nuclear test was imminent, adding “we cannot sit idle and do nothing.”

South Korean Foreign Ministry officials today told Yonhap that they were “in consultation with the allies concerned” regarding potential punishments for a third test, though they added that discussions were only at an initial stage. One official said that the South was considering “whole new countermeasures in terms of the North’s financial sector and maritime activities…”

If fears of a third test realize in the coming days or weeks, tensions will dramatically increase on the peninsula and it is likely that the UN Security Council will respond with more tightening of sanctions.

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests in the past, in 2006 and 2009, but has given no time-frame for its third test.