Nuclear experts have expressed skepticism regarding the DPRK’s assertion that it has conducted its “first H-bomb test.” Seismic data are consistent with a low-yield fission device instead of a fusion device that would generate a much higher yield, leading many analysts to conclude that the Kim regime is exaggerating the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Of course, all states have incentives to engage in denial and deception to survive or thrive in the anarchic international system. Moreover, since we cannot discern the intentions of other actors with absolute certainty (we can’t get into someone else’s head), analysts can only do their best to understand the intentions of other nuclear-armed states. This analytical problem or challenge is always present when we try to understand DPRK intentions.
GO TO THE SOURCE
One of the first obstacles for most non-Korean analysts is their sole reliance on English language sources. Korean language ability does not make anyone immune to analytical errors, and English materials are sufficient most of the time. However, there are linguistic nuances that do not translate well, and DPRK state media are notorious for their awkward English language reports. Therefore, it is always prudent to confirm whether or not there is some discrepancy between the Korean and English reports from the DPRK. These translation problems are infrequent, but misunderstandings arise from DPRK-supplied English translations.
In this case, the KCNA English report quoting the DPRK government statement included the following awkward text:
Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb.
However, the corresponding Korean paragraph read:
우리의 지혜,우리의 기술,우리의 힘에 100％ 의거한 이번 시험을 통하여 우리는 새롭게 개발된 시험용수소탄의 기술적제원들이 정확하다는것을 완전히 확증하였으며 소형화된 수소탄의 위력을 과학적으로 해명하였다.
Here the important passage is:
우리는 새롭게 개발된 시험용수소탄의 기술적제원들이 정확하다는것을 완전히 확증하였으며 소형화된 수소탄의 위력을 과학적으로 해명하였다.
A more accurate and natural English translation might read: “Our technicians completely verified our newly developed experimental hydrogen bomb (hydrogen bomb for experimental use) as being precise, and thus scientifically clarified (elucidated) the power of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb.”
Granted, this translation is still awkward, but the first implication of the Korean language text is that the explosive device was not designed to be a full-yield, operational “hydrogen bomb.” The second potential language problem here is that the complete technical term for a fusion bomb in Korean is “核融合爆彈 (nuclear fusion bomb).” Some analysts have hypothesized that the DPRK tested a boosted fission device, which probably would include tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, to increase the yield of a fission bomb. I think it is unlikely, but not impossible, that the DPRK could be using the term “hydrogen bomb (水素彈)” to mean a “boosted fission bomb” rather than a “fusion bomb (核融合爆彈)” since a boosted weapon would include a hydrogen isotope in the bomb core.
But if Kim Jong Un and DPRK media are using the term “hydrogen bomb (水素彈)” as it is commonly used in the rest of the world, meaning a fusion device, this means that the Kim regime is misrepresenting and exaggerating DPRK nuclear capabilities. In this case it is important to ask why the regime would engage in this type of deception, and what the implications or consequences could be as a result.
WHO’S FOOLING WHO?
The first possibility is that Marshal Kim, the senior elite and DPRK state media truly believe the device was a fusion bomb, but it fact it was not. We’ve seen that Marshal Kim is very driven and very demanding. The consequences for disobeying party directives from above are severe; several DPRK officials have paid the ultimate price for disobedience – real or perceived. It’s not implausible that Marshal Kim set a very ambitious deadline for the development of a “hydrogen bomb” that DPRK scientists and engineers were unable to meet. It’s possible that officials in charge of the nuclear program prepared a fission device and misrepresented to Marshal Kim in order to avoid the wrath of the marshal. Kim is not a nuclear physicist and nuclear bomb designer, so how would he know the difference? It’s impossible for anyone to have perfect information about everything, everywhere, all the time. However, this is very risky, and I think it is highly unlikely. Kim is not stupid. The marshal and the senior officials around him would draw inferences from foreign reports and diplomatic channels to learn that Kim had been duped by his nuclear scientists; retribution would be swift and severe. However, if this were to be true, it would mean there are serious fissures within the regime and the senior leadership is not fully in control of the state’s most valuable national security asset.
The second possibility is that Kim and his inner circle know the device was not a fusion bomb, but they intentionally misrepresented to impress a foreign audience. Analysts can cite Pyongyang’s endless vitriol about “nuclear war possibly breaking out at any moment” because of Washington’s “hostile policy.” Many security analysts argue that nuclear weapons have utility as the ultimate insurance for state and regime survival. Therefore, some analysts believe Pyongyang is motivated to develop a nuclear arsenal for national security purposes, and therefore must reveal some of its capabilities because, as DPRK leaders learned long ago from Dr. Strangelove, “a doomsday machine is useless if no one knows you have one.” However, the marginal utility of a fusion weapon as a deterrent compared to a fission bomb for the DPRK is negligible, and the likelihood of foreign intelligence agencies and international nuclear experts being deceived by such misrepresentation is practically zero. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that the DPRK was seeking to dupe the international community into believe it has successfully tested a fusion bomb when they really did not. However, if this were true, it would mean that the Kim regime has completely misread the capabilities of the international community and does not have an adequate understanding of the international system and the national technical means of foreign powers.
The third possibility is that Kim Jong Un and his closest advisers know they did not text a fusion weapon, but misrepresented to their domestic audience, which has no independent means to question or falsify the regime’s claims. Successfully exploding a fusion bomb is an extraordinary scientific achievement that can exploited as a demonstration of the Kim regime’s power and prowess. The propaganda value of this test in the domestic setting is the most likely reason for the Kim regime’s assertions and state media reporting of the fourth nuclear test. If this were true, we should expect to see frequent references to the test in the lead up to the Korean Workers Party Congress later this year. DPRK state media will continue to praise the test as “an extraordinary accomplishment of the Kim family leadership as Kim Jong Un remains steadfast in his efforts to complete the Songun (military-first) revolution and unify Korea under the banner of the Korean Workers Party.”
So what is the appropriate policy response? More of the same: robust deterrence and containment, together with resolve to ensure that Songun Korea will not be able to accomplish its goals through the use of force or coercion. This requires inter-agency coordination at the national level and multilateral cooperation at the international level. The DPRK’s fourth nuclear test is a grave challenge and a threat to international security, but the good news is that the Kim regime is secular, rational and wishes to survive. Therefore, Songun Korea can be deterred. But if deterrence fails, the international community must be prepared to deal with those contingencies, however unpleasant, to restore deterrence or to defeat any aggression or coercive actions.
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