A small earthquake was detected near nuclear test site Punggye-ri in North Korea Wednesday morning. Soon after, Pyongyang officials issued a broadcast announcing the country’s first successful testing of a small hydrogen bomb. Alarming headlines and close investigations followed the announcement.
What is currently known is that monitoring stations around the world detected seismic activity (5.1, Richter scale) coming from the area where North Koreans have done their previous bomb tests. Based on this information, despite skepticism from experts around the world, it seems likely that North Korea may not be fabricating the news.
Countries working on nuclear weapons usually first develop atomic bombs—bombs that break larger atoms down in a process called fission before fusion weapons, where small atoms—usually hydrogen—are fused together to release huge amounts of energy.
The results of nuclear fusion are much deadlier than that of the atomic bomb. While an atomic bomb’s explosion is typically in the kiloton range, hydrogen bombs may release energy in the megatons. To put this into perspective, a 10 kiloton atomic bomb dropped in Seoul would kill 78 thousand people immediately and likely injure an additional 270 thousand. A hydrogen bomb of 1 megaton detonated in the same place would result in over a million immediate deaths and over four million more casualties.
Many are skeptical of North Korea’s claims of developing a full-scale hydrogen bomb. It typically takes many years for a country to master the technology of independently developing an atomic bomb and years more between the test of an atomic bomb and the test of a hydrogen bomb; it took the U.S. seven years after its first atomic bomb test to successfully develop a hydrogen bomb.
In the past, North Korea has had trouble even mastering the rudimentary concepts of fission weapon which typically only achieved blasts of only 10 kilotons by its third nuclear test. Experts conclude that it is unlikely that North Korea has developed even a fledgling hydrogen bomb since its last nuclear testing three years ago.
U.S. analysis, however, is not definitive yet. Some say that North Korea may have detonated a different type of hydrogen bomb—a boosted version of an atomic bomb using small scale fusion to boost the fission process.
Whatever weapon North Korea did test, it is not the first time that the country has tooted its horn in order to project the illusion of being a powerful nation. Though we cannot completely ignore North Korea’s claims, most experts agree that it is safe to conclude that North Korea does not have a full-scale hydrogen bomb.