North Korea Nuclear Bomb Test: Key Questions Answered

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the successful underwater test fire of a ballistic missile, North Korean state news agency, KCNA, said Saturday. The missile was launched from a strategic submarine and the test was carried out from a special launch site quite far off the main land, KCNA said, without providing any precise location. (Courtesy: Rodong Sinmun via CNN)

North Korea’s announcement Wednesday that it conducted a nuclear bomb test caught the world by surprise — and raised a slew of questions about what this means.

Here’s what we know so far:

Why a hydrogen bomb?

Boosting nuclear capability has been one of the hallmarks of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s rule, said Mike Chinoy, author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”

“I think it does send a signal, again, that the North Koreans are a power to be reckoned with, and they want the rest of the world to take them seriously,” Chinoy said.

Does North Korea really have an H-bomb?

Maybe not, some analysts say.

“North Korea appears to have had a difficult time mastering even the basics of a fission weapon,” wrote Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp, in a piece for CNN.com last month.

Bennett’s piece came shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed last in December that his country had become a “powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a hydrogen bomb.”

“With this in mind, it is quite possible that Kim’s claim could be untrue, which would come as no surprise to those familiar with the regime’s saber rattling.”

If not an H-bomb, what could North Korea have?

It’s possible North Korea has a “boosted” weapon — one that uses a small amount of fusion to boost the fission process, but is not a hydrogen bomb.

But even a boosted weapon could cause serious damage.

“If North Korea really has a boosted nuclear weapon of perhaps 50 kilotons, it could do significant damage in a city as densely populated as Seoul, South Korea: About 250,000 people could be killed in such a strike, or about 2.5 percent of the population,” Bennett wrote last month.

“And if North Korea one day produces a true hydrogen bomb of, say, one megaton yield, then it would be deadlier still.”

What should the U.S. do about this?

An H-bomb test presents a serious dilemma for the United States.

“This really does put the Obama administration in a bind,” Chinoy said.

“All the choices with North Korea are bad. There’s no evidence that the sanctions that have been in place in one form or another for many, many years have had any impact on North Korean behavior, even if they have hurt the North Koreans to some degree economically. So a ratcheting up of sanctions is unlikely to have the desired effect.”

And initiating a war, of course, would be extremely dangerous.

“And that really only leaves talking to North Korea, which clearly, I think the North Koreans would like,” Chinoy said.