North Korea Claims It Has Hydrogen Bomb; Experts Skeptical

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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, May 9, 2015. 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.

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN)–

State media indicated Thursday that North Korea has added the hydrogen bomb to its arsenal, a development that, if true, would represent an upgrade to its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Observers in recent years believed that North Korea may have been working toward — but didn’t yet have the capability to produce — a thermonuclear bomb, which can be hundreds of times more powerful than an atomic bomb.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made the claim, according to state media outlet KCNA, while touring a historic weapons industry site in the country.

The reclusive communist country has been turned “into a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate [a] self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation,” Kim said, according to the KCNA report.

Observers skeptical

Experts have responded to the claim with skepticism.

John Nilsson-Wright, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, said it was “hard to see convincing technical evidence” of Kim’s claim, which he believed it was the first North Korea had made regarding possessing a hydrogen bomb.

North Korea had previously used plutonium in nuclear tests, one of the elements used in more “small fry” fission weapons such as atomic bombs, Nilsson-Wright said, and a leap to thermonuclear capability would be surprising.

“Since the 1980s there is some evidence to suggest a program of developing highly enriched uranium, alongside plutonium, but it’s hard to see how they could have made the leap from that to evidence of a working hydrogen bomb,” he told CNN.

Lee Chun-geun, a research fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, shared his skepticism.

“It’s hard to regard North Korea as possessing an H-bomb. I think it seems to be developing it,” Lee said, according to a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency Thursday.

Hard to assess

However, hard evidence of North Korea’s nuclear progress is difficult to come by, Nilsson-Wright said.

Kim’s regime generally cloaks its efforts in secrecy and occasionally boasts of advances through propaganda outlets, leaving the rest of the world to attempt to connect the dots.

Nilsson-Wright said such claims were typically made in an “attention-grabbing effort to assert North Korean autonomy and his own political authority” and “enhance its negotiating position with other countries.”

In May, North Korea said it had the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons, a necessary step toward building nuclear missiles. A U.S. National Security Council spokesman responded that the U.S. did not think the North Koreans had such a capability.

A-bomb vs. H-bomb

The atomic bomb — the type dropped by the United States over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II — produces a fission reaction, in which a neutron collides with an atom’s nucleus, splitting it into two smaller nuclei and releasing energy. Nuclear energy plants use fission to generate electricity.

A hydrogen bomb produces a fusion reaction — the energy source of the sun and the stars — in which colliding nuclei form a new nucleus. Fusion devices produce explosions “orders of magnitude more powerful than atomic bombs,” according to the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

The Hiroshima explosion in 1945 produced the equivalent of 13,000 tons of TNT, according to the commission. By comparison, the world’s first thermonuclear test, conducted by the U.S. in the Marshall Islands in 1952, yielded the equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT, a blast 700 times more powerful.