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What We'd Still Like To Know About North Korea's Hydrogen Bomb Claim

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, in October. The country said it carried a successful hydrogen bomb text on Wednesday morning, but many analysts are skeptical.
Wong Maye-E
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, in October. The country said it carried a successful hydrogen bomb text on Wednesday morning, but many analysts are skeptical.

Deciphering events in North Korea often seems more like long-distance psychoanalysis than reporting.

So it's not surprising there's a dearth of hard information about the country's latest nuclear test. In a statement heavy on propaganda and light on details, North Korea claimed it successfully carried out a hydrogen bomb test Wednesday morning.

Outside nuclear experts immediately raised their collective eyebrows, noting the country's past exaggerations of its nuclear program.

Some details may firm up. But plenty of questions are likely to remain. Here are a few things we would like to know about the North Korean test:

Was it actually a hydrogen bomb test?

A successful hydrogen test would be a significant step forward for North Korea's program, according to analysts.

Only nine nations have nuclear weapons, and an even smaller number have hydrogen bomb capabilities, the analysts say. A hydrogen bomb, also known as a thermonuclear bomb, is far more powerful because it uses both nuclear fission and fusion, compared with a conventional nuclear bomb, which relies only on fission.

But many doubt the North Korean claim:

"The yield on the detonation seems to be more in line with the nuclear tests it has conducted in the past and not with the hydrogen bomb," Anna Fifield, the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post,told NPR's Morning Edition. "But clearly the fact that they even conducted the nuclear test, the first in three years, is a big provocation."

The latest test produced a magnitude 5.1 seismic event in the northeastern part of North Korea, where previous tests have taken place, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This was similar to a 2013 atomic bomb test in the same region.

Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a private U.S. group that monitors nuclear activity worldwide, said in a tweet: "I doubt DPRK [North Korea] exploded a real H-Bomb. More likely a 'boosted' weapon with tritium added to increase the yield of a fission bomb."

Why now?

Most people light candles for a birthday. Kim Jong Un may have lit up a nuclear test in advance of his 33rd birthday on Friday.

This is just one of the theories.

This was the fourth nuclear test North Korea has carried out in the past decade (2006, 2009 and 2013 were the previous ones) and the second one since Kim came to power following the death of his father in 2011.

"We can surmise that he's trying to bolster his legitimacy as North Korea's leader," Fifield said. "We think he's probably trying to present himself as a strong, tough leader."

North Korea announced in mid-December that it had developed a hydrogen bomb. But because of the scientific sophistication required to do so, most analysts — and the U.S. government — quickly dismissed the claim. That announcement came after much-watched talks with South Korea ended in a stalemate.

In keeping with North Korea's history of unpredictability, Kim issued a New Year's message promising to work for better relations with South Korea.

"South Korea should not do anything that could harm an atmosphere for talks," Kim said on Jan. 1.

As analysts were squinting in search of such signs, along came a nuclear test, keeping the outside world off-balance and guessing about its motives.

What does China really think about this?

China is invariably described as the closest thing North Korea has to a friend and the country that can exert the most pressure or influence. China said it "knew nothing" about the possible H-bomb test before it was announced and it immediately condemned it.

"China is steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and nuclear proliferation be prevented to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia," said Hua Chunying, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, as reported by state media agency Xinhua.

China's top priority in North Korea is stability, noted Fifield.

China "does not want the collapse of North Korea, hungry refugees coming over the border, American troops right up to a unified Korean border with China," she said.

What's the overall state of North Korea's nuclear program?

A lot of guesswork is involved, but the U.S. has estimated that North Korea has 10 to 16 nuclear warheads, according to media reports.

What's clear is that the program is active and appears to be making progress.

Analysts believe the North Koreans are making plutonium, the fuel they need for the bombs. Prior to Wednesday's nuclear test, the most recent one was three years ago and indicated a yield of about 10 kilotons. That's in the neighborhood of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Initial estimates of Wednesday's test show a similar yield, but it's still early. While a bomb the size of Hiroshima may sound large, "It's like a firecracker compared to a hydrogen bomb," says NPR's resident physicist and science correspondent, Geoff Brumfiel.

The other thing to know is that no outside monitors are permitted to check on the program's progress, unlike Iran, where the International Atomic Energy Agency has broad access.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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