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    North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program

    North Korea had been suspected of maintaining a clandestine nuclear weapons development program since the early 1990s when it constructed a plutonium-producing Magnox nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed the "Agreed Framework", whereby North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program.

    However, in 2002, it emerged that North Korea was pursuing both uranium enrichment technology and plutonium reprocessing technologies in defiance of the Agreed Framework. North Korea reportedly told American diplomats in private that they were in possession of nuclear weapons, citing American failures to uphold their own end of the "Agreed Framework" as a motivating force. North Korea later clarified that it did not possess weapons yet, but that it had a right to possess them.

    In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after not receiving light-water reactors promised by the U.S. These reactors were to be delivered in exchange for North Korea not developing their own power plants, as understood in the Agreed Framework.

    Rumours of an impending nuclear test circulated during 2005 and early 2006, though none were conducted. Then on October 3, 2006, North Korea claimed that it would soon conduct a nuclear test, and on October 9, 2006, the state claimed to have successfully conducted a test.
    The Korean Central News Agency issued the following statement:

    "The field of scientific research in the DPRK successfully conducted an underground nuclear test under secure conditions on October 9, Juche 95 (2006), at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation."

    According to initial reports from South Korean government sources, the test was carried out at a mountain in Musadan-ri in Hwadae-kun, near the city of Kilchu, in North Hamgyong province on the northeast coast. However, later reports from the state National Intelligence Service identified the site as being a place in Sangpyong-ri, about 15 km from the coastal city of Kimchaek and about 50 km west of Musadan-ri.

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    Test Location
    The test was conducted in a horizontal tunnel which prevented the immediate or large scale release of radioactivity. Nonetheless a high percentage of underground nuclear tests leak detectable levels of radioactivity, most reliably radioactive isotopes of the inert gases krypton and xenon, which can leak through natural or blast induced fissures in the surrounding rock driven by the high pressures resulting from the explosion.

    Questions were initially raised as to whether it was actually a nuclear explosion, but detection of airborne radioactive isotopes by a U.S. WC-135 Constant Phoenix sniffer aircraft confirmed this.

    Estimates on the yield of the test vary greatly.

    The Korean Earthquake Research Centre reported the yield as approximately equivalent to 800 tons of dynamite, based on Richter scale readings from the explosion. The Yonhap news agency said the blast was equivalent to about 550 tons of TNT, based on the seismic tremor. Gary Gibson, senior seismologist at Australia's Seismology Research Centre, said a 4.2 magnitude quake would be the result of a one kiloton explosion. The Japan Meteorological Agency registered a magnitude-4.9 shock, both measures suggesting something between a 10 to 20 kiloton yield.

    The low yield (less than a quarter of its reported planned yield) indicates that some aspect of the nuclear weapon design or material production did not function correctly. A fizzle can result from predetonation, insufficient precision in the explosive lenses used to compress the plutonium core, or impurities in the plutonium itself.

    The North Koreans have high grade plutonium (almost twice as pure as the U.S. as per the IAEA repoert of July 1992), so problems with predetonation are almost certainly not the cause. The most likely cause is poor implosion performance (that is, poor compression), though late initiation is also a possibility.

    Second test

    On October 16, 2006, U.S. spy satellites detected significant activity near the site of North Korea's initial nuclear test. Despite official statments by the Koreans to the People's Republic of China that it was preparing for several tests, no further tests occurred in 2006. However, in 2009, a second test was conducted.

    - Location of North Koreas's second test

    Pyongyang notified both Washington, D.C. and Beijing of the test about an hour before the actual detonation, which occurred around 10:00 Korea Standard Time (KST).

    The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released an announcement claiming that:

    "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way as requested by its scientists and technicians. The current nuclear test was safely conducted on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control and the results of the test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology."

    It is generally agreed that the nuclear test was successful, despite repeated uncertainty of the exact yield.

    The U.S. intelligence community assessed that North Korea "probably" had conducted a nuclear test with a yield of "a few kilotons." The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization assessed the yield at only slightly larger than the 2006 test.

    Based on readings from 23 seismic stations, the Preparatory Commission for a Comprehensive Test Ban estimated the blast wave as 4.52. This corresponds to an explosive force of 2.4 kilotons and compares to a wave of 4.1, or 0.8 kilotons, for the 2006 blast.

    Analyst Martin Kalinowski at the University of Hamburg estimated the yield at being from 3 to 8 kilotons, still a very successful test when compared with the 2006 test. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asserted that the blast was more powerful than the 2006 test, but put the yield between 2 to 6 kilotons.

    In June 2009, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) announced that no radionuclides had been detected that could be associated with the 25 May event. By contrast, radionuclides were detected in at least two locations after the 2006 event. Lack of detection does not mean that the event was non-nuclear: it is reasonable for a nuclear test with this yield, buried deep enough in the appropriate rock, to not yield remotely detectable radionuclides. It does, however, make it more difficult to prove that the test was in fact nuclear.

    Published on: 2010-10-27 (15666 reads)

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