Two credible experts believe North Korea may be preparing for another nuclear test. Stanford nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker and Frank Pabian, a geospatial information analyst at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, believe the Hermit Kingdom is planning a third nuclear test soon. They used seismic information, previous reporting, commercial satellite imagery, Google Earth tools and geo-positioning to refine the locations of North Korea's two nuclear tests and provide an improved basis for estimating their explosion yields. Both men are suspicious of a recently completed tunnel in the vicinity and say it is capable of accommodating another test, based on comparisons with features of the two test tunnels previously used by North Korea and publicly available data on the Pakistani test program. Hecker and Pabian published their report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and also participated in an interview with Stanford University News. They urge politicians in Washington and Beijing to make sure that the political price of conducting another test for North Korea remains high.
Both men saw similarities in North Korean and Pakistani testing practices and led them to speculate that Pyongyang may test both plutonium and highly enriched uranium devices simultaneously. Strong technical and military forces drive Pyongyang to conduct additional tests, but so far it appears to have concluded that the political price of another test is too high. Washington and Beijing should make sure that it stays high. After all, there is much osint that suggests North Korea is changing. Farmers now give nearly 1/3 of their harvests to sell at market prices and collective farms are being reorganized into family farms and propaganda is being put out espousing the glories of change in the country's new young leader, Kim Jong Un.
OSINT News believes that North Korea may be more cooperative with the rest of the world, both economically and militarily (knock on wood). On May 25, 2009, they detonated a nuclear bomb underground. This was its second nuclear test, the first test having taken place in October 2006. Following the nuclear test, Pyongyang also conducted several missile tests. The test was nearly universally condemned by the international community. Following the test, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1874 condemning the test and tightening sanctions on the country. It is widely believed that the test was conducted as a result of a succession crisis in the country. After Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008, arrangements were made for his third son, Kim Jong-un, to take power upon his death. It is believed the North Koreans conducted the nuclear test to show that, even in a time of possible weakness, it did not intend to give up its nuclear weapons program.
But, has their rigid belief system changed? Is it possible that this heretofore rigidly planned economy may be changing socially, economically and militarily? Could it be that this Stalinist state may be in cautious reform, and may refrain from further nuclear tests? Could Kim Jong Un be starting economic reforms, as China's market reforms 30 years ago?
Shortly after its failed April 13 rocket launch, North Korea was widely expected to conduct its third underground nuclear test. Such a test would have fit the pattern of the first two nuclear tests, both of which followed failed rocket launches and international condemnation. And Pyongyang has compelling technical, military, and political reasons to conduct a third nuclear test that would demonstrate it can miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on a missile, making its nuclear arsenal more threatening.
Siegfried Hecker and Frank Pabian believe the first two North Korean tests used plutonium as the fissile material. Without at least one more successful plutonium test, it is unlikely that Pyongyang could have confidence in a miniaturized plutonium design. The country has a very small plutonium stockpile, sufficient for only four to eight bombs, but it may be willing to sacrifice some material to gain additional data to augment information already obtained from the previous two tests.
All the same, it appears that plutonium is a dead end for Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal because it shut down and has not restarted its five megawatt electric plutonium production reactor. Although the two experts have seen no direct evidence of a highly enriched uranium (HEU) production program in North Korea, judging from the available evidence, they believe the next bomb test will be based on HEU, or multiple bombs will be tested simultaneously, using both HEU and plutonium.
Interestingly, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center is North Korea's major nuclear facility, operating its first nuclear reactors. It is located in the county of Nyŏngbyŏn in North Pyongan province, 103 km north of Pyongyang. The center produced the fissile material for North Korea's nuclear weapon tests in 2006 and 2009 and the 5 MWe experimental reactor was built in 1980. The reactor first went critical in August 1985 and operated intermittently until 1994 when it was shut down in accordance with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. Following the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in 2002, the operation restarted in February 2003, creating plutonium within its fuel load at a rate of about 5 kg per year. The reactor fuel was replaced between April and June 2005. The spent nuclear fuel has been reprocessing with an estimated yield of about 45 kg of plutonium metal, some of which was used for the nuclear weapons involved in the 2006 and 2009 North Korean nuclear tests.
Whether and when North Korea conducts another nuclear test will depend on how high a political cost Pyongyang is willing to bear in the midst of her economic and social transformation. Beijing has continued to expand aid and trade with North Korea, but has also applied significant diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang not to test. Moscow recently forgave nearly $11 billion in North Korean debt, signed a new border treaty, and is still in the game for building a gas pipeline going through the North to South Korea, but Russia is also on record as opposing continued nuclear testing. In addition, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has shown signs of striking off in his own direction, possibly putting rehabilitation of the civilian economy ahead of enhanced military strength.
Even so, and although Pyongyang announced in June that it has no plans to test at this time, Siegfried Hecker and Frank Pabian said in their report that they cannot rule out the possibility that the technological and military benefits may sway Pyongyang to test again. Satellite imagery shows significant new activity at what has been identified as a likely third nuclear testing tunnel, and both men found it important to re-examine North Korea's past nuclear tests to learn about its future nuclear test capabilities. North Korea's previous nuclear tests. The seismic signal of North Korea's first underground nuclear test, which took place on October 9, 2006, had a teleseismic body wave magnitude (the most common scale used for measuring the strength of seismic events from a distance) of 4.3. Using analytic methods based on arrival times of seismic waves at monitoring stations outside of North Korea, the location of the event was determined to be a highlands area north of the village of Punggye-ri, in North Hamgyong Province, in the northeastern corner of the country. While it has been reported that the North Koreans were expecting an effective yield of 4 kilotons, estimates on the explosion yield of that test generally fall below 1 kiloton.
The second test, with a magnitude of 4.7, occurred on May 25, 2009 in the immediate vicinity of the first. Despite Korean Central News Agency reports that the device yield was "Hiroshima sized" -- that is, on the order of 12 to 20 kilotons -- an official US intelligence estimate placed the yield as low as "roughly two kilotons." A 2011 estimate by Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers, incorporating available seismic data and known geology but using a different analytic model, placed the minimal effective yield of the second test at about 5.7 kilotons.
A recent National Research Council report on nuclear testing points out that such discrepancies are not uncommon because no single relationship exists between teleseismic body wave magnitude and the yield of a nuclear test. Referring to the two North Korean tests, the report concludes that the relative locations and the ratio of their yields can be determined more accurately than their absolute locations and absolute yields. And since the seismic waveforms of the two tests are similar, the yield of the 2009 test should be scaled up by a factor of 4 to 6 from the roughly one kiloton of the 2006 test.
Locating the epicenter of a nuclear test with high confidence to within less than a few kilometers in a little-known geologic area not previously used for nuclear testing is very difficult because of insufficient information about specific subsurface geology and its potential effects on the precise timing of the transmission of regional and teleseismic signals. As the National Research Council report points out, however, if multiple nuclear tests occur in the same region, then relative methods of detection, location, discrimination, and yield estimation can be brought to bear.
Only 22 seismic stations of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's International Monitoring System network registered the 2006 nuclear test, but 18 more stations were online to help register the larger 2009 event. In the immediate region, seven seismic stations in Japan, one in China, and one in South Korea recorded the latter test.
In 2010, researcher John R. Murphy and colleagues at the Science Applications International Corporation used recorded regional and teleseismic data from the International Monitoring System to locate the 2006 and 2009 North Korean underground tests relative to one another. Their method provides the precise "relative" location of the two tests, but does not necessarily fix either one accurately in its real-world, "absolute" location. They integrated these locations with topographic data and satellite imagery to define what they considered reasonable and accurate absolute locations for the two tests. In 2011, these researchers revised their estimates by moving the relative location plot about 720 meters to the south-southeast as shown in the photo at the top of this post.A decade before being proclaimed part of the axis of evil, North Korea raised alarms in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo as the pace of its clandestine nuclear weapons program mounted. When confronted by evidence of its deception in 1993, Pyongyang abruptly announced its intention to become the first nation ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, defying its earlier commitments to submit its nuclear activities to full international inspections. U.S. intelligence had revealed evidence of a robust plutonium production program. Unconstrained, North Koreas nuclear factory would soon be capable of building about thirty Nagasaki-sized nuclear weapons annually. The resulting arsenal would directly threaten the security of the United States and its allies, while tempting cash-starved North Korea to export its deadly wares to Americas most bitter adversaries. In Going Critical, three former U.S. officials who played key roles in the nuclear crisis trace the intense efforts that led North Korea to freezeand pledge ultimately to dismantleits dangerous plutonium production program under international inspection, while the storm clouds of a second Korean War gathered. Drawing on international government documents, memoranda, cables, and notes, the authors chronicle the complex web of diplomacy from Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing to Geneva, Moscow, and Vienna and back againthat led to the negotiation of the 1994 Agreed Framework intended to resolve this nuclear standoff. They also explore the challenge of weaving together the military, economic, and diplomatic instruments employed to persuade North Korea to accept significant constraints on its nuclear activities, while deterring ratherthan provoking a violent North Korean response. Some ten years after these intense negotiations, the Agreed Framework lies abandoned. North Korea claims to possess some nuclear weapons, while threatening to produce even more. The story of the 1994 confrontation provides important lessons for the United States as it grapples once again with a nuclear crisis on a peninsula that half a century ago claimed more than 50,000 American lives and today bristles with arms along the last frontier of the cold war: the De-Militarized Zone separating North and South Korea.
Robert Morton, Ed., Ed.S. is a member of the Association Of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). A portion (10%) of this site's ad revenues is donated to the AFIO. The views expressed on this site do not represent those of any organization he is a member of. OSINT News is always looking for different perspectives regarding the Intelligence Community- got a thought, article or comment you'd like to submit? Contact us on the SECURE CONTACT FORM