Tuesday night a moderate earthquake rattled an area where North Korea has tested nuclear weapons in the past. Neighbors in the region assumed the worst and the Hermit Kingdom quickly proved their speculation correct: North Korea gleefully announced they'd tested a hydrogen bomb.
While the region immediately went to a state of heightened awareness and several nations issued condemnations of the test, South Korea expressed doubt about the claim. That skepticism is justified—North Korea's default mode of public expression is chest-thumping hyperbole.
The New York Times quoted Park Ji-young, of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, who said he suspected "the bomb they tested was a boosted-fission weapon."
Young also noted the location wasn't appropriate for a hydrogen bomb. H-bombs, apocalyptic tools of death with a massive blast range, require a great deal of room. Young pointed out that the U.S. and Russia both tested their thermonuclear weapons "in very remote places."
NK News interviewed a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, Bruce Bennett, who was also very skeptical of the secretive communist dictatorship's claims. Bennett explained why seismic readings supported his doubts:
The yield of nuclear weapons is often measured by the size of the earth tremor that they cause during an underground nuclear test. The North Korean third nuclear test in 2013 had a Richter scale tremor reading of about 4.9, or roughly a yield in the range of 6 to 10 kilotons (kt) — smaller than the U.S. Hiroshima weapon. The North Korean fourth nuclear test appears to have had a Richter scale reading of 5.1 (which might still get adjusted a bit).
The Monday test, which was North Korea's fourth, Bennett explained, "was about 1.5 times as powerful as the 2013 test," meaning it "just barely reached the yield of the US Hiroshima weapon, more than 70 years later." Of course, that bomb did some pretty serious damage.
Not everyone is entirely skeptical. The New York Times quoted North Korea expert Victor Cha, who said, "From a national security perspective, I don’t have the luxury of downplaying the North Koreans’ claims and would doubt the doubters."
Even if North Korea's boast is just another chapter in the country's long history of sometimes comical saber-rattling, there are reasons for serious concern. For instance, one theory holds that the test was a failed attempt at blowing up a miniaturized hydrogen weapon.
If so, RAND's Bruce Bennett told NK News, "failure of this test to demonstrate anything close to the yield of a hydrogen bomb will frustrate Kim Jong-un’s objective." Which is a problem, according to Bennett, because the bellicose young leader might then order further tests "to demonstrate weapon yields consistent with a hydrogen bomb."
"That," Bennett said, "is not good news for North Korea’s neighbors."