Reading Room

Keeping Perspective on North Korea's Nuclear Test

Wednesday, January 13, 2015
Posted by Joseph Rodgers

North Korea conducted its third known nuclear weapons test on January 6, 2016. The North Korean Central News Agency claims that the test was a successful small hydrogen bomb explosion. In the past, North Korea is believed to have only successfully detonated one-stage atomic weapons.

Hydrogen weapons are hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful than atomic weapons. Hydrogen bombs are two stage weapons that rely on the energy released by atomic fission to create the conditions necessary for hydrogen fusion.

Based off of initial CTBTO seismic readings, North Korea likely did not produce a successful hydrogen explosion. The January 6 test produced a magnitude 5.1 seismic event. North Korea’s 2013 atomic bomb test created a magnitude 5 seismic event.

The regime has a history of bluffing about its military capabilities. In May of 2015 North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a submarine launched ballistic missile. The photos that North Korea released were blatantly photoshopped. Even if North Korea did successfully detonate a small hydrogen bomb, the regime does not yet have the capability to deliver a warhead to the continental United States.

North Korea is the only country to test nuclear weapons in this century. In 1992 the United States stopped testing nuclear weapons. 183 countries have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996, which prohibited the detonation of nuclear weapons. While the treaty has not entered into force due to ratification issues, the cessation of nuclear weapons tests has become an international norm.

Since the first nuclear weapons test on July 16, 1945, eight countries have exploded over 2,000 nuclear warheads. Most of these explosions were detonated by the United States (1,054) and the Soviet Union (715).

The testing of nuclear weapons has caused enormous environmental damage. Certain radioactive agents are only produced by fission and fusion explosions. Some of these contaminants, such as Strontium-90, find their way into the human body and can cause health problems.

North Korea’s rash actions have caused environmental harm and geopolitical instability. However, the most recent test should be placed in context. The United States can not sit on a pedestal of condemnation.

As long as the world has nuclear weapons, the capacity to test and use nuclear weapons exists. The complete and total dismantlement of all nuclear weapons would enhance international security and environmental stability.

Currently, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists estimate that there are approximately 15,500 nuclear weapons in the world. Russia has 7,500 nuclear bombs and the United States has 7,200. North Korea has less than 15 nuclear bombs.

Concerned global citizens should be worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its testing. However, our concerns must be in context. When considering North Korea, we must also look in the mirror.