There Is Little Reason to Believe North Korea Has an H-Bomb

Washington and Pyongyang have a common interest in exaggerating North Korea's nuclear capabilities

Are Washington and Pyongyang enemies or symbiotes? For supposed enemies they sure agree on a lot of dubious information. For example they both agree North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb last Sunday though there’s little to indicate that is true.

Early estimates put the yield of that explosion at some 100 kilotons. Later that was revised to 140 and even 200 kilotons. That is a lot of explosive power — between six and twelve times as powerful as the Hiroshima A-bomb. But it makes for an exceedingly puny hydrogen bomb. Early thermonuclear devices detonated by the US and the USSR in the 1950s were 1,000 times as powerful as the likes of the Hiroshima bomb.

While nuclear experts say it’s theoretically just about possible to construct an H-bomb with the yield in the neighborhood of 100 kilotons, it’s much more likely North Korea simply detonated a medium-sized A-bomb. (The most powerful A-bomb clocked in at 500 kilotons.)

And yet the US agrees that the North Korean device was an H-bomb, or at least some other type of thermonuclear bomb:

U.S. intelligence has assessed that it is “highly probable” that North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb last weekend as it has claimed, according to a U.S. official.

The blast was also assessed to have had an explosive yield of more than 140 kilotons, higher than initially believed, making it nearly 10 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in World War II.

As U.S. intelligence continues to assess the underground nuclear test the official cautioned there is a chance that waht North Korea tested may have been a fission bomb bolstered to convert it into a thermonuclear bomb, though not necessarily a Hydrogen bomb.

Usually when two regimes are as hostile to each other as Washington and Pyongyang they can not agree on anything. Yet here we have what looks like highly dubious Pyongyang propaganda immediately propped up by DC. What is more, US intelligence sources are one of very few willing to lend credence to North Korea’s claims. Essentially Pyongyang’s narrative could not survive but for crucial US backing.

What explains this unusual state of affairs?

The fact is the US and North Korean governments are feeding off of each other. They both crave their mutual confrontation and for the exact same reason; they see it as way to demonstrate legitimacy and power. I haven’t seen this explained anywhere better than in this Spiked magazine article:

The US appears to need North Korea, or better still the idea of North Korea, as an existential threat in our global midst. And through acting against North Korea, through disciplining it, through reining it in, the US, and the West in general, demonstrates what it has lacked since the end of the Cold War: a sense of moral mission, a sense of right rather than just might.

For North Korea, the missile tests are a performance of power, not its possession. They perform a dual function. For a domestic audience, they are an acting out of precisely that which North Korea’s regime has lacked since the collapse of Communist bloc – power and confidence.

And, for an international audience, the missile tests are an act of self-assertion, a display of strength, a demand to be recognised as that which North Korea is not – a significant global force. When, in 2008, Kim Jong-il, the father of current president Kim Jong-un, was asked why North Korea was spending so much on weapons programmes, he said: ‘I have to let them know I have missiles because this is the only way the US will talk to me.’

And in return for North Korea’s attention-seeking missiles, the US kindly flatters North Korea – by condemning it, threatening it, punishing it. These are the tributes it pays to North Korea’s rulers for giving the US and its allies precisely what they, in turn, lack: an existential threat against which they can prove and demonstrate their purpose and power.


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