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N.K. Nuclear Test: Evidence and Unknowns
[Analysis] World waits for confirmation that Pyongyang's claim was not a hoax
Ludwig De Braeckeleer (ludwig)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-12 10:29 (KST)   
Has North Korea really entered the much restricted club of Nuclear Weapon States? Or could it be that the "historic event" is nothing more than a bizarre hoax?

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"We were compelled to prove that we have nuclear weapons to prevent the increasing threat of war by the U.S. and protect our sovereignty and survival," North Korea foreign minister said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korean nuclear test has made the headlines of the media worldwide. The U.N. Security Council is drafting a plan of sanctions. Nuclear Proliferation experts fear a domino effect and suspect that Taiwan, South Korea and Japan will join the club in no time.

Yet, to this day, there is not a shred of evidence that North Korea has actually tested a nuclear device. And if such a test occurred, it grossly failed. Let us reflect calmly on what we know about the test as well as what we -- still -- do not know but may learn about soon and finally, to borrow from Rumsfeld's style, the unknowns that we do not know about and perhaps will never find out.

What we know: a blast occurred

At 01.36 GMT (10.36 a.m. local time) on Monday morning, seismic stations around the world did indeed detect an "event" which they were able to locate in Gilju in Hamgyong province. Such an event could be an earthquake, a conventional explosion or a nuclear blast.

Considering that Pyongyang had announced last week its intention to test a nuclear weapon and the fact that the location of the "event" is a known underground test site, one can safely ignore the possibility of an earthquake. In fact, a detailed analysis of the seismic waves can differentiate an earthquake from a blast.

Beside the time and the location of the "event," seismic waves can also reveal the magnitude of the explosion. In very good approximation, the magnitude of body waves is proportional to the logarithm of the yield in Kilotons: Mb = 4.26 +0.97 log (Y).

Unfortunately and quite disturbingly, various organisations have reported widely different values for the magnitude of the blast.

The U.S. Geological survey detected a tremor of 4.2 magnitude.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization possesses about 200 seismic stations and, allegedly reported a value of 4.0. Although this value is almost compatible with the U.S. measurement, they both strongly disagree with the much smaller magnitude -- 3.6 -- reported by Seoul and Paris.

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To makes things even more puzzling, the Russians have announced a yield that translates into a much larger magnitude of about 5.4. The Russian data is so much at odds with the rest of the world that it seems best to disregard it for the time being. In any cases, geologists will have some explaining to do.

But let us carry on. A magnitude of 3.6 translates into a yield of 0.2 Kilotons. Such a yield is extremely low for a nuclear device, let alone for a first test which historically have been far more powerful. The U.S. bomb dropped over Hiroshima was about 12.5 Kilotons. For reference, the first French test device had a yield of 65 Kilotons.

"Given its weak power, it is hard to say if it was a very large, but traditional, type of explosion or else a nuclear explosion," said French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie in a radio interview.

The known unknown: We have not seen the nuclear fallout

Russia is the only country to have confirmed that it was a nuclear explosion. It is unclear what evidence sustains that affirmation as an analysis of seismic waves can not establish the nature of the blast. Only the observation of radioactivity can unambiguously confirm that a nuclear test has occurred. However, the collection of air sample and their subsequent analysis may require several days. Most agencies quote a minimum of 72 hours.

North Korean officials have released a statement to the effect that "there was no such danger as radioactive emission in the course of the nuclear test." However, small amount of particles and radiation always leak -- a process known as venting -- from underground test sites. Actually, counter to expectations, smaller blasts release larger amount of particles. The reason is that a large explosion leads to very high temperature that vitrifies the walls of the cavity created by the blast, thus creating a barrier that particles can hardly cross.

The South Korean science and technology ministry told Yonhap News Agency that Sweden has volunteered to provide his country with equipment capable of detecting the radiation. The sophisticated detector will arrive on Wednesday. It will take at least two weeks before a definite conclusion can be reached.

U.S. and Japanese airplanes equipped with sensors are flying above the sea betwee Korea and Japan. So far, they have detected no radioactive material that would normally show up in the atmosphere in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso has said that Japan had no evidence that would confirm a nuclear test. French officials have issued similar statements and warned that there is a possibility they will never be able to tell whether a nuclear test was conducted.

Less than 24 hours after Russia said that it was "100 percent certain" that North Korea had detonated a nuke, White House spokesman Tony Snow said on Tuesday that it would take several days before the Intelligence Agencies can come to a conclusion on whether a nuclear device had been detonated, warning of a "remote possibility that we'll never know."

Snow seemed to suggest that the nuclear blast was a hoax when he asked the reporters a rather strange rhetorical question implying that North Korean nuclear scientists could not possibly have proceeded so fast with the construction of a nuke.

"You'll have to ask a technical question of whether they've had the capability to build additional weapons since they unlocked Yongbyon a couple years ago. Don't know."

Both the U.S. State Department Spokesperson and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have equally admitted that the U.S. had no evidence supporting the claim of North Korea.

"We have to take the claim seriously, because it is a political claim if nothing else," Rice told CNN.

The unknowns that we do not know

For the time being, one must seriously consider the possibility that the blast resulted from conventional explosives. The only reasonable alternative explanation to a hoax is that the test failed.

Another understanding of Snow's comment is that the bomb would have used an old badge of plutonium produced in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is known that these early badges of plutonium contain an important amount of plutonium 240 which cause the chain reaction to start prematurely and prevent the nuke from releasing its full energy.

Although plausible, this explanation is rather unsatisfactory since that particular difficulty is well understood and documented. It is quite unlikely that North Korean nuclear scientists would have been unaware of it.

There is also a possibility that the design is flawed or that some components failed to work properly. The notoriously difficult task of synchronizing the triggers comes to mind. Who knows?

There is also a possibility that they have used intentionally a sub-critical amount of plutonium in order to keep most of their stock for actual weapons. And then again, they may have tested what would be the first stage of a thermonuclear weapon.

Wait and see. Drink your tea.

If, and when, the sensors and radiation detectors find traces of radioactive material, their very presence in the atmosphere will confirm some kind of a nuclear test while a careful analysis will allow pinpointing of the most likely scenario as to why the test failed.

If, on the other hand, traces of certain elements such as Krypton 85 do not soon appear, then one will have little choice but to conclude that the test was a hoax. That scenario would offer quite a challenge to political analysts.
North Korea has joined the nuclear club. What do you think?  (2006-10-09 ~ 2006-11-13)
The Hermit Kingdom is a real threat to the world.
I'm more worried about Bush's reaction.
It's a ploy. They'd never use a nuke.
All nations have the right to self defense.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ludwig De Braeckeleer

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