N. Korea does have a long history of exaggerating its military prowess.
January 6, 2016 8:38 AM   Subscribe

North Korea says it just tested a hydrogen bomb. Here's what we know. [Vox]
According to top experts, it's very plausible this was a test. "I think it is *probably* a test," Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, tweeted. "DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name of North Korea] event epicenter close to test site and on 1/2 hour." Generally, earthquakes don't just happen on exactly the half hour.
1) A 5.1 magnitude "seismic event" was reported near North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear testing site late Tuesday evening.
2) North Korea's government is claiming that the event was a hydrogen bomb test. Hydrogen bombs are a more powerful type of nuclear weapon than the North has previously tested, one that North Korea first claimed to have developed in December.
3) There is a real chance that this is a nuclear test: South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese authorities have said they believe the earthquake is manmade, and it is the same magnitude as a 2013 North Korean underground nuclear test.
4) However, experts caution, we do not yet have conclusive evidence that the earthquake was, in fact, caused by a nuclear detonation. Nor do we yet know if it was a hydrogen bomb even if it was nuclear.
- North Korea Claims It Tested Hydrogen Bomb but Is Doubted [The New York Times]
Lee Cheol-woo, a member of the intelligence committee of the South Korean National Assembly, said his country’s National Intelligence Service had estimated the explosive yield that was equivalent to six kilotons of TNT. (By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 exploded with 15 kilotons of energy.)

A hydrogen bomb would have yielded “hundreds of kilotons or, even if it is a failed test, tens of kilotons,” Mr. Lee told reporters. The North’s last nuclear test, in February 2013, set off a magnitude 4.9 tremor. The South estimated that the bomb detonated on Wednesday resulted in a magnitude 4.8 seismic event, smaller than the 4.9 to 5.2 range that American, European and Chinese authorities had reported.
- 'A grave threat': why North Korea's claimed nuclear test is a cause for concern [The Guardian]
It’s the unexpected apparent detonation of a powerful nuclear weapon, now in the possession of an unpredictable, paranoid dictator. But how worried should the world really be by North Korean claims that it successfully conducted its fourth nuclear test on Wednesday morning? Very, according to an international body that monitors the ban on nuclear testing. The test, said Lassina Zerbo, head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation, was “a grave threat to international peace and security”. If North Korean descriptions of the type of bomb detonated at its main testing site are true, then Zerbo’s caution is well placed.
North Korea previously.
posted by Fizz (82 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're at all interested in National Security issues or even politics generally, Jeffrey Lewis's "Arms Control Wonk" podcast is amazing.
posted by Jahaza at 8:44 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


eponysterical
posted by ryanrs at 8:50 AM on January 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Well earthquakes have to happen sometime*. I'd say one in every 60 or so happens on the half hour.

Because gosh, where would we be without earthquakes?
posted by Naberius at 8:52 AM on January 6, 2016


I don't think too many people saw Iron Sky, but it's what I think of every time they make one of these announcements.
posted by figurant at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Kim Jong Un was just preparing for his 33rd (ish) birthday party and setting off all his fire crackers at once.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on January 6, 2016


Are these cranky pricks still mad about The Interview?
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:59 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


They do not have a hydrogen bomb, but I am very curious as to whether our guys will admit what they do have.

We know they have atomic bombs, almost certainly gun type like Little Boy. Their first test was a failure because they tried to build a gun type bomb with Plutonium, which requires unattainably high assembly speeds. The core blows itself apart before most of the fuel can react, and you get a small yield. (The term of art for this is a "fizzle.") So they went ahead and built a U235 gun bomb because they knew how and to prove they really could get ten kilotons.

Last I heard they were focusing on U235 production, probably for this reason. But anyway.

A hydrogen bomb is a two-stage device with an atomic trigger and a pure fusion secondary stage; its defining characteristic is that there is no inherent limit to the size of the fusion stage because, just as a fire can be made arbitrarily large by adding more fuel, so can the fusion reaction -- once you get it lit. Teller-Ulam hydrogen bombs are hard, and only a few countries have ever succeeded in making them.

Atomic explosions can't be arbitrarily large because all your fuel must start as subcritical assemblies before being assembled into a critical mass. This limits the maximum amount of fuel you can use to a couple of critical masses. But atomic bombs are easy, and NK is actually the first country ever to fail to make one work on their very first try.

Before Teller and Ulam came up with the two-stage design the Russians experimented with fusion boosting though. By adding deuterium and tritium (or lithium-6 deuteride) to the core in layers, the heat of the fission reaction could induce fusion in those layers both adding to the yield and adding neutrons to speed up the fission reaction. They got a couple of these fancy atomic bombs up over a few hundred kilotons, but they were very large and heavy.

However, fusion boosting also makes it possible to miniaturize atomic bombs, making them smaller and lighter for more modest yields. The extra fusion neutrons effectively reduce the critical mass so that even a very small core can react to completion. If they did anything useful at all this is probably what NK is crowing about, since everyone knows they don't have a missile that can loft something the size of Little Boy or Fat Man. But a fusion boosted fission bomb isn't a hydrogen bomb. That is a term of art which does not fit.
posted by Bringer Tom at 9:01 AM on January 6, 2016 [75 favorites]


Don't worry about the nukes too much. Spend more time worrying about the regular old artillery and the concept that a group of generals take out Kim Jong Un to install their own military figurehead (you know, just like the Soviets did with his grandfather). A little chaos, a little WTF is going on, and maybe South Korea thinks it's a great time to remove said artillery and suddenly it's the Mother of All Zerg Rushes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:05 AM on January 6, 2016


What are the chances they just piled up 6,000 tons of regular TNT and blew that up
posted by theodolite at 9:07 AM on January 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody detects the fission products, does it make a sound?

(There's not much point in faking a nuclear explosion with TNT.)
posted by ryanrs at 9:12 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'll gladly take any opportunity to post a cross-section of a B-28 (bog-standard Teller-Ulam device), so here you go.

For those of you who find a visual reference helpful, you can spot every single detail in Bringer Tom's comment in that diagram. At the most basic and high-level: it's a standard fission bomb that triggers a fusion reaction that is used to feed neutrons into a uranium sheath for a *massive* fission reaction. Which is why the operating principle is called "fission-fusion-fission" or "fusion-boosted fission."
posted by Ryvar at 9:13 AM on January 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


We know they have atomic bombs, almost certainly gun type like Little Boy.

This seems unlikely, given that at least one of their previous tests was a fizzle (less than one kT yield). The gun-type design is dead simple, so simple that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima used this design completely un-tested. Unless the North Korean nuclear program is uniquely and profoundly incompetent in the history of nuclear programs, they should have been easily able to get ~10kT out of a gun-type bomb. Also, gun-type bombs only work with U-235, not plutonium, and we've known that they have a big chunk of plutonium for a while, but it's not clear how long their Uranium enrichment program has been going on. Finally, gun-type bombs are terribly profligate with nuclear material, and I don't think NK has enough lying around to blow ~50kg of the stuff on a test of such a simple design.

Much more likely that NK is trying to perfect an implosion weapon, possibly fusion-boosted and/or as the first stage of a Teller-Ulam style fusion weapon.
posted by firechicago at 9:15 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Their first test was a failure because they tried to build a gun type bomb with Plutonium, which requires unattainably high assembly speeds.

I somehow missed this the first time around. This would involve a truly profound level of incompetence, given that you could learn that this would not work from a cursory reading of the wikipedia page on nuclear weapons, let alone any of the unclassified scholarly sources.
posted by firechicago at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'll gladly take any opportunity to post a cross-section of a B-28 (bog-standard Teller-Ulam device)

I've been reading Thing Explainer and coincidentally got through this "City Burning Machine" last night. Interesting to compare a more conventional description to the "ten hundred words used most often" version.
posted by Foosnark at 9:21 AM on January 6, 2016


What are the chances they just piled up 6,000 tons of regular TNT and blew that up

Would that create the same seismic profile?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:22 AM on January 6, 2016




What about the neutrinos? I thought that the worlds neutrino detectors could basically triangulate the location of any nuclear detonation (even through the earth itself) pretty quickly. Any confirmation there?
posted by sexyrobot at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Combining Bringer Tom's and Cool Papa Bell's comments, it seems like the realistic worst case scenario would be North Korea developing something like Atomic Annie. NK is probably under too much scrutiny to fuel up and fire missile-based nukes in a first strike, but they could conceivably shell Seoul using kiloton-scale artillery warheads without anybody being able to stop them or even order an evacuation.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Unless the North Korean nuclear program is uniquely and profoundly incompetent in the history of nuclear programs

Given what we know about North Korea, that actually seems fairly probable. Doesn't make it less scary, but are there any other nuclear-capable nations that have fewer resources available to them than NK?
posted by schmod at 9:33 AM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Today's relevant XKCD
posted by gwint at 9:41 AM on January 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


Given what we know about North Korea, that actually seems fairly probable. Doesn't make it less scary, but are there any other nuclear-capable nations that have fewer resources available to them than NK?


They seem perfectly capable of building a decent artillery piece, which is the level of technical sophistication you need to successfully detonate a gun-type bomb. To be clear when I say "uniquely and profoundly incompetent" I don't mean that these are not world-class minds, I mean that they would have to be making mistakes that a college freshman physics student with access to wikipedia or any of a number of bestselling popular books on the subject could warn them away from.

As for the matter of resources, it's hard because the comparisons are always apples to oranges, and lots of the details are classified. By lots of measures they have more resources than the US did at the beginning 1946. (More plutonium to play with, for one, even before we get to the fact that Teller and Ulam would have killed for the computer simulation power that we all carry around in our pockets these days.) I certainly think that it's not hard to argue that North Korea has more resources at its disposal than 1980's era South Africa, and possibly comparable to 1970's era Israel.
posted by firechicago at 9:45 AM on January 6, 2016


test ≠ successful test
posted by Thorzdad at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


The fact that North Korea absolutely do not have an H Bomb doesn't stop politicians trying to use it for their own ends.

(For example here's a pro Trident MP being a bit snide to the new anti-Trident shadow defence minister.)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:50 AM on January 6, 2016


Didn't see any visuals in the linked articles, but if you look at the seismic data (especially a comparison with a normal earthquake) it's pretty clear that this was a nuclear blast. I don't know whether a hydrogen bomb would have the same seismic profile, but it looks like an almost carbon copy of the 2013 event.
posted by bjrubble at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


firechicago: This would involve a truly profound level of incompetence...

Gentlemen, I give you…North Korea!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:56 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I saw this news on CNN, from across a loud room so I couldn't hear any of the doomsaying. The big white text on the bottom of the screen helpfully summarized the dread nuclear threat: "Hydrogen is potentially many times more powerful than plutonium." No one in my party understood why I burst out laughing.

They didn't laugh at my droll "mole" double entendre, either
posted by Mayor West at 9:57 AM on January 6, 2016 [9 favorites]




North Korea having an atomic bomb is akin to a "Sovereign Citizen" sneaking a pistol into a Special Forces training exercise and shooting someone. Sure, you have something that can do something awful but you are way out of your league and the consequences are going to be pretty terrible.

The only Fat Man we are ever likely to see speeding out of North Korea is Kim Jong Un.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 9:58 AM on January 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


I've been trying to get a picture of what can and can't be detected of an underground nuclear test, and not getting very far - although discovering that GPS satellites all have something called IONDS, a package for nuke detection, was one of those surprises that gets less surprising the more you think about it. I don't know if the current crop of operational neutrino detectors can spot short spikes of the sorts of flavours of neutrino from fission weapons or not; I know that supernova neutrinos have been detected, but only by post-hoc data processing.

Given NK's international relations seem to be entirely about angry posturing, and also given that it clearly does not have anything like a hydrogen bomb, I wouldn't be surprised if whoever's actually approaching sanity within it knows that the entire programme is about producing wiggles on seismographs and nothing else. It's not just a matter of having the resources to produce viable weapons, it's also about having an organisation which can do so, and the ability to produce a large amount of conventional weaponry does not necessarily mean you can muster the ability to direct hugely complex efforts.
posted by Devonian at 9:59 AM on January 6, 2016


They might have competent scientists and engineers who are being given unrealistic deadlines and constraints from politicians. Or maybe they are suffering from actual resource limitations, and trying to make due with materials on hand.
posted by rustcrumb at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've been trying to get a picture of what can and can't be detected of an underground nuclear test, and not getting very far

I think the standard protocol for a case like this is to fly a plane around downwind and sniff for the fission products. I expect this is happening right now.
posted by ryanrs at 10:08 AM on January 6, 2016


This would involve a truly profound level of incompetence...

Gentlemen, I give you…North Korea!


I mean, whatever helps you sleep at night, but North Korea has shown itself to be remarkably competent when it comes to things that the regime considers important (e.g. money laundering, smuggling, political repression) even if they do a very poor job of things the regime doesn't care about (e.g. feeding their people). I think their space/missile program is a good comparison. It's a huge, complicated technical project that clearly has received tremendous investment, and mixed success. Sure, there have been some bad failures along the way (but then, the US and Soviets had some pretty catastrophic early failures too) and overall, their technology is probably pretty comparable to what the US and Soviets had some time in the early 60's (albeit under much tighter resource constraints). Which should not be a comforting thought to anyone.

I just don't think it's good policy to assume that your enemies are the Keystone Kops.
posted by firechicago at 10:09 AM on January 6, 2016 [21 favorites]


"Sovereign Citizen" sneaking a pistol into a Special Forces training exercise and shooting someone.

That's kind of the point though. It just allows the out-leagued out-classed actor to do more and more, because the special forces people know exactly how easy it is for harm to come from a pistol and don't want them or their buddies to get shot by a lunatic. They are more likely to descalate the situation without violence. And if the special forces do try to strike first, someones most likely going to get shot, and no ones going to like it.

It's not like we're talking about two nation states going head to head. We're talking about a potential "nothing-to-lose" dictatorship in-charge of very dangerous weapons.
posted by mayonnaises at 10:29 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


This would involve a truly profound level of incompetence...

Gentlemen, I give you…North Korea!


I read reddit so you don't have to: "What makes me angry is that by mocking North Korea, the mockers are reinforcing the DPRK's state propaganda."
If you think the North Korean government is stupid or you see them as toothless cartoon villains, then you've already been indoctrinated by them. Hook, line, and sinker. Without getting too much into my personal life, I have close ties with people deeply involved in North Korea. I've befriended DPRK defectors and people who have dedicated their lives to dismantling the Kim regime.
North Korea is the only Orwellian police state in the world and it has been that way for almost 70 years. Other nations have tried to maintain a government like the DPRK's in the modern world and failed. The USSR broke apart. Fascist Italy fell. Nazi Germany fell. Gaddafi was ousted and killed.
Yet the DPRK endures. People don't rebel, other countries don't invade them, and they still receive concessions from the international community even as they continue developing their nuclear program. Stupid governments can't keep 24.9 million people drinking the Kool Aid and force exponentially more powerful countries into bargaining positions.
A large part of why North Korea endures is because they've carefully engineered how they want to appear to the West. Horrific things are happening there right now. Some of my friends have been sent to juvenile concentration camps where kids were beaten and raped by the guards. Camps where kids had their feet cut off for attempting to escape. Friends who saw a fresh corpse on the street every day they walked home from school, left to starve to death on the sidewalk because of the Great Famine. Friends who were forced to eat bark to survive, friends who witnessed cannibalism.
There is so much information out there about how horrible and dangerous North Korea is but the international community doesn't receive pressure from their constituents to do anything about it because everyone views North Korea as a joke. That is a very intentional, calculated move by the DPRK government. They are fully aware of how ridiculous and empty their threats sound. Those statements are nothing but propaganda fed to the West.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:30 AM on January 6, 2016 [44 favorites]


> I just don't think it's good policy to assume that your enemies are the Keystone Kops.

As a general rule, probably not but the analogy with N. Korea is entirely apropos. I mean did you look at The Independent photo linked to by TD Strange a bit above? N, Korea's pride and joy, the submarine that they choose to put their Supreme leader and show off to the world is literally a rustbucket. And Cpt. Steubing there in the background there is communicating to his crew with a 1960's era microphone. Wireless communications are just a Capitalistic dream. That submarine looks a lot more like something cobbled together and seen on Fallout 4 than anything that could be a serious threat to the U.S.

As to the comparison that their resources are equivalent to those of the 1960's era Soviets or Israelis, I believe that is misguided in so many ways. For one thing the N. Koreans have isolated themselves from the rest of the world's academics and do not have easy assess to it as did the other two aforementioned countries. The bulk of N. Korea's population is literally slowly starving to death so the political and logistical consequences of maintaining such an imbalance of power are all but incomprehensible. Where are their new, brilliant potential leaders of technology and science? Sorry, those young minds are all starving to death.

N. Korea is not a threat to this country but it can do horrible damage to the city of Soeul, the very last thing it could ever do shortly before it ceased to be a political entity forever.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Wireless communications are just a Capitalistic dream.

Wireless doesn't work well on submarines, regardless of economic system.
posted by ryanrs at 10:41 AM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


What about the neutrinos? I thought that the worlds neutrino detectors could basically triangulate the location of any nuclear detonation (even through the earth itself) pretty quickly. Any confirmation there?

this article implies they would need to build the detectors (search for "far-field").

i suppose it will likely be confirmed by gas / particle monitoring stations, but that takes time (as the test in 2013 was, according to wikipedia).
posted by andrewcooke at 10:52 AM on January 6, 2016


In other nuclear weapons news, the US Navy's directory of naval operations wants to spend $100B upgrading the boomer fleet because nukes are 'foundational to our survival'
posted by stobor at 11:19 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


> Wireless doesn't work well on submarines, regardless of economic system.

Of course it does.

(micro-cells with lots of repeaters)
posted by AGameOfMoans at 11:27 AM on January 6, 2016


In other nuclear weapons news, the US Navy's directory of naval operations wants to spend $100B upgrading the boomer fleet because nukes are 'foundational to our survival'

It's actually hard to argue with that logic. Given that we do live in a nuclear armed world for the present, the fact that there's almost no way a first strike could take out the US nuclear arsenal sufficiently to prevent a devastating counterstrike is arguable one of the best deterrents to nuclear war there is. MAD works.

(Which is why I grow impatient with the alarmist rhetoric over places like North Korea and Iran -- either one could potentially inflict painful damage, yes, but when I grew up in the 1980s, the Soviets could have destroyed most of the major cities in the United States and Europe and vice versa. The situations aren't remotely comparable, not even to the relatively mild -- compared to the 1980s -- destructive potential of the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
posted by Gelatin at 11:29 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've said this before, and here I am saying it again. It is an order of magnitude simpler to design and actually build a Hydrogen bomb that it is to usefully deliver it.

Are you flying an old ass 1970's bomber over a developed nation? Not to be that guy, but that's not gonna fly. Are you driving a train into the Ukraine? An oversized semi into whatever Balkan country you're thinking about blowing up?

An ICBM is much more difficult to build and maintain than an actual H-bomb. Physics are physics, rocketry is much more difficult.
posted by Sphinx at 11:44 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


An ICBM is much more difficult to build and maintain than an actual H-bomb. Physics are physics, rocketry is much more difficult.

It's not going to be an ICBM, for all the reasons that you list above. It's going to be artillery lobbed into Seoul. It's going to be a rocket aimed at Japan, or even China or Russia, if the wrong people have their fingers poised above the button and the situation is weird enough.

No, wait, it's going to be a ship in a port.

Worse, it's not going to be a bomb from DPRK at all. It's going to be fissile material made available to those who can pay the price. And then maybe it's an atomic bomb, maybe it's a dirty bomb. But you don't want to be on the other side of it.

It's not about the rocketry, for sure. It's that the material exists. It's that the bombs exist. They're in the mix now, and that means that everything else in the region (at the very least) becomes that much more complex.
posted by aureliobuendia at 11:58 AM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]



firechicago: This would involve a truly profound level of incompetence...

Gentlemen, I give you…North Korea!


I'm not actually willing to attribute this to incompetence on the part of North Korean military scientists. Dear Leader--and the cadre of Generals--are very likely incompetent, but if you're a scientist in DPRK; your best strategy for supplying yourself and your family with food for as long as possible is stringing out the 'Wow, this stuff is really hard" gambit and not actually wanting to destroy the world.

Baffle 'em with Bullshit, as they say.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 12:04 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


What are the chances they just piled up 6,000 tons of regular TNT and blew that up

Slim. We'd have noticed the graphics lag.

( I've not played Minecraft in 2 years and that's still my first thought about a bonkers regime playing with nightmare fuel. Sigh. )
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 12:07 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


This seems unlikely, given that at least one of their previous tests was a fizzle (less than one kT yield).

As mentioned, if you make the mistake of trying to use reactor bred plutonium in a gun style bomb, what you get is a fizzle. Some of the 239Pu that you need for the reaction absorbs an extra neutron in the reactor and becomes 240Pu in the material will cause the reaction to start well before you have inertial confinement, and this predestination scatters the fissionables without actually fissioning most of them. As I've said before, the hardest part about a nuclear weapon is holding it together while *a literal nuclear bomb* is trying to go off inside of it. The longer you can hold it together, the better the yield you'll get from the fissionables.

The reason the Manhattan Project called it the "Fat Man" that was it was one of the alternatives when the original choice, the "Thin Man" -- a gun style plutonium weapon -- was found to be unworkable. They knew that a gun style uranium weapon would work, the problem was that separating 235U was taking far too long. They had enough for a bomb, but that was it. But they could use some of that 235U in a reactor to breed 238U (the common stuff in the ground) into lots of 239Pu, and that was fissionable as well. Thus, the focus on plutonium bombs (and why to this day, almost all nuclear weapons are plutonium based.)

But when they found the 240Pu contamination, they realized the gun weapon wouldn't work. Thus, the long thin casings they'd made for Thin Man were now useless. They took some 235U and built Little Boy, which was as narrow as Thin Man would have been, but much shorter. They used the rest to breed 240Pu and began work on the implosion design. But the design was felt risky enough to warrant a full up test, now known as the Trinity Test, and well....
"Now we are all sons of bitches."
-- Kenneth Bainbridge, Trinity test director, to J. Robert Oppenheimer immediately after the successful test.
posted by eriko at 12:50 PM on January 6, 2016 [16 favorites]


N, Korea's pride and joy, the submarine that they choose to put their Supreme leader and show off to the world is literally a rustbucket.

OMG, the World War II era handrails on the conning tower.

That submarine would be fucking loud underwater. Everyone would know exactly where it was, all the time.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:22 PM on January 6, 2016


Everyone would know exactly where it was, all the time.

... which is ideal for North Korea's purposes.
posted by JackFlash at 1:25 PM on January 6, 2016


If you're at all interested in National Security issues or even politics generally, Jeffrey Lewis's "Arms Control Wonk" podcast is amazing.

Jeffrey Lewis is also responsible for my favorite "tough question, straight answer" moment ever to appear C-SPAN.
Caller: "Um, is it likely that we'll have nuclear warfare, or not likely? Bye."

Jeffrey Lewis: "I'm going with not likely."
The only thing that could have made this better would be if Lewis had added, "Just remember, you're a living organism on this planet, and you're very safe ... Do you have any Allman Brothers?"
posted by compartment at 1:28 PM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Really, all their sub needs to do is launch one of its missiles (at Japan/Okinawa?) before getting blown up.

The boomers fielded by the US and Soviets need to be so quiet because they're meant to be retaliatory weapons as much as anything else. So they need to hide from the attack subs that will be trying to kill them from the instant the enemy decides to fire ICBMs.

An NK sub is more likely to be a first strike threat, which means that it just needs to survive the window between "it is obvious that this sub is going to fire its nukes" and "the missiles are flying, hallelujah, hallelujah". Which, for a missile sub, is what? 15 minutes, at most?
posted by tobascodagama at 1:34 PM on January 6, 2016


You have G.W. Bush to thank for this situation. As soon as he took office in 2001 he initiated his adolescent "everything opposite of Clinton" diplomacy. Much as he did in the Middle East, he intentionally blew up a tenuous Clinton agreement that had kept North Korea in check. Expect a Republican President to do the same with Iran if elected in 2016.

Republicans -- the most dangerous disease on the planet.
posted by JackFlash at 1:41 PM on January 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


At this point I sincerely doubt we can actually accomplish anything by increasing sanctions and cutting the DPRK off from the rest of the world. Sure, the regime is reprehensible and repressive and horrible for most of the population, but they aren't going to launch a first strike anywhere. North Korea expert Andrei Lankov believes that engagement and educational exchange programs might be useful tools for the long-term development and democratization efforts, and I agree.
posted by Small Dollar at 2:23 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


An ICBM is much more difficult to build and maintain than an actual H-bomb. Physics are physics, rocketry is much more difficult.


Does that mean we have to start worrying about Bezos or Musk getting the bomb?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:28 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Eriko,

Everything you've said is true. It is also public information that has been freely available for many decades. To say that the first North Korean test was a failure because they used plutonium in a gun-type arrangement is to imply that the people making important technical decisions about the North Korean nuclear weapons program literally know less about the technical aspects of building a bomb than anyone who has read the first two paragraphs of the wikipedia page on the gun-type assembly.

I get that North Korea is poor and isolated, but to believe that North Korea tried to build a gun-type weapon with Plutonium, you have to believe that the decision makers have remained completely innocent of any of the (publicly available!) technical details of any other nuclear program ever. This is not information that requires subscriptions to modern physics journals, or even an internet connection, to get.

This is a massive project that North Korea is pouring a huge amount of their very scarce resources into. The idea that they can't find a dog-eared copy of Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" at some library book sale and smuggle it back into the country is just not credible, and I'm not sure where the impulse to assume that they must be failing at the simplest possible task (rather than attempting something more difficult and failing), in the absence of any evidence comes from.
posted by firechicago at 2:33 PM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


The idea that they can't find a dog-eared copy of Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" at some library book sale and smuggle it back into the country is just not credible, and I'm not sure where the impulse to assume that they must be failing at the simplest possible task (rather than attempting something more difficult and failing), in the absence of any evidence comes from.

Because it's easier to laugh at them than it is to understand why they do what they do. They've cultivated this image, and the West goes along with it, in part because it plays into a lot of expectations and stereotypes.
posted by qcubed at 2:35 PM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


> We'd have noticed the graphics lag.

Now we know why they play so much Starcraft in ROK. If framerates suddenly plummet across the country, they'll know that somewhere nearby, there's a spike in sprite effects and polygon counts. They can probably make the system fairly sensitive and directional.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:22 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Now we know why they play so much Starcraft in ROK.

It's a great secondary effect to the original causes, that of Japanese game systems facing enormous excise tariffs and massive national investment in an internet grid.
posted by qcubed at 3:24 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


firechicago, while it's true everyone knows the Manhattan project rejected the Plutonium gun bomb everyone also knows it's for a relatively straightforward technical reason; the design they had already worked out would not achieve the necessary assembly speed. That doesn't mean there is no workable assembly speed and as pointed out above, bulding guns is one thing NK can do really well. I always found it easier to believe that some less technically literate high authority told them to try it anyway than that they tried implosion, with a whole array of problems like initiator design they don't even have a starting point for. Then again maybe the Soviets gave them more than we realize. That wuld be quite a lot though.

The main advantage fusion boosting would have for NK would be miniaturization which would improve deliverability, but that pretty much requires large amounts of tritium to be effective which both doesn't grow on trees and has a shelf life. If you can get the tritium fusion boosting is pretty easy, just add tritium to the core and wrap the bomb in depleted U, walla better yield. Making mini bombs is a bit harder than that, in some ways harder than making a Teller-Ulam device, though, and that's really what NK needs to make their marginal delivery systems look like a threat.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:55 PM on January 6, 2016


An NK sub is more likely to be a first strike threat, which means that it just needs to survive the window between "it is obvious that this sub is going to fire its nukes" and "the missiles are flying, hallelujah, hallelujah". Which, for a missile sub, is what? 15 minutes, at most?

You're missing the point, though. It'd get killed way before that. There's only one NK sub of this kind. It would never leave the Sea of Japan and/or the East China Sea. It would be constantly surveilled by SK, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. From the moment it leaves its berth, someone (several someones, actually) would have it in their sights.

Now imagine a crisis moment. Nothing has happened yet, but it's obvious there is chaos within the regime.

The NK sub might just get zapped as a precautionary measure. They'd never see the killshot coming.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:02 PM on January 6, 2016


I get that North Korea is poor and isolated, but to believe that North Korea tried to build a gun-type weapon with Plutonium, you have to believe that the decision makers have remained completely innocent of any of the (publicly available!) technical details of any other nuclear program ever. This is not information that requires subscriptions to modern physics journals, or even an internet connection, to get.

That's all true, but when you are working for a dictator who has a known penchant for publicly executing people who disagree with him, and he says to use plutonium?

You use plutonium and pray he doesn't kill you anyway when it doesn't work.

And finally, we got atmospheric samples from the test -- that's what finally convinced everyone that it was in fact a nuclear test, despite the fizzle. In particular, the ratio of 133Xe, 133mXe and 135Xe is the simplest way to tell if the material was plutonium or uranium, and the samples we got after the 2006 North Korea test show clearly that they had indeed used plutonium in the weapon.

Thus the speculation that it was a gun device, because that's basically what you'd get, about .5Kt, if you tried a plutonium gun device. Is it conclusive evidence? No, but we can't inspect the device directly, and NK isn't telling. Is the fact Pu was the primary fissionable certain? Yes.

Indeed, the evidence was that the plutonium they used had a remarkably low 240Pu ratio, about 1/3rd of what US reactor bred plutonium typically had and it is possible that some other failure occurred, rather than simply 240Pu predetonation. The most likely other causes are poor compression (the tamper didn't hold up long enough to do the job) or late initiation. If they were trying for a lightweight weapon (say, 1000kg, rather than the 3500kg of Fat Man) then they just may not have built it strong enough.

But again, we can't inspect the device, since it has a "is now vapor" problem, so that's guesswork. What is clear is that NK has not used uranium in any of their tests. What's not clear is why they're all small, current estimates of this one are about 10Kt, which is still low for a simple implosion or gun device.
posted by eriko at 4:08 PM on January 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Yes, but an implosion device can also fizzle too, producing similar results in terms of yield. And an implosion device is much harder to get right the first time. Is it possible that the North Korean program succumbed to idiocy and built a gun device that anyone with a passing familiarity would know was unworkable? Yes, but it seems like an extraordinary hypothesis that requires some scintilla of evidence that distinguishes it from the case where they got a fizzle from uneven implosion, which would be a failure of technical skill, rather than pure idiocy.
posted by firechicago at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


I like to imagine that NK's nuclear stumbles could be the result not of genuine incompetence, but of subtle sandbagging on the part of the technical people. Where, after all, is the NK leadership to obtain sanity checks and second opinions on their calculations and predictions? And what happens to the NK bomb scientists after they finally produce a working system, anyway? Anything good? There may be motives for some foot-dragging that don't even consider international politics.

It's too bad that we'll probably never know.
posted by Western Infidels at 4:55 PM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


AK Earthquake Center: "Near-identical signals on our Alaska stations suggest same type, size & place as 2013 test."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:17 PM on January 6, 2016


Small Dollar: ...engagement and educational exchange programs might be useful tools for the long-term development and democratization efforts, and I agree.

Me too. I mean NK's economy is tiny compared with most industrialized nations. Why not offer them some extremely favourable trade concessions, get the population fed, get them some digital goodies, and get people looking outward? We could afford to overwhelm them with aid over enough years to completely marginalize the NK government, while giving the people tools to create a better government. Instead we punish North Koreans for their government's incompetence.
posted by sneebler at 8:02 PM on January 6, 2016


Sneebler, it's basically impossible to guarantee that any aid gets to the population. During the famine, the DPRK funneled food shipments to its elite and the military. Other aid, such as medical supplies, regularly goes to party higher-ups. "Digital goodies" such as radios that can receive non-authorized broadcasts in SK and China have been smuggled in but are still highly illegal. Doctors Without Borders is currently allowed to have three doctors permanently residing in the country, and has been kicked out periodically.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:30 PM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Indeed, the evidence was that the plutonium they used had a remarkably low 240Pu ratio, about 1/3rd of what US reactor bred plutonium typically had

Perhaps they figured they could solve the 240 contamination problem more easily than they could solve the implosion problem.

To Boost or Not to Boost: North Korea’s Nuclear Trajectory
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:39 PM on January 6, 2016


The situation right now is not comparable to the famine period, (some) people are doing very well for themselves in the market. There is a roaring trade in imported goods and media. People are hungry to engage with the outside world. Diverted aid does get to the population, just through corruption and the market.
posted by Small Dollar at 10:24 PM on January 6, 2016


I have to agree with the intentional foot dragging stuff. The smarty pants types do have access to the Internet and all that just like the rest of us because the govt knows they need it.

Prob very few people in circles of influence actually want Kim to have a bomb to incur the military wrath of another country like China or South Korea. So they probably don't encourage him to look up anything on Wikipedia or metafilter and he'll continue to be in the dark about all this.
posted by sio42 at 11:10 PM on January 6, 2016


I think it's silly to imagine that North Korean scientists are deliberately sabotaging their country's nuclear program. North Korea's motive to acquire nukes is based on saber rattling and deterrence, same as every other country's nuclear program. It's not as if it's an irrational goal for them to build the bomb.
posted by ryanrs at 2:30 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yes, but an implosion device can also fizzle too, producing similar results in terms of yield. And an implosion device is much harder to get right the first time.

When implosion devices fizzle, it's rare to get much explosion at all. You can get poor confinement leading to losing a few doublings of energy and end up with a 500t fizzle, but most fizzles are "less than 1T" -- basically, a quick prompt critical reaction plus the actual explosives themselves going off.

The point of an implosion device is to get something that's below the critical density threshold to above it. If you don't squeeze it evenly, it stops being round or oblate and starts squirting out the weak point. Yes, when you hit metals with enough force, they flow.

When the US went to the two point firing system (only two detonators) there were real worries about how much yield you'd get if you had one of the two fire accidentally. Thus, there were a bunch of "one point safety" shots, where they did this deliberately, and they found the design was surprisingly robust. It's now believed that *all* US warheads are two-point firing, one point safe. (We'll elide the problems with fusing and control, which is a different subject and OMG did we screw that up repeatedly.)

So. If NK managed to fail just right, they could get a 500T fizzle, but it would have to be just right. Getting implosion to work is actually not that hard nowadays -- electronics are better, machining is better, and again, when people say how hard it is to build a bomb, the answer is "The US and USSR did it in the 1940s. It's not hard." Getting the fissionables is the hard part, but NK has that solved by making them themselves. The physics are well understood.

Making *small* bombs is a different story. That's a matter of engineering, and that usually involves iterating designs down, and if you don't have the early ones, you have to make them and start there. One theory I've heard on the fizzle is they simply made the damn thing too small, and confinement failed too soon. Size is important, a nuclear weapon you can't deliver is really not a weapon at all.
posted by eriko at 4:39 AM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


does anyone else feels there's something uncomfortable about this thread? a masculine(?) over(?)-interest in the mechanics of death? something about armchair warriors etc?
posted by andrewcooke at 5:15 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


does anyone else feels there's something uncomfortable about this thread? a masculine(?) over(?)-interest in the mechanics of death? something about armchair warriors etc?

The uncomfortable part is the potential of a psychotic state having a doomsday device. I'm actually reassured by some of the expert comments here indicating that it couldn't be what they claim it to be.

Why did you have to gender this?
posted by adept256 at 5:44 AM on January 7, 2016 [12 favorites]


does anyone else feels there's something uncomfortable about this thread? a masculine(?) over(?)-interest in the mechanics of death? something about armchair warriors etc?
posted by andrewcooke at 8:15 AM


Just because this is, arguably, a traditionally male expression of what is typically viewed as antisocial behavior doesn't mean it should be seen as either the domain of men or antisocial.

I taught myself network penetration and lockpicking specifically because anything other people don't want me to know about, is something I feel compelled to learn - locks and network security are tools for obscuring the lies and violations which underpin social control. I did a shit-ton of research into the mechanics of nuclear weapons because of a directly analogous impulse. The desire to be free of the control of others, to know and do things those with power would rather you didn't shouldn't be seen as gender-specific. It shouldn't be considered antisocial. If it makes people uncomfortable because it forces them to acknowledge just how accessible the tools needed to sabotage the ordering of our lives really are, that's a good thing. Fuck social acceptability. Revel in the discomfort of just how tenuous our coffee shops and silk sheets existence really is. Omnia transeunt.
posted by Ryvar at 7:20 AM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Even China says nope
posted by b1tr0t at 8:32 AM on January 7, 2016


does anyone else feels there's something uncomfortable about this thread? a masculine(?) over(?)-interest in the mechanics of death? something about armchair warriors etc?

Why would there be a problem with understanding how things work?
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Just because this is, arguably, a traditionally male expression of what is typically viewed as antisocial behavior doesn't mean it should be seen as either the domain of men or antisocial.

This feels like a prime example of something that's gendered-by-omission.

I think it's perfectly natural to hear that devices exist which are capable of ending human civilisation (at the very least) at the push of a button and want to know how they work. If I, as a (white) male, walk into a library and ask for references on nuclear weapons, I'll get pointed to the appropriate section of the stacks and left to my own devices. If I bring up my research while hanging out with my pals, nobody bats an eye. If he brings it up on a date, his companion might think it a bit eccentric but let it slide like any other slightly unusual hobby.

A woman does the same thing, though? The librarian will undoubtedly lead her to the same section of the stacks, but may or may not look askance at her. Her pals will almost certainly think she's weird if she brings it up. If she brings it up on a date, especially with a man, it will almost certainly be treated as a Red Flag.

An Arab-looking man does it, and the librarian probably trips the silent alarm or something, leading to a visit from the FBI the next day.

All of which is to say that a topic doesn't need to be explicitly, de jure if you will, gendered in order to be de facto gendered when exposed to the real world.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:19 AM on January 7, 2016


[A few comments deleted. It's better not to use the term "retard" in a flip way, even with innocuous intent. And maybe let's drop the gender thing, seems a bit of a sidebar?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:01 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is mildly tangential, but a few comments in the thread have mentioned mitigations to the worst case scenario of NK de-prioritizing self-preservation and actually lobbing a nuke at someone. That's all well and good (the reason you plan for the worst case is because it's the worst case.)

What interests me more than the regime's chain of command falling apart is the seeming lack of Western foreign policy interest in working toward an endgame. Everyone seems to perceive the North Korean regime as some intractable problem that will be the thorn in the side of Asian security for aeons to come.

I think the problem is eminently solvable, but doing so would take some drastic changes in perspective. A vastly incomplete list of things that would probably need to happen:
A deal with China that a Korean state reunified under the government of the South will be politically and militarily neutral, and no longer allied with the US (and neither with China)
A deal for top regime figures where they get asylum overseas and are allowed to keep a few billion
Not disbanding the North Korean military but repurposing it
Huge amounts of outside support for the South's pre-existing unification plans
Gradually exposing the non-elite population to more and more outside influence and culture
There's precedent for dictators being willing to step aside for guarantees of immunity and getting to keep some wealth (Saddam Hussein in late 2002 is the main example I'm thinking of, but the Bush Jr. administration ignored the offer.) And the benefits of not disbanding the military of a recently-deposed dictatorship should be well learnt by now. The US may not be happy to lose an East Asian ally, but the South Korean population would be less upset.

I speculate the reason there's not desire for policy initiatives that head in this direction is simply that Western leaders see doing nothing as easier. Perhaps, but I'm not convinced the NK regime can last over the long term, and there have been ample demonstrations in past decades that dictatorships, sooner or later, turn into security problems.

I dunno. If I had a different position in life I might start talking to the Chinese, since they seem to be at the end of their tether. And while this whole fucked up situation has few positive aspects, at least the moral imperative is clear.
posted by iffthen at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


my question up-thread seems to have been read as more of an attack than intended. i work on this stuff. i suspect i could get as far as anyone else here in designing a bomb. i find it interesting (if anyone wants details of why delivery are hard mackenzie has one interesting take). i also find it (the interest) disturbing. and my experience is that this kind of interest is predominantly male, but since that comes from my own biased surroundings i asked a question - one that i will drop, since it apparently offends.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Howard Morland, who is the reason any of us in the public have any idea how these things work, stated it very well. He was a nuclear abolitionist who dug up and litigated the right to publish the secret of the Teller-Ulam configuration because you cannot fight a thing if you do not understand it. You cannot evaluate risk if you do not understand it. And because it is such a large enterprise, you find odd things like material shortages and weird policy decisions being made because the reactors that make tritium are offline. You find that those reactors are old and leaky and do not have modern safeguards or shielding and are only online because without them H-bombs cannot be serviced. And you don't understand any of this unless you understand the need for tritium to boost the reaction of the atomic primary in a small H-bomb.

I don't think it is a macho thing to want to understand nuclear weapons; it's more a desire to know the parameters of the umbrella of death that has surrounded us since the 1950's. When I was a child the threat of nuclear annihilation was much more palpable than it is today. Unlike guns, which are a thing you can own or even make for yourself, none of us as individuals is realistically likely to find surplus or hack up an atomic bomb. But knowing how they work and what is necessary to build them is essential to understanding things like the OP, where state actors are positioning themselves based on resources and delivery vectors and other things that would otherwise be wholly mysterious.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:42 PM on January 7, 2016 [7 favorites]




It's not as if it's an irrational goal for them to build the bomb.

Sadly, the biggest lesson of international politics over the past 25 years has been "get weapons of mass destruction as quickly as possible and never, ever give them up." Because we've shown time and time again that if you don't have nukes we'll invade your country at the drop of a hat but if you do have nukes you're safe.

Let's hope Iran feels secure enough that it doesn't subscribe to this calculus. But North Korea clearly does and they are probably right to do so.
posted by Justinian at 3:21 PM on January 9, 2016




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