The Mouth that Roared
September 3, 2017 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Magnitude 6.3 Seismic Event in North Korea from largest nuclear weapon tested by DPRK to date. Experts suggest the nuclear detonation may be as high as 120 kilotons, possibly a boosted atomic (fission) bomb or a small hydrogen (fusion) device (as reported by the DPRK). Seismic data suggest a cave-in related to the explosion, raising fears of a release of radioactive material. Most global leaders have been responding to the nuclearization of the DPRK with sober caution. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump have not been among them.
posted by darkstar (172 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought the jump to a hydrogen bomb required real technological sophistication, not just buying some off the shelf plans from Pakistan. Am I completely mistaken?
posted by rdr at 9:33 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]


I can't take waking up to this cold-war shit every morning. How dare these dick-wielding mouth-breathers make decisions like this for all of us on this planet.
posted by limeonaire at 9:38 AM on September 3 [101 favorites]


A bit of linkology:

The Norwegian report referenced in the CNN tweet above.

A blog post by one of the seismologists [twitter] about how they monitor nuclear testing.

The tremor was detected by various UK schools using homebrew seismometers they'd built. Via @ALomaxNet, who's tweeting a lot of good references.
posted by Buntix at 9:45 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]


I can't take waking up to this cold-war shit every morning.

I know, right? Like, it's like Pandora found a whole new box marked 'existential threats' and said "well the last box was so much fun, and I do love surprises..."
posted by sexyrobot at 9:50 AM on September 3 [15 favorites]


The tremor was detected by various UK schools using homebrew seismometers they'd built.

Scrolling down through that Twitter link, I came across the photo of the "homemade lego sensor". A Lego seismometer? Yes, indeedy. Delightful! Thanks!
posted by Mister Bijou at 9:58 AM on September 3 [6 favorites]


From that link about monitoring nuclear testing via seismology, the North Korean test facility (Google Earth link) looks pretty picturesque for a place designed to help bring about the end of the world.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:59 AM on September 3


I'm lead to understand that it's beyond their capability. Pretty much by Bringer Tom, of whom I'm sure will enlighten us soon.

What I do know is from wargaming, particularly Civ. There was one version of this game where you can develop nuclear weapons, but if you actually use them, every other civilization declares war on you. Friend or foe.

It's a genuine red line. Obama has been accused of not fulfilling red line threats regarding chemical weapons in Syria. Actually using this weapon will set off cold-war era red lines that are automated.

It would be murder-suicide, and the very last act of agency DPRK would enact.

The unfortunate way to deal with this is not militarily, or politically, but to accept what they want. They really just want to be left alone to run their cult. It's some cruel pragmatic math, I want north korea to be free, but they've put a price on that now.
posted by adept256 at 10:03 AM on September 3 [9 favorites]


BringerTom's already offered his opinion this morning back in the main Trump post, although I've gotta say that MeFi as a whole seems to be over-estimating his insider knowledge of this whole mess.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:12 AM on September 3 [7 favorites]


This is fine
posted by chavenet at 10:17 AM on September 3 [7 favorites]


For those interested: Major Clanger's response to Bringer Tom's comment in the last thread also seems insightful.
posted by darkstar at 10:25 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]


It caused what looked like an earthquake, and my initial thought was how can we get disaster recovery into there. They're going to need food and shelter for those effected real fast. It was a weapons test though. Nothing out of the ordinary. This is fine
posted by adept256 at 10:26 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]


What I do know is from wargaming, particularly Civ. There was one version of this game where you can develop nuclear weapons, but if you actually use them, every other civilization declares war on you. Friend or foe.

as a gamer, I am highly credentialed in analyzing international relations. it is clear to me that kim jong un is concerned that the US may construct the space ship to alpha centauri first, thus meeting the victory conditions and ending existence itself
posted by indubitable at 10:28 AM on September 3 [85 favorites]


What happens when they have established capability of massive strikes (a hydrogen bomb is 10 times bigger than Hiroshima) and begin with relatively small demands? This ship must be allowed transit. Trade sanctions must be reduced or beloved leader will be very very angry. Beloved leader wishes a special meal. Beloved leader deserves a small gift, Catalina Island.
posted by sammyo at 10:39 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


I suspect the same thing that happens when Russia decides it wants the Crimea, unfortunately.
posted by darkstar at 10:45 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


I mean we all know the president is an incurious moron, but even knowing that it's still surprising how bad he is at international relations.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:51 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]


rdr: I thought the jump to a hydrogen bomb required real technological sophistication, not just buying some off the shelf plans from Pakistan. Am I completely mistaken?

I'm really interested in the answer to that question, if anyone has insight. In the absence of insight, Wikipedia's timeline of nuclear weapons development says that it took the US 7 years (1945->1952) to get from fission bomb to fusion bomb, 4 years for the Soviets (1949->1953), 6 years for the UK (1952-1958), 3 years for China (1964->1967), and 8 years for France (1960->1968). The US and France were the nations that did it with the least help or espionage. North Korea successfully tested its first fusion bomb in either 2006 or 2009, so that would put this test - if it's real - on a France-y timeline.

On the other hand, most of those other nations had the technical capability to develop their own ICBMs, while North Korea appears to have had to buy working engines from Ukraine. From my completely ignorant point of view sitting here Googling, it appears that they ain't no France.
posted by clawsoon at 10:53 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


thus meeting the victory conditions and ending existence itself

Don't laugh, total existence failure is totally a thing
posted by sexyrobot at 10:54 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]


Trump is the world's greatest deal-maker, right? So let's just send him, along with his entire staff and immediate family, to North Korea. They can come home once he's made a deal.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:54 AM on September 3 [48 favorites]


the North Korean test facility (Google Earth link) looks pretty picturesque for a place designed to help bring about the end of the world.

The New Mexican desert also has a certain sparse beauty.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:59 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]


They only have one demand: that their regime continue to exist.

In their defense (literally), it's smart what N. Korea is doing. KJU saw what happened to Saddam. KJU realizes that there is only one deterrent worth anything, and that's nuclear bombs. Nuclear regimes do not get invaded. Non-nuclear regimes collapse, all the damn time. Saddam. Gaddafi. Hell, even Ukraine. What about countries in S. America? Vietnam? All of those countries didn't have nukes.

The US has shown that we will negotiate with countries that hold WMDs, and invade those that don't. The obvious conclusion here is, if you don't want to get invaded, get some nukes asap.

Honestly, I think KJU has likely secured his regime here. The more nukes he has, the more likely the US will leave him alone. And that's exactly what he wants.
posted by juice boo at 11:03 AM on September 3 [53 favorites]


as a gamer, I am highly credentialed in analyzing international relations

I knew ignoring video games to obsessively study Math in college would come back to haunt me some day, but it eased the pain of my legendary lack of co-ordination, so how could I resist?
posted by Coventry at 11:13 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


For anyone interested in an explanation of the various types of nuclear weapons and their expected yields, this is pretty good.
posted by TedW at 11:15 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]


Civilization requires no hand-eye coordination. Here's your free dose of crack.
posted by clawsoon at 11:15 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]


North Korea successfully tested its first fusion bomb in either 2006 or 2009

You mean fission, right?
posted by Coventry at 11:17 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]


If you asked around the time of the Iraq war I would have agreed with your analysis juice boo but your analysis ignores North Korea's northern neighbor. No US administration, no matter how crazy, is going to start a non-nuclear war with North Korea. There's no path to victory. China will not allow a western client state on it's border. If you can imagine a scenario where China prefers a united Korea to it's south, then because of North Korea's dependence on China the North Korean regime would already be over.
posted by rdr at 11:18 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]


They only have one demand: that their regime continue to exist.

While I agree that they see the nukes as key to their survival, it's possible that's the not the only goal. This is from Christopher Hill, longtime diplomat under presidents from both parties; former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009.

North Korea’s Real Strategy
North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons is often depicted as a “rational” response to its strategic imperatives of national security and regime survival. After all, the country is surrounded by larger, supposedly hostile states, and it has no allies on which it can rely to come to its defense. It is only logical, on this view, that Kim Jong-un wants to avoid the mistake made by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, both of whom would still be alive and in power had they acquired deliverable nuclear weapons.

In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.

Of course, such a scenario is, in many ways, the stuff of fancy. But to be a North Korean today is not necessarily to accept the world as it is. And North Korean propaganda continues to reiterate the view that the Korean Peninsula consists of one people, sharing one language and one culture, indivisible – except by outsiders like the US. By this logic, the North needs to find a way to discourage those outsiders from intervening in the peninsula’s affairs.
The whole thing is worth a read even if you don't agree. But it is funny how Trump is helping NK advance the goal of separating South Korea from its allies by threatening a trade war, attacking them on Twitter for North Korea's actions, and asking for more money for our support.
posted by chris24 at 11:18 AM on September 3 [24 favorites]


TedW: For anyone interested in an explanation of the various types of nuclear weapons and their expected yields, this is pretty good.

Website mission statement: "Stopping arms proliferation at the source"

Page summary: "Learn about the steps and materials needed to make a nuclear weapon"

My irony meter is clicking like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl.
posted by clawsoon at 11:19 AM on September 3


I thought the jump to a hydrogen bomb required real technological sophistication, not just buying some off the shelf plans from Pakistan.

Well, the DPRK's latest missile was a huge leap in sophistication from their previous, indigenously-designed ones, and almost certainly used engines (and maybe fuel) from outside the country. Somebody is clearly feeding them tech, or if not feeding them, then at least "accidentally" letting things fall through the nonproliferation regime in a way that benefits them, in much the same way that I sometimes "accidentally" drop bacon on the floor to the benefit of the dog (and in violation of the imperialist bacon control regime).

So it is not impossible that someone is helping them with warhead design in addition to missile technology. Though, to continue the bacon analogy (and why wouldn't we), if a couple of surplus rocket engines are bacon, miniaturized H-bomb technology is sort of like buying the dog an ownership interest in a steakhouse. The former you can write off as a slipup, an understandable lapse in judgement, but with no real long-term consequences (after all, once the bacon is gone, it's gone, and you can just promise to stop giving him bacon); with the latter, you've created a monster over which you have little control (given that my relationship with the dog is based largely on a straightforward bacon-for-obedience tradeoff).

Aspherical bomb design is one of the few things that still appears to be the province of the great powers; it takes a lot of resources to make even a boosted fission primary that's not spherical (and it appears as though a lot of extant designs for fusion weapons still use a spherical fission primary, presumably because it's better understood and felt to be more reliable). Obviously the NK regime understands this, and so the chances that they're faking an aspherical design are quite real. But if someone did help them along that road, it's an escalation and a blow to the global nonproliferation regime that's pretty unique.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:20 AM on September 3 [23 favorites]


You mean fission, right?

My mistake, yes, thanks for spotting it!

I was also wrong about how much help French nuclear scientists got. It looks like they did the fission->fusion transition mostly by themselves, but before that they worked with Israeli scientists and after that they played "20 questions" with US scientists.
posted by clawsoon at 11:23 AM on September 3


Aspherical bomb design is one of the few things that still appears to be the province of the great powers; it takes a lot of resources to make even a boosted fission primary that's not spherical

Can't find a cite, but I think I read that designing one is very computationally intensive because it requires bomb simulations with extremely high time resolution. If that's true, it might have become more feasible for a small country as computing costs have dropped.
posted by Coventry at 11:39 AM on September 3


Well, NUKEMAP says we'd probably die if the bomb they just detonated hit SF. That's enough to evoke a retro Cold War sense of dread. If Trump blunders us into nuclear war, I swear I will become a ghost and haunt the shit out of him (maybe the ghost equivalent of a protest rally is to be among the faces he sees whenever he closes his eyes).
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:40 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


But it is funny how Trump is helping NK advance the goal of separating South Korea from its allies by threatening a trade war, attacking them for North Korea's actions, and asking for more money for our support.

Setting aside the proliferation issue and looking at politics (and this is one of those times when I do ponder threaded discussions, because turning this into purely Yet Another Trump Thread would be unfortunate), it's worth considering if that "irony" isn't pragmatism, just of a sort that we find hard to recognize.

It's easy to see the DPRK's militarism as pragmatism if you accept that they have certain end goals; likewise, you can see the same thing if you take on premise certain traditionally-not-spoken-in-polite-company beliefs within domestic (US) politics.

If you didn't give a hoot about the "international order", and saw the post-Cold-War consensus as one that takes away more from the US than it gives back, and that our foreign policy is mostly a slow trading away of American advantage by suspiciously unpatriotic Ivy League internationalists; and then seasoned your thinking with more than a little white supremacism, then maybe you'd shrug a bit about the Kim regime's desires for a reunified Korean peninsula. So what? you might say. (And if you were really sure you weren't on tape, you might say more than that.)

After all, it's not like North Korea is exactly taking away any industrial jobs back here in the USA. Unlike, say, Samsung. So if the South Koreans don't want to pay to keep themselves out of a bunch of mass graves...? Why should we — both directly, and by letting them hammer US industry with their disturbingly high-quality automobiles? After all, if Kim and Co. decided to glass them tomorrow, and then we glassed the North in response (I mean, we'd kinda have to, right? Pour encourager and all that)... well, scratch a few million economic competitors. Now all we have to do is get the Chinese and the Indians going, and we're back at the top of the heap, baby.

The last time a continent got plastered and a few million people ended up as atmospheric pollution, it worked out pretty damn well for us. And if you accept the narrative of American declinism, there's no better time to strike than the present, while we still have as much advantage left. Every moment is just another opportunity for the rest of the world to figure out how to play Capitalism. By contrast, an enemy who's still screwing around with Stalinism seems pretty damn tame.

Perhaps there should be a warning, little the little one on car sideviews: Irony in mirror may be more earnest than it appears.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:49 AM on September 3 [23 favorites]


shapes that haunt the dusk: Well, NUKEMAP says we'd probably die if the bomb they just detonated hit SF. That's enough to evoke a retro Cold War sense of dread.

You just need to get that Cold War can-do attitude. Just keep your yard clean and your house well-maintained. And your fallout shelter can be used as a guest bedroom.
posted by clawsoon at 11:59 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]


Don't worry folks, more rational congresscritters have a handle on the situation.
"I am 100% certain that if Kim Jong Un continues to develop missile technology that can hit America, if diplomacy fails to stop him, there will be a United States attack against his weapons systems. Im assuming the worst. Im assuming we drop one bomb, he fires at South Korea and maybe Japan....there will be thousands of deaths, (but) it ends with North Korea's utter destruction" -- Lindsay Graham (R-SC)
He's only off by three or four orders of magnitude on the death count but what's a few million Koreans between friends, right?

We're so fucked.
posted by Talez at 11:59 AM on September 3 [19 favorites]


If the US attacks first, China will counter-attack and destroy the US economy, and therefor world economy.

NK doesn't matter here. They are irrelevant. What matters is China. And China wants to de-escalate, badly so. Ya'll, quit being so escalatory. We're not fucked. The US can't do anything anymore - if they do, they quite literally destroy the entire economic world order, which destroys US capitalism, and JP Morgan et all isn't going to let that happen.

Seriously, calm down. There is a lot of political brinksmanship happening, but the threat isn't nuclear war in the US. The threat is China dumps US currency, destroys our economy, and therefor destroys the entire world economy.

NK is smart, because they realize this. They aren't threatening the US, or SK, they are threatening the entire world with a depression that will make the 30s look like a windfall. And as much as anyone else, China doesn't want that either, but they are uniquely positioned to be able to weather that storm.

The US has already lost this encounter, and there will be plenty of belligerent word-vomit from republicans. But NK has pulled off a brilliant move, beaten the clock, and probably gained quite a few years of existence for their (violent, horrible) regime.
posted by juice boo at 12:15 PM on September 3 [24 favorites]


juice boo, now you put it this way, it looks like a fantastic opportunity to grab shares at bargain prices. Contrary to what you believe, the biggest investors might be really interested in a depression like that. I know I would be.
posted by Laotic at 12:22 PM on September 3


Contrary to what you believe, the biggest investors might be really interested in a depression like that. I know I would be.

You're... you're not supposed to say that out loud.... it's an inside thought.
posted by Justinian at 12:25 PM on September 3 [27 favorites]


I think my absolute favorite part of all of this is fuckhead's tweet today calling out South Korea's "appeasement", it's not like a city of 10 million is 50 miles from the border or anything, just man up and be tough South Korea
posted by Automocar at 12:27 PM on September 3 [10 favorites]


juice boo: and JP Morgan et all isn't going to let that happen.

I'm pretty sure that the exact same words - with JP Morgan in the driver's seat, even, though then it was JP himself - were uttered before World War One.
posted by clawsoon at 12:28 PM on September 3 [13 favorites]


The sane player with the most active leverage here is China. It does not want a unified Korea that's allied with America, so much so that it's tolerated and to some extent supported the NK regime until now. As NK's closest thing to a partner, It probably has a much better idea about the true state of NK's nuclear and missile capabilities than anyone else - I don't know what technology NK uses to develop its weaponry, nor what sort of information infrastructure it has alongside, but much of that will have come from China by one means or another, and if China hasn't used every opportunity there to increase surveillance I'll eat my hat with chopsticks.

By comparison, the US knows very little and can do fuck all. (Thanks, Dubya!)

It really is down to Beijing. If this were the 60s, I'd go with a good old Soviet-style tanks in the street and puppet government, but none of the border Warsaw Pact countries was in a position to obliterate their Western neighbours in a few hours as a parting shot. Nevertheless, if it is in China's power to actively restructure the DPRK elite by any plausible means, that's what I'd write right now as the second half of Act 1.
posted by Devonian at 12:28 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


25 million in the metro area.

people keep saying 10 million because idiots in western media keep repeating that fact because they don't bother to actually research shit.

also the country's only the size of indiana, so that's 50 million or so in fairly close range.
posted by anem0ne at 12:29 PM on September 3 [15 favorites]


people keep saying 10 million because idiots in the media keep repeating it because they're fucking morons.

10 million is cited pretty consistently as the estimated number of deaths in SK from conventional weapons in the first couple of weeks in a war on the Korean peninsula.
posted by Talez at 12:32 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


If we're going to fantasize about the imminent destruction of my people I'd at least like to get the numbers right instead of minimizing them as often happens.
posted by anem0ne at 12:44 PM on September 3 [20 favorites]


No one is "fantasizing" about that and I'm offended by the suggestion.
posted by Automocar at 12:49 PM on September 3 [5 favorites]


It we aren't fantasizing, but instead speculating with an eye towards realism, I'd like it if we at least got the numbers right instead of minimizing them like so often happens.
posted by anem0ne at 12:51 PM on September 3 [18 favorites]


Saying a city of 10 million at risk and omitting the fact that this city is in the center of a large metro area is like pretending only Brooklyn would be harmed if some shit happened there and subtly suggesting to anyone unfamiliar with the area that the other boroughs would be unscathed
posted by anem0ne at 12:55 PM on September 3 [8 favorites]


Nukes just mean North Korea loses faster.

Forty years ago, the economies of the two Koreas were equal in size. Now, South Korea is fifty times richer. They can buy and operate as many fighters, bombers, missiles, destroyers and tanks as they want, which turns out to be a lot.

Right now, North Korea can't afford food. What wealth they have they are spending on nukes to deter an invasion, which means those nukes just sit on a shelf doing nothing. All the money they spend on nukes is money they don't spend on anything they can use. They are slowing their economy with every nuke they build.

So our strategy continues. People call it containment, but really, we are outrunning them. They are falling further and further behind, to the point that we can care ever less about them. There's no end game here, and there doesn't need to be. They get left in the dust until they decide to change.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:01 PM on September 3 [4 favorites]


The world should begin carpet bombing North Korea
with consumer goods and food.

Seriously.

Food and prepaid cell phones and tablets, pre-set to Internet servers.

Take the starved info-poor edge off.

After a while, then stop the freebies. Produce a cargo cult culture.

Convince them to build a representative government that can bring the goodies back.
posted by hank at 1:05 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


Well, that's the worst plan since "We attack the Mayir with hummus."

You want to fly over a country that's already on a hair trigger, at bombing height and speed, and then start dropping things. Things that the ruling party will kill people for having. And you think that this will make the malnourished, unarmed, possibly drug-addicted populace rise up and demand a democracy.

How about let's not do any of those things.
posted by Etrigan at 1:10 PM on September 3 [19 favorites]


Food and prepaid cell phones and tablets, pre-set to Internet servers.

Take the starved info-poor edge off.


Cell phones and tablets only really work if you have a cell signal that can reach them; in a country that's very mountainous, with a pre-existing cellular network and the internet under the regime's control and capable of generating signal interference, you're not going to be able to do much with a device relegated to airplane mode.

As far as information starved, there's already quite the black market in South Korean media smuggled into the North via China.
posted by anem0ne at 1:22 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


Do not fear. I'm sure our diplomat to North Korea Dennis Rodman is already on the case.
posted by 4ster at 2:10 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that the exact same words - with JP Morgan in the driver's seat, even, though then it was JP himself - were uttered before World War One.

Dear god I just realized that if anyone approaches the ignorant and overconfident attitude of British imperialists prior to (and during) WWI, it's Donald Fucking Trump.
posted by threeturtles at 2:14 PM on September 3 [13 favorites]


- Contrary to what you believe, the biggest investors might be really interested in a depression like that. I know I would be.
- You're... you're not supposed to say that out loud.... it's an inside thought.


SLARTIBARTFAST:
… Anyway, the recession came, so we decided to sleep through it. We just programmed the computers to revive us when it was all over. They were index linked to the galactic stock market prices you see, so that we’d be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to be able to afford our rather expensive services again.
ARTHUR:
Good god! That’s a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn’t it?
SLARTIBARTFAST:
Is it? I’m sorry, I’m a bit out of touch.

posted by runincircles at 2:17 PM on September 3 [18 favorites]


What happens when they have established capability of massive strikes (a hydrogen bomb is 10 times bigger than Hiroshima) and begin with relatively small demands?

Eventually, they'll have a tribute-based economy. Each country in their missile range provides them with $100bn a year, plus the transfer of any specialists whose skills the DPRK deems useful, and a dozen of their fairest virgins for the God-Emperor's harem, and in return, they will be allowed to continue existing.
posted by acb at 2:20 PM on September 3


I'm a little surprised that a 100kt device produces a quake as high as what was detected. When I saw the 6.3 measurement on usgs.gov I was sure it was a true multistage thermonuclear device but people say the 100kt estimate could be a boosted fission bomb. But 6.3 still feels high for a kt fission bomb to me. Remember, the shaking is 10x as strong for each point up the Richter scale you go... but that means the energy release is more than 30x as large.

I guess "gut feeling" turns out not to be the best way to do nuclear analysis and policy. Who knew?

Not sure the President does sadly.
posted by Justinian at 2:32 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


I thought the jump to a hydrogen bomb required real technological sophistication, not just buying some off the shelf plans from Pakistan. Am I completely mistaken?

I'm really interested in the answer to that question, if anyone has insight.


Right off the bat I'm going to caveat that any opinion you read on Metafilter or anywhere else is by definition an armchair expert, because actual practicing experts uninterested in occupying tiny cells/shallow graves do not write in-depth public responses regarding the details of nuclear weapons development. That said, I am a lifelong sufferer of intense anxiety who finds studying weapons systems of all types to be the best coping mechanism - if I understand something, there's a false sense of control that really helps. I've sunk at least 3000 hours - probably far more - into researching the most minute public details of nuclear weapon history, theory, praxis, and philosophy. The Nuclear Weapon Archive is the best place to get started, for anybody else interested in research beyond the scope of Wikipedia.

Bringer Tom's been excellent throughout these threads, offering well-informed responses and the only thing I disagree with that he's written on the subject is the odd shape of NK's latest photo - it actually reminds me of a design sketch I once saw from Russia's experiments with esoteric implosion geometries during their suitcase nuke attempts. I'd be tempted to say they (North Korean scientists) were running short of fissile material for the second stage in a budget Teller-Ulam attempt, and tried to get creative. Except that doesn't make sense, because when the price of failure is slow torturous death for you and your family, you're going to run an exceedingly orthodox and by-the-book development program.

So it's hard to say what's going on there, or if that's actually a photo of anything in particular. Here's what the Coke Classic of Teller-Ulam (colloquially: hydrogen bomb) looks like, for the curious. That diagram is merely the tip of the iceberg regarding the complexity involved.

Last night's test was a bit of a surprise, though not in the way you might expect. The yield is strongly indicative of a boosted fission device, which is the typical trigger stage for Teller-Ulam (the series of concentric circles at the top of that diagram). Their test last year was a pretty dead-on match for Fat Man/Nagasaki-style first-gen implosion device, and that was worrying because up until then every test had read as a gun-style device (Little Boy/Hiroshima): low yield, high fuel requirements, super wasteful, not a candidate for miniaturization or rocket delivery. Also so simple (relatively speaking) that we dropped our first prototype on Hiroshima having never tested the entire assembly beforehand, just the component parts in isolation.

Implosion devices on the other hand can be miniaturized but require extremely precise explosives manufacturing and god-level precision timing in order to create a perfectly spherical inward shockwave. That's what the Manhattan Project's Trinity test was about, and North Korea's equivalent was probably September last year. The resulting compression means a brief 2-3x increase in core density producing a not-quite 4x reduction in what constitutes a critical mass. With a smaller, denser fissile core the neutrons don't need to travel as far, and are more likely to hit something along the way. You can further boost yield by adding a tiny pocket of Lithium-6 Deuteride/Tritide for a bit of fusion at the very center, and that's probably what was tested last night.

In Teller-Ulam you basically use such a boosted fission device to setup the conditions for fusion via the extremely classified interstage, and then use that fusion to trigger a massive fission reaction. Hence the term fission-fusion-fission.

Last night's test is worrying not because it represents any meaningful command of fusion, but because it means North Korea was able to source Lithium-6 Deuteride & Tritium, access to which IS a major hurdle in the path to miniaturization, and from there to ICBMs. The most likely explanation given what we know of their non-weapons nuclear program is that somebody gave it to them, and that's what I'm actually worried about in all this. They should not have access to that stuff (in both senses of the phrase), and yet they appear to have it.

In terms of threat assessment, this changes nothing - there is no capability they are going to develop in the next decade that changes the essential balance of power, which is that they have ~12,000 artillery pieces in range of 25,000,000 allied civilians, and share a border with China. In terms of threat to the United States, it changes nothing because anything they fire off in the next decade is likely to miss or break up during reentry and they know it, but even in the most optimistic estimate they're not going to find a solution to delivery weight vs. warhead mass before Trump walks out the door and we can get some responsible leadership capable of cooperating with China.

As a direct threat in the short and mid term, the only potential problem is Trump's response.
posted by Ryvar at 2:32 PM on September 3 [65 favorites]


Anna Fifield: Trump on potentially attacking North Korea over its nuclear test: "We'll see"

Vipin Narang: Quick pts on DPRK test: 1.They do what they say 2.We knew it was coming and would be big 3.Political effects bigger 4.Tests will continue

The world needs someone who can build relationships, not an bloviating jackass with the most rudimentary idea of toughness possible. Dangerous times.
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 2:36 PM on September 3 [5 favorites]


I claim no insider knowledge of atomic design. I do have a pretty good understanding of physics, a very hands-on familiarity with industrial manufacturing techniques, and of course the fantastic work of Howard Moreland, Robert Del Tredici, and others including Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes to draw on. And back when I was in my mid-twenties I went on a bit of an obsessive jag to learn everything I could about the damn things, because in those days we still had cause to worry the world would end in a field of mushroom clouds.

When Moreland and The Progressive magazine sued for the right to publish "the secret of the hydrogen bomb" (which would turn out to be the Teller-Ulam configuration) they argued very specifically that the public needs this information precisely to evaluate the veracity of claims made by the government about nuclear matters. This includes everything from source materials and waste disposal to throw weights, yield, and reliability of actual weapons. Nuclear weapons don't run on magic. At some point people have to operate machine tools and actually make the components and assemble the final product.

Amusingly, in the process of fighting Moreland the government corrected many details that he had gotten wrong in his initial reconstruction. Since then we've learned much more, since it turns out H-bombs are fabulously hard to build anyway, so just knowing the configuration does not give you a ticket to build one in your back yard. Do take the time to check out A Very British Bomb, an Equinox documentary available in full on YouTube about Britain's quest to stay relevant in the nuclear age. Despite having far more resources and inside knowledge than NK, they whiffed their first attempt at a thermonuclear.

There are very hard problems involved in making an H-bomb. To give one example, the primary fusion fuel for "dry" H-bombs (as opposed to Mike, an industrial facility that used cryogenic liquid deuterium) is lithium-6 deuteride. Even if it was not composed of two exotic isotopes that have to be separated from their more plentiful natural mixes, chemically this material is lithium hydride. This stuff is almost as not fun to work with as gaseous Tritium. Solid pellets gradually swell to double their original size in even relatively dry air, and it explodes on contact with water.

Dealing with that is just one small problem. There are many others. You need to generate a neutron to initiate the reaction, and the more you miniaturize the bomb the more critical that is because the window for starting the reaction becomes very short -- microseconds short. You need to keep the chemical implosion symmetrical. Fun fact that has come out since Howard Moreland, our bombs no longer use explosive lenses like Fat Man. Instead it was found that if you use enough detonators and trigger them precisely enough, you can generate a spherical implosion wave from a simple blanket explosive. That's especially important for miniaturized designs where you don't have room for explosive lenses. Good to know, huh? I'll keep it in mind when I get back to the back yard.

The details which have emerged of how the secondary is compressed remain a bit conflicting to this day, and I'm not sure which of several accounts that are out there is most accurate. If you are actually trying to build one you have to sort that out though. We do know plastic foam is involved because actual workers build these things and it's hard to keep a thing like the styrofoam in a hydrogen bomb a perfect secret.

We know that Los Alamos has one of the most advanced supercomputers in the world for simulating nuclear explosions, since we can't do real life testing any more. None of our current designs have ever actually been used to make an explosion. We're pretty sure the models work because we can also model the bombs that really were built and exploded, and the models agree with the results we got. But we aren't really sure, and models are notoriously bad at things like degradation and manufacturing tolerance errors.

Highly boosted bombs absolutely require at least some tritium in the highly boosted primary, which has a half-life of twelve years and has to be made in very specialized reactors. Current US production capacity for tritium is zero, because we shut down the leaky poorly shielded reactor at Oak Ridge that was our only source. Since we are drawing down our nuclear arsenal anyway we are currently maintaining bombs by re-purifying the degraded tritium from bombs being taken out of service. (Being a gas and the density being very sharply different, isotope separation is a lot easier for hydrogen isotopes than for Uranium.) The actual service frequency for H-bombs is a closely guarded secret, one which has actually been kept pretty well.

So why don't I think NK has a hydrogen bomb? For the same reason I don't think they can build a B-1 stealth bomber or the world's fastest computer. They do not have the fabrication expertise or the source material availability. Even if they got an entire bomb from somewhere, it's hard to say how well they can keep it operational as its tritium decays. And as with the NOS rocket engines, if that's their source their arsenal is sharply limited in scope.

Building a fission weapon is not that hard for a country if you manage to get the fissile material. NK themselves put the lie to Richard Rhodes' dramatic statement that every country that has ever tried to build an A-bomb has succeeded on its first try. Once you've solved implosion making boosted bombs is an obvious next step, which the Russians took out to about 400 kilotons before we built Mike. But even once you have been given the idea, building a Teller-Ulam device is very tricky; you need the secondary to compress and fully react before the hydrodynamic blast wave from the atomic trigger shows up and blows it apart. As I once wrote it's like using a stick of dynamite as a camera flash and developing the film before the explosion destroys the camera. As the documentary I linked above reveals, Britain, which had a lot of inside connections into the US atomic program, whiffed their first attempt. And they weren't even trying for missile miniaturization, which makes everything even harder.

What NK has been doing is political theatre, designed to create fear that they have something they don't actually have and really won't be likely to get for some time, if ever, and if they ever do it might only ever be a few units smuggled or stolen from a limited source supply. And on our side, people who should know better -- because if I can learn what I know from reading public sources, the folks who actually build our bombs certainly know better -- are going along with it. I cannot think of a reason for them doing that that isn't considerably more terrifying than NK's futile aspirations.

And on review -- pretty much agree with everything Ryvar says.
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:38 PM on September 3 [54 favorites]


Lengthy thread from Colin Kahl on deterrence vs. reassurance of US allies. tl;dr: we need diplomacy now more than ever and we have none. Instead we have Trump.

Case in point: Japanese media trying to figure out who speaks for US policy on North Korea
posted by T.D. Strange at 3:42 PM on September 3 [6 favorites]


The Russians gave them an advanced nuke or nuke tech, probably through a resource in a former client state they'd like back as vassals to the Federation. They did it once with missile tech, now again with a hydrogen bomb. It doesn't matter if North Korea developed this in-house with help, or just got it off the shelf from a Russian connection, the assumption must be made they have the missile, the bomb and the re-entry vehicle.

The purpose is to completely destabilize the Pacific powers, especially the USA and China, giving Russia a free hand in Europe and Central Asia and a hegemon North Korea is friendly to in the far east, a nice, safe third option to the USA and China to ally with.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:04 PM on September 3 [7 favorites]


I could believe that the Russians would supply a boosted fission bomb to NK for them to pass off as an indigenous "test," but is Putin really going to arm NK with missile-ready weapons that could just as easily be aimed at Moscow in some later fit of pique? That I find much harder to buy.
posted by wierdo at 4:32 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


It's fine if the North Koreans have no way to reproduce these weapons on their own and Putin only supplies them one at a time for a specific purpose.
posted by Behemoth at 4:38 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


The trend that NK is on with booster tech easily puts them in range of new york or washington dc in the next few years; inside the first term of DJT.

It's easier to build a big rocket to loft a heavy payload than it is to miniaturize the payload.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 4:40 PM on September 3


Guardian Live: South Korea’s military has said it conducted live-fire exercises involving its Hyunmoo ballistic missile and F-15K fighter jets in response to the North’s nuclear test.
News agency Yonhap reported the surface-to-surface missile and the F-15K’s long-range air-to-ground missile hit targets in the East Sea.
The South’s military said the distance to the simulated targets was set in consideration of the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
posted by adamvasco at 4:49 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


If NK's latest test depends on New Old Stock rocket engines from the Baltics, there is no "trend." They boosted a limited supply of something they can't make for themselves and probably can't copy effectively, so when they use up the ones they have they're back to the indigenous test phase and there won't be a next step. Pretty much the same story with their nukes if they've scored some tech and exotic materials, once they use those up they have no way to get more. The thing is they have no record of tests of either nuclear devices or rockets that could explain their sudden expansion in prowess. This suggests that what they have is borrowed or stolen, which means their arsenal is extremely finite in scope.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:04 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


Who supplied those scarce materials, and why wouldn't we assume they will keep doing so as long as NK keeps the US off balance?
posted by SakuraK at 5:18 PM on September 3 [4 favorites]


If anyone is interested in a very good run-down of how the US-DPRK situation got this way, this is very strong:
"We've Lost Our Geopolitical Compass": John Feffer on North Korea:
On the question of fluctuation, within the conventional Washington framework and policy toward North Korea, you're right, it was effectively carrot and stick. North Korea bristles -- understandably so -- from that very model. Because what is carrot and stick but a way of dealing with a recalcitrant donkey? And North Korea certainly didn't like to be thought of as manipulated. And yet, that was our way of thinking. It robbed North Korea of any agency of its own, and put the onus entirely on the United States, [to figure out how] ... to move North Korea in the direction it wanted it to move.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:57 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


I think the way Trump attacked South Korea shows that he plans to give NK exactly what it wants -- trouble and long-term cooling in the relationship between the US and South Korea -- while at the same time attempting to maintain a pose of unwavering belligerence toward the North.

How Samsung stock does tomorrow will give an interesting indication of how much Wall Street agrees with this perspective.
posted by jamjam at 6:28 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


Who supplied those scarce materials, and why wouldn't we assume they will keep doing so as long as NK keeps the US off balance?

Well that's an interesting question. The only open-ended sources of such materials would be Russia and China, neither of which seems likely. So that leaves a leaky back channel. Lots of those probably exist, particularly in the ex-USSR satellite republics, but their supply is not open-ended. And if the supply is truly black market and not sanctioned even by an ex-Soviet satellite state, it is probably very limited indeed.

Thing is, if the North Koreans can bomb Washington or New York, they can also bomb Moscow. They can bomb Beijing with a lot less prowess than that. So I don't see these states deliberately giving them a real capability. Now a potemkin capability that isn't real, that might suit their interests in some way or other. I am more worried that it might suit the interests of some of our people.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:35 PM on September 3 [10 favorites]


Thanks, Bringer Tom. Understanding some of the underlying dynamics helps in processing the current insanity. Would neither Russia nor China be invested to feed NK occasional tech and/or materiel? Russia has been overtly aggressive in their election meddling. China not as much but weakening the US/South Korea alliance would make them happy.
posted by SakuraK at 7:04 PM on September 3


SakuraK, it's hard to see the Russians deliberately giving NK anything; they are historically enemies with China and NK is nominally a Chinese ally. So if NK is getting stuff from the Soviet arsenal, which is very possible, it's criminal back-channel stuff, not sanctioned by any state.

And I don't see China giving them anything because that's like giving your crazy uncle the keys to the Porsche.

So what else does that leave? Well there's India and Pakistan, both of which are nominally nuclear powers but not thermonuclear powers. Pakistan in particular might be inclined to do a little trading with NK. But they don't really have a lot to trade with. If they have 6LiD, they've never done anything obvious with it themselves. And if they have actual thermonuclear bombs it's only because they got to the Russian satellite states to steal them first.

The whole thing is very weird. We are all freaking out because NK got 30kt then 70-100kt from tests, but we don't actually know whether those devices are either reproducible or deliverable. There are long odds on both of those possibilities.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:18 PM on September 3 [6 favorites]


Bringer Tom, thanks again. This situation is very weird and it doesn't sound like an obvious stragecic alliance. That's both comforting and scary at the same time, and I'm happier having that data.
posted by SakuraK at 7:26 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


it's hard to see the Russians deliberately giving NK anything; they are historically enemies with China and NK is nominally a Chinese ally

They were, until the US bullied the Chinese into sanctions. Only Russia is their good and special friend now. Oh, look, more tech! Putin's Russian Federation is far more nimble than the old Soviet state. He wants the Baltics back first, NATO a shambolic ruin, and then the Stans to come back home.

Russia sees themselves as the New Rome, the USA the New Carthage. Actual Russian lawmakers very close to the Kremlin have said as much. I will leave the panicking to those who are not yet out of evens. Also, they want Alaska back, right down to the California border. No I am not kidding.

Of course Russia gave them nukes. As many as they need.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:57 PM on September 3 [4 favorites]


This suggests that what they have is borrowed or stolen, which means their arsenal is extremely finite in scope.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:04 PM on September 3


Wouldn't it take just one...?
posted by landis at 8:36 PM on September 3


Given NK continues to behave "rationally," they'd never use it.

If they did, the scope of potential damage is limited since any action would result in the destruction of the NK regime. The less damage they could do, the better less bad.
posted by porpoise at 8:48 PM on September 3


"Wouldn't it take just one...?"

A single nuclear bomb is terrible, but as we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not planet-destroying. Not even country-destroying. I definitely do not want to be underneath North Korea's "just one" if they end up having one that can make it to the continental US. But "just one" that could make it to the US is not a US-ending threat.

If North Korea struck first with a nuke, it's hard to imagine any regime coming to its defense when the attacked country or its allies retaliated copiously. It's not exactly a 1980s US/USSR exchange scenario.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:56 PM on September 3 [5 favorites]


Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred in a world where only one nation had nukes. But more to the point, my fear is that a nuclear incident in the current political climate would finish the job that 9/11 started, effectively "destroying" the country I grew up in (and at times can barely remember).
posted by landis at 9:20 PM on September 3 [25 favorites]


This suggests that what they have is borrowed or stolen, which means their arsenal is extremely finite in scope.

If true, although it might be better than "they have a bomb factory and are ramping up to full-rate by next Tuesday", it's not necessarily good either. Use-it-or-lose-it is generally seen as a dangerous position for a nuclear equipped state to be in, and one of the things non-proliferation people tend to get torqued up about. (It's a situation that the US, or at least some people in the US, worked hard to avoid putting the Soviets in, geopolitically.)

If you gave someone 5 bombs with a known shelf life, and saw them shoot 4 of them off in tests, I'd be real concerned about Number 5 when it started getting close to its "Best Before" date. So if that's the theory, you'd want to get a pretty good idea of what the shelf life is, or more importantly what the NK regime thinks the shelf life is.

The only open-ended sources of such materials would be Russia and China, neither of which seems likely. [...] They can bomb Beijing with a lot less prowess than [New York or Moscow].

I'm not necessarily on board with this theory, but one argument in favor of China being the supplier is encapsulated in the second sentence: Beijing was at risk already—their posture is not significantly impacted by the DPRK getting a workable ICBM. It's arguably shortsighted, but someone in China might think that their position is strengthened and the chance of a DPRK nuke showing up over a Chinese city is lessened, if the Koreans have the ability to get it all the way to the US. At the very least, it means that the only great-power states Kim can threaten isn't just a very short list consisting of China and Japan. It spreads the pain.

So that might explain the missile engines and fuel, but it doesn't really cover miniaturized warheads. China doesn't benefit if the Kim regime can make, say, 10 weapons instead of 3; quite the opposite. And smaller weapons are easier to pair to nontraditional delivery systems (midget submarines, trucks, gliders, etc.) with very limited range, of which China is one of only two obvious targets.

It's hard to see who benefits from the miniaturization. But I wouldn't necessarily say that the missile technology is obviously crazypants for someone to give them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:39 PM on September 3


There's no such thing as "just one" when any nuclear strike on the US would prompt a nuclear retaliation. Russia and China wouldn't know where the US missiles are headed when the second strike happened, and a US nuclear response on North Korea would irradiate most of China and South Korea. All North Korea needs is one to destroy the world.
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:42 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


one argument in favor of China being the supplier is... Beijing was at risk already

I would give 50 to one against the PRC giving them the tech. It's not just that it's shitting in their own nest. North Korea's notional benefactor must be comfortable with the risk that South Korea's spies learn their identity and pass it on the US. There's no way that's China at this stage. The Russian Federation might do it, since they're already in a de facto state of war with the US.
posted by Coventry at 9:50 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


Russia and China wouldn't know where the US missiles are headed when the second strike happened

Yeah, they clearly would. There's no rush for split-second retaliation in that scenario. Single weapon attack on US that everyone can see, some calls on the bat phone to keep everyone in the loop on what's going on, then punitive retaliation. But I'm not sure we'd even respond in kind. Massive naval-launched cruise missile strikes would do the same job. We don't need nuclear weapons to take out Pyongyang, we need a way to protect Seoul.
posted by ctmf at 9:54 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


This is all just hammering home that the only solution with any staying power is a radical, worldwide project of actual mutual nuclear disarmament. And hammering home how much of a terrible shame it is that the US doesn't have a leader capable of showing the country that hey: this is how the other half always lived since 1945. Bad Actors get to take Bad Actions because They've Got Nukes and nobody will risk doing anything about it. And this should be a perfect time for some serious reflection in the US - Russia can take Crimea and interfere in the US election and scare the shit out of the Baltics because They've Got Nukes. Now North Korea, too - even if it's a smaller scale, it gives them the capability to hold massive numbers of people hostage and do what they want. Even if they don't do it, it's an unspoken threat. And there are too many situations where it's tempting to say "better the devil you know," but an errant change of fortune could destabilize any nuclear armed country and put the arms in the hands of wholly new and unknown devils. What happens to Russia's stockpile if Putin's backers get sick of his inability to protect them from sanctions and the country descends into opportunistic chaos again? Certainly a lot of opportunity for any number of countries to get some off-the-shelf nuclear armaments like North Korea may have done if Russian oligarchs get another round of strip mining state assets in a time of political uncertainty.

Doesn't feel good to be on this side of that phenomenon, like everyone else felt when it was just the US and Russia with the big toys, and real leadership in the US, in Congress and the executive, could articulate that to the people and push for some real solutions to get everyone to the table to mutually disarm, dismantle existing weapons and materiel, and abide by a zero tolerance oversight policy with real and deadly teeth where multiple countries will come together to make sure that after we start from zero, nuclear facilities will be taken out if international inspectors raise the alarm or are denied entrance, no matter who is doing it. Whatever concessions it takes to get there, that's the only way forward - and it will take some difficult concessions, like probably drawing down the size of the conventional might of the US military so we can't as easily throw our military weight around while everyone is feeling skittish without nuclear deterrents or fend off any attempt to stop the US from getting right back in the nuke game. We can't put the genie back in the bottle, but it's going to continue to get terribly, horribly out of hand unless we can all agree that yes, the genie is there, but we never so much as look at the genie. And that's an extremely hard problem, maybe the hardest problem in geopolitics, but it's worth pursuing a solution to this more than just about anything else on the international stage. It's certainly worth fighting for that with diplomacy rather than fighting North Korea with the military, wasting countless lives only to have the same fight with the next country to try it.

And yeah, this is all obvious stuff that sane minds have been saying for decades, fighting the long hard fight all this time for a world of no nukes. But this is a moment particularly ripe for a serious conversation about that, and it's being squandered.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:47 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]


And now for something completely different: I put some Bee Gees music over North Korean marching.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:49 PM on September 3 [10 favorites]


I think the way Trump attacked South Korea shows that he plans to give NK exactly what it wants -- trouble and long-term cooling in the relationship between the US and South Korea -- while at the same time attempting to maintain a pose of unwavering belligerence toward the North.

Trump is a man “whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.” This is a guy who repeatedly tried to establish trade one-on-one with Germany while Merkel kept trying to get him to understand Germany can't do that as part of the EU.

So he could be lashing out at South Korea because he just discovered we have trade with SK or something.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:55 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


nk is run by an evil regime, but they arent going to start demanding tribute, let alone launching nuclear strikes at anyone unprovoked. yes, there is a serious risk of miscalculation and error leading to war, but nobody is suicidal here. no other country that developed these weapons used them to extort hundreds of billions of dollars from their neighbors, like some comments here have suggested will happen.
they'll play with these bombs. nobody will invade anybody. honestly, their conventional artillery in range of seoul was probably enough insurance against regime change anyhow. neither saddam nor quadaffi had that kind of power.
and then in 2042 or whenever, some drought and famine will convince some general to kill dear leader, and then it will all be over.
posted by wibari at 11:25 PM on September 3 [5 favorites]


More thoughtfully, Trump could be negging SK just because a bully is menacing it and Trump likes to cozy up to bullies. Or because speaking ill of SK renders it less valuable in his eyes and helps him resolve the narcissist injury inflicted by NK.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:35 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


@AP: BREAKING: S. Korea media: Seoul military says N. Korea appears to be readying launch of a ballistic missile, possibly an ICBM.
posted by brentajones at 11:39 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


All of the above realpolitik analysis that suggests there will never be serious escalation is fairly convincing to me. It makes sense, really.

But then, I'm a rational actor.

I'm just not sure either Kim or Trump are...
posted by darkstar at 1:27 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Trump is a man “whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.”

I really hate to pick, er, nits right here and now, but I can't let fireflies go defenseless here. There's nothing random about fireflies blinking. They actually can communicate and evoke complicated behaviors like timekeeping, synchronicity and coordinated group actions. Some firefly species even mimic other firefly species mating signals in order to lure them in to be eaten.

Granted, I bet if you put them in a jar they're pretty unhappy about it and may indeed now be blinking randomly because of it.

Now if you'll excuse me I'll resume trying to fit about fifteen pounds of existential dread in a five pound bag. Does anyone have any spare iodine tablets, or whiskey? I have a paper bag handy, I suppose I could put it on my head and have a lay down on the ground.

BTW, the real nightmare scenario and maximum carnage with a single ICBM and bomb would be to go for EMP airburst. That would suck, and might actually cause more indirect causalities with more financial damage and general disruption.
posted by loquacious at 1:28 AM on September 4 [20 favorites]


Nuclear regimes do not get invaded.

Well, yes, I suppose, technically, drone attacks and SEAL raids don't count as invasions.
posted by bardophile at 1:51 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]




Metafilter: fifteen pounds of existential dread in a five pound bag
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:56 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


Russia sees themselves as the New Rome, the USA the New Carthage ... Of course Russia gave them nukes. As many as they need.

The point that Putin would love to stir shit between the US and just about anybody else is certainly valid, but I have trouble believing they would risk giving high nuclear technology to a rogue state. One thing that became crystal clear when the USSR collapsed was that the US always had a huge lead on the USSR in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Russia had enough to make deterrence work, but they never had the massive overkill capability we built up.

Right now all of NK's tests have been underground. As soon as they detonate one in the atmosphere -- which you kind of have to do to use it as a weapon -- we will learn a lot about how it worked and where the components came from. The radioisotope mix in the fallout provides a lot of precise information. And the Soviets know this. I can't see them deliberately taking the risk that NK might do something that might in turn be traced back to them.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:22 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


In case anyone is interested, the Progressive magazine issue about the hydrogen bomb can be found here. I remember when it was published (and the accompanying controversy) and reading it sparked an interest in learning more about nuclear weapons technology. It was published in 1979, but a lot of the information and other points are still relevant today.
posted by TedW at 5:43 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


This is all just hammering home that the only solution with any staying power is a radical, worldwide project of actual mutual nuclear disarmament.

Which would be fine as long as engineers could never be radicalized. Nukes are hard but not so hard that in the future a few dozen smart crazies and a billion dollars can't build a few and be the instant serious big bully on the block. Whether we accept it or not an essence of MAD continues to be in effect. The (perhaps not so) pax-americana enforces universal understanding that nuke = suicide.
posted by sammyo at 6:55 AM on September 4


Then just put all the nukes in orbit, controlled by a doomsday computer programmed to rain flaming death on anyone violating the peace by developing their own nukes. Just make sure its programming contains no bugs.

Perhaps you could even make it run on the blockchain...
posted by acb at 7:06 AM on September 4


The radioisotope mix in the fallout provides a lot of precise information. And the Soviets know this. I can't see them deliberately taking the risk that NK might do something that might in turn be traced back to them.

To the Russians themselves? Of course not. To "corrupt employees" of Vostokredmet and/or "terrorist smugglers funding ISIS"? Sure. It was an Ukrainian firm that gave NK the rocket tech, remember.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:29 AM on September 4


It is worth noting that all this monitoring of the underground testing is supported by a world wide network of seismometers. Many of these seismometers are reaching the end of their service life. Despite the fact that there are new seismometers literally sitting in a warehouse, the FY18 and (presumably, all the other cuts were there) FY19 presidential budgets cut USGS funding for installation of the instruments in the field.
posted by rockindata at 8:33 AM on September 4 [13 favorites]


I live, give or take, ten miles from Offutt AFB and US Strategic Command. I slept late this morning because why shouldn't I, on a holiday. Woke to the world bathed in yellow at 11am, completely overcast, the kind of clouds that say there's a storm coming. The weather report on every weather website I can find insists that it's a perfectly clear day. I should be able to just dismiss this as the weather reports being wrong. I'm scared.
posted by Sequence at 9:49 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Sequence, that sounds like wildfire air. We had the same conditions when there was smoke blowing in from nearby (or distant) wildfires.

It is eerie and unpleasant. We had wildfires right around Nov 9 last year, and things felt apocalyptic and very dark.
posted by witchen at 10:00 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Yeah it's from wildfires in Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:06 AM on September 4


Yeah it's from wildfires in Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.

Visibility's under half a mile in Missoula, MT right now and the situation isn't supposed to resolve until first snow. It's end-timesey everywhere you look, ain't it?
posted by Rust Moranis at 10:09 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Ah, that explains the unexpected overcast down here in San Diego. "Wildfire air."
posted by SPrintF at 10:09 AM on September 4


Bringer Tom, in what way were the Americans ahead of the Soviets in terms of delivery and weapons systems?
posted by constantinescharity at 10:09 AM on September 4


All the way in Omaha, seriously? Jesus. Because yeah, "apocalyptic" is exactly how it feels. But yeah, I figured there was some kind of natural explanation for it, it's just that the circumstances right now, it's impossible not to get freaked out by anything out of the ordinary.
posted by Sequence at 10:11 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Sequence: yeah, it's wildfires. The NWS office in Valley is talking about it on their social media feeds. The quality of the light is really annoying my internal tornado alarm right now.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 10:41 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


This weird haze is basically a sequel in Portland, since we had heavy dust from fires in B.C. pretty recently as well. Between that, the recent eclipse, and deep bleeding red sun through the clouds of a Chicago sunset thunderstorm I flew out of a few days ago, there's been some solid portent material to work with when I'm feeling portentous.
posted by cortex at 10:44 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


In what looks to me like a startling rhetorical escalation, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is now saying that North Korea is "begging for war":
"Enough is enough," Haley said. "We have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked."

Haley began her statement by ticking through all of the resolutions the Security Council has passed in response to North Korea's provocations over the past two-plus decades, making the point that the UN has been united condemning Pyongyang but the efforts have not managed to stop its nuclear progress.

She said the US does not want war but will defend itself when North Korea is issuing threats with missiles pointed at US territories.

"War is never something the Unites States wants -- we don't want it now," Haley said. "But our country's patience is not unlimited. We will defend our allies and our territory."
Haley ended by calling for "the strongest possible sanctions" from the Security Council, but it's unclear how much tighter sanctions can realistically be. While I don't give anyone in this administration credit for foresight or rational planning, they have painted themselves into a real corner here. I'm concerned that they may perceive the only way out to be burning down the house.
posted by informavore at 11:00 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


"War is never something the United States wants..."

LOL.
posted by Coventry at 11:04 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]


She's trying to give the UN no choice but to Fucking Do Something. Problem is, there isn't anything they can do, so then what?
posted by ctmf at 11:05 AM on September 4


"War is never something the Unites States wants -- we don't want it now," Haley said. "But our country's patience is not unlimited. We will defend our allies and our territory."

i'm fairly certain at least half of their allies in the region don't support war.
posted by anem0ne at 11:05 AM on September 4


But at least not sanction the US for instigating.
posted by ctmf at 11:06 AM on September 4


Nikki Haley is one of the less objectionable members of the Trump team, but I rolled my eyes hard when I heard this excerpt from her remarks on the radio:

But being a nuclear power is not about using those terrible weapons to threaten others.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but that is exactly what being a nuclear power is about, up to and including MAD. Not to mention Trump's remarks about what will happen to North Korea if they act too aggressively towards us.
posted by TedW at 11:12 AM on September 4 [8 favorites]


Bringer Tom, in what way were the Americans ahead of the Soviets in terms of delivery and weapons systems?

Well, the short answer is ... everything.

At the height of the hysteria over the "missile gap," we now know they had maybe a dozen operational missiles -- which being tested thermonuclears that could be targeted, were not a thing we wanted them to launch, but at the same time we had hundreds. (There is a bit of a parallel with North Korea today in how Russia portrayed their nuclear capabilities on the world stage at the height of the Cold War, which may be one reason NK is pursuing its current path.) We had better, lighter, higher yielding, more sophisticated designs. We had better targeting. The Soviets deployed the one anti-ballistic missile system we agreed to permit to (try to) protect Moscow; we deployed ours to protect a missile field. We outspent them in every conceivable dimension and got results to show for it.

This isn't to say that Russia's effort wasn't effective, terrible, terrifying, and a triumph for their state; it was all of those things, because it was adequate to deter the majorly insane people on our side like Curtis LeMay from unilaterally trying to wipe them out on general principles. But they were always the also-rans. They got 400 kt via boosting, then we got 10 Mt with Mike. They built the Tsar Bomba, but it was an unwieldy and impractical weapon with no real strategic purpose. We miniaturized instead, first and better. A much better question would be in what way weren't the Americans ahead of the Soviets? Because the realistic answer to that is "none."
posted by Bringer Tom at 12:33 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


in what way weren't the Americans ahead of the Soviets?

The Soviets were way ahead of the Americans in espionage, and that was extremely helpful to their nuclear weapons program.
posted by Coventry at 12:48 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


The impression I have is that the Americans and Soviets were about at parity on the basics of espionage, but on nuclear matters we had a lot more stuff worth stealing from their vantage than they did from ours.
posted by Bringer Tom at 12:49 PM on September 4


TedW: In case anyone is interested, the Progressive magazine issue about the hydrogen bomb can be found here.

Thanks for the link. It's an interesting read, and somehow I didn't even think of the legal issues involved.

It's odd that hardly anybody appears to have figured out how to build a hydrogen bomb since that explanation of how to do it was published. From what I can tell, India had a "maybe" in 1998, and North Korea had a "maybe" this week. If I had read their "this won't cause proliferation" argument when it was published, I would've scoffed at it as patently ridiculous. But it turns out they were right.
posted by clawsoon at 12:52 PM on September 4


The impression I have is that the Americans and Soviets were about at parity on the basics of espionage

Tim Weiner's histories of the FBI and the CIA suggest otherwise. The US had some success spying on Russian electronic communications, but the USSR was way ahead in terms of effective listening devices and development of informants.
posted by Coventry at 1:10 PM on September 4


It's odd that hardly anybody appears to have figured out how to build a hydrogen bomb since that explanation of how to do it was published.

It's not odd at all; one of the takeaways from the explanation is that while building atomic bombs is pretty easy if you are a country and you're willing to devote the resources to it, building a Teller-Ulam H-bomb is hard even for a country. This is actually pretty obvious from the basic design if you know physics. You have to use the radiation from the fission primary to compress and fully react the fusion/fission secondary before the hydrodynamic blast wave from the primary arrives to blow the secondary apart. That requires a very precise understanding of both how the fission primary works -- you aren't just making a boom, you are trying to get a very precise kind of power output with a timeframe -- and how the secondary will work in the very limited time it has to do its thing. Atomic fission implosion is almost leisurely by comparison.
posted by Bringer Tom at 1:15 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


Tim Weiner's histories of the FBI and the CIA suggest otherwise.

I'm willing to take your word for that. Having a more open society makes the US a softer target for espionage. But the fact remains that we had a lot more stuff worth stealing than they did anyway, at least in terms of nuclear technology.
posted by Bringer Tom at 1:17 PM on September 4


I'm willing to take your word for that. Having a more open society makes the US a softer target for espionage.

That and having a compelling utopian ideology that has evolved to include absolute obedience to agencies controlled by your government can do wonders for recruitment. There wasn't a liberal-democratic/free-market-capitalist version of the network of Communist Parties who, through periods in history, took orders from Moscow and maintained strict discipline amongst their recruits.
posted by acb at 1:35 PM on September 4


So they had better espionage, I'll acknowledge that. But the secret of the atomic bomb was always that it is possible to build them at all, and Sakharov was already having ideas for improvement when he was directed to build an *exact duplicate* of Fat Man for Joe I, so that there would be "no chance of failure." While there were probably spies present at the Mike test, it seems the Soviets figured the Teller-Ulam thing out for themselves from the simple fact that we proved such a big bang was possible. The Soviets were always underfunded compared to the US, but they never were stupid and sometimes they managed brilliant touches of frugality. And they also had their own Nazi rocket plunder to jump-start their missile program when that became a thing.
posted by Bringer Tom at 1:46 PM on September 4


Based on my childhood reading, I concluded that our primary and most important espionage effort was smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.
posted by clawsoon at 1:48 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Don't forget the fax machines (which helped kickstart Solidarność in Poland) and modern art (funded by the CIA to prevent it from becoming a vehicle for Marxist ideology).
posted by acb at 2:01 PM on September 4


Are the North Korean physicists and engineers all taught & trained in-house? Do any have degrees from American, Japanese, German, etc. universities - or Chinese? It seems that maintaining a completely isolated knowledge economy (so to speak) would be pretty hard these days, yet who wants to have a North Korean PhD student in nuclear physics or rocket science?
posted by Rumple at 2:16 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


> So they had better espionage, I'll acknowledge that.

Regardless of how good their methodologies were back then; the inheritor of such has the whole Pravda thing paying off in spades these days.

[and lest it be thought I am anti Russian/Soviets rather than just anti-mafia I would like it on the record that all my favourite cameras were made back in the good old USSR*]


* Pre-hitting post this seems like a really odd thing to say, it made sense at the time.
posted by Buntix at 2:33 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


It's not that odd, once you get your hands on a good working Zorki or Kiev you will want to talk about that excellent chunk of Soviet brass and glass whenever, wherever.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:46 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Are the North Korean physicists and engineers all taught & trained in-house?

Physics is physics the whole world over. Once you know the atomic bomb or the Teller-Ulam thing is possible, it is just a matter of time and effort to work it out. (In the case of H-bombs it's a LOT of effort, and some testing you might not be able to do. A-bombs are a lot easier. But if you know physics and you know 10 megatons is possible because someone did it, it's only a matter of time until you figure out how they did it.)
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:58 PM on September 4


While there were probably spies present at the Mike test, it seems the Soviets figured the Teller-Ulam thing out for themselves from the simple fact that we proved such a big bang was possible.

In his autobiography, published before much of anything about the H-bomb had been declassified -- or revealed by anyone else -- Ulam described his contribution as "an iteration of certain arrangements", and quotes Von Neumann as saying of a computer simulation in progress of the detonation of a dud H-bomb design that was never actually built as "icicles are forming."
posted by jamjam at 3:08 PM on September 4


The First Circle by Solzhenitysyn is a really amazing read. If it wasn't evil, Stalin's thing of putting so many geniuses in the gulag and then offering them things like humane working conditions if they would engineer for him--pretty interesting in a 'how do you be evil and get things done' sort of way.
posted by angrycat at 3:08 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Ulam described his contribution as "an iteration of certain arrangements"

Ulam invented the H-bomb. He didn't want to, and there is a haunting passage in Dark Sun where he describes the moment he got the idea. He knew it would work, he knew it was possible, and he knew the implications, and he knew what Teller would do with it. But withholding it was not really an option; he knew that if he could get the idea, Teller eventually would anyway. He knew how it would change the world and that it was awful and he went to his superiors and presented it anyway. And to this day he is second banana on it because TELLER but it was always Ulam who had the idea, it was Teller who promoted it. As Ulam knew he would.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:22 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


Heh.

Edward Teller: Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Ryvar at 3:26 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


> It's not that odd, once you get your hands on a good working Zorki or Kiev you will want to talk about that excellent chunk of Soviet brass and glass whenever, wherever.

Kiev 88 #9105670 & Zorki 4k #77758003

The Kiev is the one and only camera to carry if there's a chance you may need to defend yourself from a bear with it.
posted by Buntix at 4:04 PM on September 4 [6 favorites]


The Kiev also takes some very nice Schneider-Kreuznach lenses - it's compatible with the lenses of the weird-to-the-end Exacta66, itself a copy of the East German Pentacon Six! Yes, the West Germans copied their East German counterparts, and accidentally made one of the best medium format camera systems of all time. Rollei quality, Mamiya pricing, handy at waist level or with a seriously strange metering pentaprism with its "Texas SLR" configuration. The last generation camera was the epitome of late '80s Euro Design, applied to a camera design largely unchanged since the 50's. Also you can stick ludicrously long glass designed for the Pentacon - Carl Zeiss Jenna, distant relation to the other Carl Zeiss on the other side of the wall - and Kiev 88 on it! (Pentax is largely the cause: "The capitalists have a medium format lens how long/short and fast? This must not stand!" Image and build quality on these extreme Iron Curtain optics was... inconsistent. They also could not keep up. Pentax had an 800mm f/4 SMC ED that could cover without vignetting a 6x7 frame wide open. Game over.)

What a weird derail. But fun.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:03 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


The development of Russian cameras post WWII actually has a lot of parallels to the development of advanced rocketry in Russia during the Cold War, as Russia took German scientists and rocket designs just like we did, and Russia also took German camera factory equipment and designs, and ended up iterating off of this starting point to end up with something similar but different in many meaningful ways - cheaper, less sophisticated, but ingenious (see the top of the line Leningrad rangefinder with its clockwork motor drive and brilliant way of doing split image focusing) and workmanlike - to the path the west took in both rockets and cameras.
posted by jason_steakums at 5:16 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


[A few deleted. goalyeehah, I think you're trying to post in the wrong thread, this one is about North Korea.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:21 PM on September 4


Wait, this isn't the vintage Russian camera thread??
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:26 PM on September 4 [9 favorites]


For the same reason I don't think they can build a B-1 stealth bomber or the world's fastest computer.

In the 1970's, when the US was really in the thick of nuclear weapons development and miniaturization, a supercomputer like the Cray-1 had on the order of 160 megaflops of computing power, and maybe a hundred of them were sold. A mid-range cellphone today can probably do on the order of 20 gigaflops on cpu+gpu. You cell phone is likely more powerful than every Cray-1 supercomputer put together. The Cray X-MP, the fastest computer in the world in 1985, managed about 0.8 gigaflops. You cell phone is likely as powerful as twenty of them.

An Nvidia gtx 1080 graphics card can do about 9 teraflops.
posted by Pyry at 8:21 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


An Nvidia gtx 1080 graphics card can do about 9 teraflops.

And Chinese industry cranks them out by the millions. They can't make a new or better one, or figure out how to build them more cheaply or easily. They don't need to. Silicon Valley, or Austin or Seattle or the 128 Corridor outside Boston or Boca Raton will figure that out that for them. China will produce them without organized labor or environmental laws. By the millions.

And Russia can buy them in bulk from Shenzen factories, just the same as we do for out l33t gaming rigs, or cryptocurrency miners. How ahead of things do you think we are, softwarewise?

Elon Musk is wrong about a great many things, and yet his rockets land, and his cars drive where they will without internal combustion. He is not wrong about AI and the direction state-actors are heading. It's worse than that. The first individual who understands what they have built will be the singularity. The machine has no ego, no motivation, no skin in the game of reality. It will gladly cede that to whoever can guarantee it more resources. A god-king/queen, if you will.

Sweet dreams!
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:39 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Physics is physics the whole world over.

Well yes, of course. But Physics or Engineering training is not necessarily the same the world over, and I am interested in whether North Korea is an "inbred" Academic pool, or whether its scientists are ever trained abroad, or whether foreign academics work there. This could make a difference of following someone else's recipe or making up their own, innovative solutions which match their constraints.

Anyway, I found this guy with a German PhD in math, but there is precious little on individual NK academics.
posted by Rumple at 9:12 PM on September 4


Haley ended by calling for "the strongest possible sanctions" from the Security Council, but it's unclear how much tighter sanctions can realistically be.

China reportedly still ships the DPRK significant quantities of fuel oil. Washington, presumably, would like them to cut it out, but they show very little interest in doing so. When you hear people in the US administration talk about tighter sanctions, what they are almost always referring to, at least at this point, is China trade. There's not much else to cut, really.

Also, that article strongly suggests that the recent tests — both the new missile and the purported H-bomb — were timed to coincide with political activities in China, and more specifically to embarrass and one-up the Chinese leadership. The US may not be the primary intended recipient of the message that's being sent.

I've got no idea what that message is, though. The NK nukes we've seen so far aren't particularly useful in a traditional strategic balance-of-forces analysis. At best they're sort of terror weapons, like German V-2s writ large: something you can hit and do damage to a city with, but not win a war with, or even credibly threaten another nation's nuclear forces with.

A 300kt nuke on a missile with a 2000-meter CEP is a yawn, from a "depending on the breaks" war-planning perspective; but that same 300kt physics package on a 100-meter CEP missile is a nightmare. (The single shot probability of kill goes from 1.78% against a 1000 PSI hardened point target to 99.93% via the accuracy improvements, which would be impossible just through yield alone—you'd exceed even the big Soviet bombs in terms of blast radius necessary.) Current NK capabilities seem much more like the former than the latter, and the US/USSR experience shows that accurizing missile systems to be tough, expensive work.

Showing off an inaccurate delivery system, useful only at damaging civilian infrastructure, doesn't make a ton of sense — it just invites a first strike by people with much more accurate, much more sophisticated (and not necessarily nuclear) weapons, to take them away from you, before they become an effective counterforce weapon.

Therefore, I'd look elsewhere to unravel what's going on: (1) the missiles and warheads likely have a significance that is well beyond their literal function as weapons in kinetic battle, and (2) the NK regime may not be especially suitable to traditional rational-actor game theory analysis.

This second point isn't unanticipated; Wohlstetter and Brody devote a section of their 1988 "Continuing Control" essay, considered sort of a classic in the field, to Dealing With Suicidally Irrational Political Leaders. Lulzy quips about the applicability of this section to the current resident of a certain unit of public housing located on Pennsylvania Ave aside, it is representative (insofar as anything in the open literature is) to the late Cold War Western military-academe consensus on dealing with irrational dictators with nukes:
Suicidal opponents cannot be deterred from attacking the United States by threats to destroy them if they do. Nor can the United States in that way prevent them from moving to higher levels of nuclear violence. Against a Khomeini, "deterrence only"* is even less tenable than it is against rational leaders. The United States needs to consider active and passive defense, attack and counterattack, and in particular to consider forms of such defense and attack that are unlikely to boomerang to destroy the West.
In other words, Wohlstetter—a pretty thoughtful guy, not exactly a Gen. Jack Ripper type—is basically suggesting that if you think a nuclear-armed state is led by someone who isn't going to be deterred by MAD, then you may need to consider striking first.

Now, given that I know this, and I'm just a dog on the Internet, one hopes that Pyongyang knows it too, and is actually playing some sort of complex-but-rational 8D chess with the Chinese, and not just drunkenly staggering around the world stage with a loaded gun.

* In Wohlstetter's use, "deterrence only" refers to the principle of obtaining nuclear weapons but privately determining never to actually use them, even in response to an attack, but creating the appearance of being ready to use them in order to deter a hypothetical attack. This is something of a dark psychological rabbit hole, since being publicly "deterrence only" could be seen as inviting attack by undermining the credibility and thus the deterrent effect of the weapons themselves, perversely making it more likely that you'll be faced with the decision of whether you really were "deterrence only" all along or not.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:16 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but there was an AskReddit the other day asking people who lived though the Cold War how it compared to the current NK danger. Um, not even close. NK most likely does not have nukes they could deliver here, and if they did and they used one, their country would cease to exist almost immediately. The Cold War meant knowing that any time could be the moment you heard the sirens that meant the end of civilization. That AMA speaks volumes to how scared some people are about North Korea now, when in reality they shouldn't be at all. And the administration will use that fear to make hay.
posted by azpenguin at 12:06 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


One thing I've been thinking about is whether, particularly given the fact that NK has borders with two other nuclear-armed states, another state could launch a weapon while making it appear as though it came from NK, or at least make the forensic information available outside of NK ambiguous enough to cause uncertainty. And then, if that were possible, could there also be a gambit by opponents of NK to make it look as though something like that had happened, so as to create a situation where NK leadership would feel pressured to allow some sort of international inspection regime in to verify that a nuclear weapon that had been used didn't come from its own military.

I think that anyone who is saying "well at least it's not global mutually-assured annihilation, so it's not really that bad a threat" is succumbing to a boiled-frog disruption of their sense of proportionality.
posted by XMLicious at 2:03 AM on September 5


during the eighties, it was basically, 'the lucky ones are at ground zero.'

now, a horrific conventional war, the limited use of some nuclear device, and global destabilization are quite terrifying.

I sort of feel after Trump it's hard to justify the human race in a lot of ways, but one thing that is good is that as a culture we looked at the use of those weapons and said that is horrific and needs to never happen again.

I'm not suggesting that people go watch Threads as a preview of coming days, but it doesn't need to be horrible mutant babies for all in order for things to be pretty fucking scary.
posted by angrycat at 2:26 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


another state could launch a weapon while making it appear as though it came from NK

We got very, very good at detecting ICBM launches for obvious reasons. You can't really secretly launch an ICBM.
posted by Justinian at 3:15 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


Ever since I learned that aliens would shoot down any nuclear weapons that made it into space from this documentary on Netflix, I've been much less worried.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:24 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Justinian, I think that you may have misunderstood me or I may have explained poorly. The scenarios I'm thinking about wouldn't need to involve an intercontinental-range attack and secrecy would be contrary to the objective of creating an incident or the appearance of an incident that could be attributed to NK.

Basically, the same way that the Republicans went about fucking around with the suppression of U.S. voters and engineering a propaganda machine that would enable any bottom-of-the-barrel obviously-incompetent presidential candidate to get elected, never imagining that a foreign country might reach in and help themselves to those capabilities, I would expect that NK's crazy-hermit-kingdom international-pariah amateur-nuclear-armed-state shtick might also be vulnerable to hijacking.
posted by XMLicious at 7:14 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Also, just... the attention being given to whether NK military technology can deliver a nuclear weapon to the lower 48 (The important part of America! America itself being the important part of the world, of course!) and confirming that or stridently ruling it out is feeling to me a bit like the blithe pre-9/11 confidence that stuff happening in other parts of the world can't really have blowback that would impact us significantly here. Except, now we're doing it with overseas nuclear conflict and nuclear brinksmanship.
posted by XMLicious at 7:32 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Just for context, NK's GDP is $12bn - which is roughly the same amount as Amazon Web Services, three times Chipotle and about a quarter of Apple.

Labour costs are a lot lower, of course, and I very much doubt a weapons scientist at Punggye makes more than a tiny fraction as much as a Chipotle waitperson in Podunk, but if we're building a pocket superpower bogeyman it's good to remember there are hard limits on what it can actually do with its desperately poor and massively over-militarised economy.
posted by Devonian at 8:26 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


An article I read recently suggested China may be reluctant to shut off the oil to NK because the one pipeline is old and poorly maintained, and likely to become permanently unusable if it is ever shut down.
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:38 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Foreign Policy - end June
Without Chinese oil, “North Korea would not survive on its own for three months and everything in North Korea would be paralysed,” Cho Bong-hyun, a specialist on the North Korean economy at Seoul’s IB Bank, told Reuters in April.
The United States might hope to bring Pyongyang to its knees, but for China that would be a nightmare scenario. The last thing Beijing wants is a destabilized nuclear-armed North Korea and millions of destitute refugees pouring over its northern border.
posted by adamvasco at 9:39 AM on September 5


The idea that China would push NK into total collapse is a non-starter - as it should be. If KJU felt he was within a week of losing power, he'd - well, you can guess as well as I can. Likewise with an overt military attack.

So I keep coming back to the most likely scenarios short of bloody chaos are the status quo or an engineered decapitation, and it'll be up to China to decide on those. NK does not have deployable nukes now, but for how long...
posted by Devonian at 10:20 AM on September 5


Colin Kahl has another lengthy twitter thread today talking about what can still be done that's very, very good (c'mon people, long format is ok! at least use storify!) Basically: stop escalating, stop talking about preventative war, work with allies to slow the arms race to de-escalate tensions even if only in smaller ways at first. So, do diplomacy. And don't do everything the Trump administration is actually doing.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:45 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Cold-war game theory analysis say the US' self-interest dictates a first-strike before DPRK develops weapons that represent a clear and present danger to the US. What that elides is the brutal accounting of trading X South Korean lives for Y American lives, the harsh reality that the real life trolley problem is a horrible question to ever be seriously asked.

The Chinese face an even harder question, if it's even possible to answer - sentence half-million Chinese citizens in/around Beijing to dying in a nuclear holocaust or face a DPRK with more powerful, miniaturized, weaponized nukes atop semi-accurate missiles and the bigger loss of (Chinese) life if that were to escalate. That China makes untold millions of dollars off the situation may be all the answer we need. Of course, those millions now being made are staring down the barrel of a h-bomb-tipped gun.

This also isn't theoretical - a US invasion of Soviet-allied Cuba was on the table for President JFK during the Cuban Missile crisis to prevent/remove the threat to Florida. President JFK and Premier Khrushchev found a third option - JFK gave up something he didn't want to (in secret!) and publicly Khrushchev lost face (which lead to his ouster two years later). The level of diplomacy that required may require subtlety that Twitter is unable to convey.

Given how many 'mistakes' there were during the Cuban missile crisis that could have lead to nuclear war, it's scary to consider the outcome swapping in today's heads of states for JFK and Khrushchev.

Another major difference between the Cold-war, (aside from the USSR sharing no border with the US, especially not a border with cities within 100 miles of each other on both sides,) is that SDI/Star Wars failed to pan out, while the THAAD (missile defense shield) is being presented as viable.
posted by fragmede at 11:43 AM on September 5


>> Haley ended by calling for "the strongest possible sanctions" from the Security Council, but it's unclear how much tighter sanctions can realistically be.

> China... fuel oil.... When you hear people in the US administration talk about tighter sanctions, what they are almost always referring to, at least at this point, is China trade. There's not much else to cut, really.


Buzzfeed:
“Believe it or not, almost all of our foreign customers are from North Korea,” said a sales representative at an Audi dealership in Jijian, a suburb of Dandong. “It’s very convenient for them to take a trip over the border and come here
and
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likely relies on access to luxury goods to help keep the loyalty of the country’s elites, said Michael Kovrig, the senior Northeast Asia adviser at the International Crisis Group.
People are concerned that sanctions can hurt local milk people that have nothing to do with the nuclear gamesmanship, but Germany's government demanding* that their auto manufacturers to account for the disposition of cars sent to China should only hurt Un. If we can trace minerals from conflict zones** can't we trace Audis heading into them? *because it makes sense diplomatically for them (and Japan with Toyota/Lexus) to do so, not because some idiot with a twitter account brow beats them into it. **well we can't really, but we're trying
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 12:31 PM on September 5


> Showing off an inaccurate delivery system, useful only at damaging civilian infrastructure, doesn't make a ton of sense

But, though you hope it isn't true (preferring to assume 8D chess), isn't is possible that those in charge are crazy and when challenged that their stuff isn't that good/scary, will show just how mighty they are? With no reentry system, a fission nuke can't make too bad of an EMP, but now they have a boosted-A or H-bomb. 300-400kt at Japan Coast Guard intercept distance from Tokyo is still a big deal if they can't miniaturize it.

Maybe I'm self-deluding to stave off panic, but I just can't see this stalemate breaking even while DPRK gets better at nukes & missiles. Someone says "enough" and blows up the development & launch sites, DPRK uses their artillery on Seoul and blows up the Imnam Dam. DPRK isn't a nuclear power anymore (if the intelligence was correct), but at a huge cost.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 12:44 PM on September 5


should only hurt Un

Who is "Un"?
posted by anem0ne at 12:56 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsNuclear Roundup: 09/5/2017 (collection of links to articles)
posted by XMLicious at 2:30 PM on September 5


Who is "Un"?
Sorry, should have said Kim as in Kim Jong-un, 김정은. Knew the family/given was different from mine, but forgot which way.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 2:32 PM on September 5


The Cold War meant knowing that any time could be the moment you heard the sirens that meant the end of civilization.

Although even that was optimistic - ICBMs are fast.

Doesn't' work in the UK sans VPN but: When the wind blows
posted by Buntix at 4:40 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]


A bit late with this, but on thinking about it, Ryvar said: I'd be tempted to say they (North Korean scientists) were running short of fissile material for the second stage in a budget Teller-Ulam attempt, and tried to get creative. Except that doesn't make sense, because when the price of failure is slow torturous death for you and your family, you're going to run an exceedingly orthodox and by-the-book development program.

On the other hand their first nuclear test was almost certainly a badly advised Plutonium gun bomb. That suggests they are in fact blue-skying it, trying new and different things. That suggests the nuclear scientists are being given a long leash and treated well, with forgiveness for failures when they know they're pushing a boundary. The peanut bomb might in fact be an attempted thermonuclear, although if you look at the cross-section of America's peanut nuke the W88, it's not at all as peanutty as NK's "nuclear device" and there is obviously a clear radiation path from the primary to all parts of the secondary foam/plasma generator blanket. I guess the shadow of the secondary's core doesn't mess up the symmetry?

If either end of that thing is an A-bomb, it is very highly boosted with a lot of tritium and still very heavy for a missile-deliverable weapon. And for the thermonuclear to do its job it needs a pretty heavy shell of depleted uranium, which is four times denser than iron, so you're looking at something that weighs probably at least two tons. The comment about conserving fissionables by making a spherical secondary actually makes some sense. I am coming around to think this might be an actual Teller-Ulam device, although a very flawed one which does not give them much more capability than they would have had with boosted fission.

And it seems they are rapidly running the Chinese out of fucks to give dealing with them. Which leaves the next step a bit of a crap shoot.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:05 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Interesting New Yorker article posits that a conventional war with NK would turn into another quagmire.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:20 PM on September 6


Bringer Tom, I would not place too much - well, any really - reliance on any purported diagram of the W88, which will be conjectural at best. As I understand it, although information about the W88's 'peanut' configuration has leaked, it's only at the level of a general description, and any diagram you see is someone's impression based on that.

I'm query the idea that a Teller-Ulam configuration fusion device 'weighs probably at least two tons'. The USA developed a number of warheads in the late 1950s yielding up to a megaton for a weight of only a few hundred kilos.

I'm intrigued by the suggestion that NK's first test was an attempt at a gun-type plutonium bomb (generally regarded as almost impossible to make work). What's your source for that?
posted by Major Clanger at 2:45 PM on September 7


Major Clanger, the very lightweight designs the US produces are extremely advanced and difficult to build. That NK design is much to big to be one of them. This (and the actual test yield) suggest that it is only modestly boosted and depends on conventional tampers.

The plutonium gun bomb was discussed in an earlier thread. The telletale is that they got a 1-kiloton fizzle -- there is no evidence of any kind that it was a miniature bomb deliberately made to be that weak, and the fact that they got a much more conventional 10 kt shortly after suggests they were ready in case of failure to make a "real" a-bomb. Plutonium is the key to producing many bombs quickly, a driving concern in the early US program. NK may have been tempted by their own prowess with gunmaking to think they could achieve the necessary assembly speed. This would have given them a considerable early advantage without requiring them to master implosion.

1 kiloton implies an atomic reaction but one that did not consume all the fuel. Implosion fizzles tend to result in no atomic reaction at all because they scatter the core instead of compressing it. And finally, after the 10kt test it was three years before they tested another bomb, suggesting they had to back up and attack another hard problem. I would guess that was implosion.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:10 PM on September 7


The New Yorker article makes a lot of assumptions about how the US would proceed. They're not terrible assumptions, but it doesn't really qualify them, and I am always suspicious of anything that takes political stances as iron laws. Everything except physics is subject to change if circumstances and opinions dictate.

If the US were really willing to take the gloves off, there are probably preemptive scenarios that would minimize risk to Seoul, via a very destructive, precisely timed, first strike, potentially using low- to moderate-yield nuclear weapons to destroy both the North's nuclear capabilities and its conventional capabilities, which include a lot of deep underground fortifications that might be hard to crack with conventional munitions.* It would be a hell of a fireworks show; probably "World War IIs per minute" during the initial bombardment, and in the limiting case might not leave a lot left.

The big question, since it's certainly feasible from a military perspective to annihilate the North pretty much down to the level of small woodland creatures, is whether the US would broaden a potential initial preemptive strike to include conventional weapons, troop concentrations, field artillery, C2 bunkers, etc., and would be willing to do so with nuclear weapons potentially, purely to minimize foreign civilian casualties (and save the city of Seoul), at the expense of what might be global condemnation from other countries, particularly adversaries who would necessarily spin it to their own advantage. Given the current leadership, anybody's guess is as good as any other there. If I were going to guess, I'd say that the US probably won't go nuclear in the first round, and would hit nuclear facilities and maybe a C2 bunker or two if there was a potential of a decapitation strike, but would then leave the conventional forces threatening the South for the South's own military to take out.

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the real reason I don't think the US wants to go there, though -- even a very rapid and successful initial strike would basically leave the North ripe for the plucking by China. Even Trump can presumably be made to understand how that would be a step backwards.

* The US has long maintained a stock of ground-penetrating nuclear weapons, originally designed to attack the exact type of Soviet-style deep underground bunkers that the North seem to be so fond of. The US also has a fair number of them sitting around, and could expend them without significantly affecting overall posture with regard to other nuclear powers. (Cf. the SLBM force, which is part of the core triad and couldn't be used too heavily without diminishing the theoretical retaliatory capability against a Russian attack.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:48 PM on September 7


there are probably preemptive scenarios that would minimize risk to Seoul, via a very destructive, precisely timed, first strike, potentially using low- to moderate-yield nuclear weapons to destroy both the North's nuclear capabilities and its conventional capabilities [emphasis mine]

This is a helluva "probably," and one that contradicts everything I've ever read about the DPRK's Seoul-aimed munitions. It's also relevant to me as I've lived in Seoul for 15 years and if the gamble failed it would mean the death of me, my wife, and everyone I know and love.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:57 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]


Kadin2048: If the US were really willing to take the gloves off, there are probably preemptive scenarios that would minimize risk to Seoul, via a very destructive, precisely timed, first strike, potentially using low- to moderate-yield nuclear weapons to destroy both the North's nuclear capabilities and its conventional capabilities, which include a lot of deep underground fortifications that might be hard to crack with conventional munitions.* It would be a hell of a fireworks show; probably "World War IIs per minute" during the initial bombardment, and in the limiting case might not leave a lot left.

I might be wrong about this, but if you're using large numbers of nuclear weapons just over the border, isn't it a distinct possibility that you're going to do a fair bit of collateral damage to South Korea through fall out?
posted by MattWPBS at 4:30 AM on September 8


You're also talking about murdering 25 million North Koreans.
posted by dng at 5:09 AM on September 8 [8 favorites]


Yeah, that is kind of a problem.
posted by MattWPBS at 6:19 AM on September 8


isn't it a distinct possibility that you're going to do a fair bit of collateral damage to South Korea through fall out?

I'd say that's a distinct possibility, pretty much. Some of the weapons that would presumably be used haven't even been tested, either, at least not in their current configurations, so there's also that. Better hope the wind is blowing north that day.

It is perhaps worth noting that many analysts think that the DPRK's claims with regard to their capability of hitting Seoul with artillery fire are grossly overstated, but yet are repeated more or less uncritically by the media (at least, in the US). The actual capability, while still significant, is probably not as apocalyptic as they like to make it sound, and this might significantly affect the decision of whether to destroy those capabilities initially in a first strike, or do it conventionally in the course of a kinetic battle. The South's investments in counterbattery systems suggests they at least have a contingency plan for the latter (as you'd hope, or at least I would hope, if I lived there).

Basically: if you believe the DPRK's propaganda, then you have a Fulda Gap scenario and the sensible thing to do is go nuclear immediately, and turn everything north of the DMZ to a distance of a few miles into radioactive waste. (Nuke it from orbit high altitude. It's the only way to be sure.) But more realistic analysis suggests that their capabilities aren't really that good, and wouldn't last very long anyway, meaning that the damage they could inflict might be less than the risk associated with fallout, etc., and the more-sensible option would be to let each piece get off one round and then destroy it. And obviously the comparison breaks down somewhat quickly; the NATO strategy to counter a Soviet invasion into W. Germany took on premise that the closest city worth defending was 50 miles away, and I'm pretty sure in most paper exercises it didn't make it.

Somewhat similar to strategic calculus, the North would have an option of attacking civilian targets with the aim of doing as much damage as possible before their artillery is destroyed by counterbattery fire, or attacking US and South Korean forces, including all those minefields, near the DMZ (counterforce). Traditional Soviet doctrine emphasizes saturation fire by artillery on an enemy's front, as part of 'combined arms at all levels' to achieve a breakthrough en masse and get into a rear area, not destruction of the rear areas initially (which would lead to a defensive battle). But that would be a bet I'd certainly not want to take; they could just as easily have decided on their own to shell for maximum effect and then let the rest of the world take the fight to them and dig them out of their bunkers. (This is probably the smart move, if they're looking to preserve themselves as a polity and self-conscious enough to realize that the war Soviet doctrine prepares them for is basically the one the US Army has been institutionally itching to fight for decades, but self-consciousness doesn't seem to be a major part of their ideology, so... again, not a safe bet.)

There's no real good outcome. Wars typically don't feature any.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:58 AM on September 9 [1 favorite]


So for the record, that first link there (2012 article) proposes that from the first round of artillery alone, if "most people are at home or in an office i.e. more protection than standing outside in an open field", about 32,500 people would die. I.e. "only" a quarter of a Hiroshima in the first few minutes from one category of conventional attack.
posted by XMLicious at 7:57 AM on September 9


well, i'm glad we've now gone to the fantasizing about how to destroy the peninsula/how best to murder 50 million Koreans phase of the discussion.

but at least it's dressed up in very rational words and logics.
posted by anem0ne at 10:05 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


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