[Note 2/12/13: Many news sources are reporting this as a major step on the road to having a functional nuclear weapon. I disagree. Consistent with North Korea's brinksmanship policy and given it's timing right before the State of the Union address, I still interpret this primarily as posturing. The test was obviously scheduled, along with the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch, to coincide with Iran's statement about nuclear fuel and the U.S. State of the Union address.]
In my novel The Silla Project, an American nuclear scientist is abducted by North Koreans and is forced to help them perfect the nuclear weapon they seek. The novel is fictional, the reality isn’t. At least, all most.
Today, sensitive instruments around the world detected seismic activity from magnitude 3.9 to 4.5 around the location of previous nuclear tests conducted by the reclusive regime. Like the other tests, this one was small, on the order of a few kilotons.
North Korea has been covertly developing nuclear weapons for many years, starting under Kim Il-sung, ongoing through the reign of his son, Kim Jong-il, and continuing at a renewed pace under Kim Jong-un. Having studied their program, technological base, assets, and tests it is my opinion that they do not yet have a fully functional device. Given the small size of the yields produced they seem to me to be more like “fizzles.”
A fizzle is a term coined by American nuclear scientists that refers to a bomb that doesn’t achieve full yield. Given the complexities of a nuclear weapon, unless constructed to micrometers in machining and nanoseconds in timing, the bomb will blow itself apart before the conditions are reached that would allow it to reach full yield. This is what I believe happened a kilometer under the rugged mountains of the insular peninsula.
The problem for the North is in fact the sanctions. The technology needed to construct a nuclear weapon is formidable. Machines are needed that can mill chemical explosives to micrometer accuracy. Timing dozens of separate explosions to all go off within nanoseconds of one another is almost impossible without switches that are extremely difficult to manufacture. Achieving the necessary purity of chemicals in a nuclear explosive is beyond the ability of all but a few labs around the world. Machines capable of performing such operations are strictly controlled by the few nations that can actually build them. Building them from scratch is extremely difficult. It is my opinion that the North doesn’t quite have the technology. Not quite.
Anyone interested in either North Korea or nuclear weapons would get a lot out of The Silla Project, as it remains the only North Korean nuclear thriller that has ever been published. Extensively researched over many years using original Los Alamos technical reports from the Manhattan project and hundreds of pages of declassified nuclear literature, The Silla Project details the approach a technologically deficient nation like North Korea would have to follow if they wanted to build a nuclear weapon.
So Kim Jong-un’s Juche-inspired scientists and engineers haven’t pulled it off yet, huh? Of course, they have been known to abduct foreigners from time to time…