What will Kim do next? Sixth nuclear test
seen critical for North Korea
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[August 17, 2017]
By Christine Kim and David Brunnstrom
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea
says it has developed intercontinental missiles capable of targeting any
place in the United States.
Now comes the hard part of fulfilling the declared goal of its leader
Kim Jong Un: perfecting a nuclear device small and light enough to fit
on the missile without affecting its range as well as making it capable
of surviving re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
To do that, weapons experts say, the isolated state needs to carry out
at least another nuclear test, its sixth, and more tests of long-range
North Korea's two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
last month likely carried a payload lighter than any nuclear warhead it
is currently able to produce, the experts said.
One way to have a lighter warhead would be to concentrate on developing
a thermonuclear device, or hydrogen bomb, which would offer much greater
explosive yield relative to size and weight.
Pyongyang claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb, but this has not been
proven, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information
Program at the Federation of American Scientists.
"Doing so would take several more nuclear tests," he said. "The
advantage of a thermonuclear warhead is that it packs a lot more power
into less weight."
Choi Jin-wook, a professor of international relations at Japan's
Ritsumeikan University and former president of South Korea's state-run
Korea Institute for National Unification, said a sixth nuclear test
would be essential for North Korea to develop an operational
"In order to make a nuclear weapon deployable it has to be small and
light, but North Korea doesn't seem to have this technology," he said.
South Korea's president said on Thursday Pyongyang would be "crossing a
red line" if it put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic
missile, and U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that North Korea
would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the United States.
KIM MUST WEIGH RISKS
North Korea is a highly secretive nation and predictions of what it will
do next are often little more than conjecture.
Still, Kim is likely to be carefully weighing the timing of even a new
nuclear test because it will antagonize North Korea's sole major ally,
China, and could trigger even tougher U.N. economic sanctions than those
that followed ICBM tests in July.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said that while periodic
activity has been seen at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, he
had not seen movement there for over a month and there were no current
signs of an imminent test.
A second U.S. official added that North Korea has had parts in place for
a nuclear launch for months, but no new activity had been seen recently.
Besides developing a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, some experts say it
appears Kim's rocket scientists have yet to master the technology to
protect a warhead from the extreme heat and pressure of re-entering the
earth's atmosphere after an intercontinental flight
South Korea believes North Korea will need at least another one or two
more years to obtain that re-entry technology, Seoul's vice defense
minister said on Sunday.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected the Command of the
Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown
location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North
Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017.
"Miniaturization for ballistic missiles is only one of the many
challenges of targeting the U.S. with an ICBM," said David Albright,
a physicist and founder of the non-profit Institute for Science and
International Security in Washington.
"The re-entry vehicle has to survive and the warhead work," he said.
"I am skeptical that North Korea has mastered all these steps."
Among North Korea's capabilities in the field, U.S. intelligence
officials have said it likely can produce its own missile engines
and does not need to rely on imports.
ESSENTIAL TO SURVIVAL
After Kim Jong Un ramped up the pace of weapons development last
year with numerous missile launches as well as two nuclear tests in
January and September 2016, some observers had expected a sixth
nuclear test as early as this January.
Instead, Pyongyang has spent most of the year testing various types
of missiles. After its first and second ICBM tests in July, it
threatened to land missiles in the vicinity of Guam, a U.S. Pacific
territory, drawing a stern warning from Trump.
Pyongyang has since said Kim has delayed his decision on Guam.
Pyongyang faces significantly tougher sanctions, including from
China, if it conducts another nuclear test, said Moon Chung-in, a
special adviser on foreign affairs and national security to South
Korean President Moon Jae-in.
"If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear weapons test, China will
likely cut oil supplies to North Korea. I believe China has strongly
warned North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test," Moon said.
The Punggye-ri site is just 60 miles (100 km) from the border with
China and 125 miles (200 km) from Russia, and past tests have
angered both countries and caused them to back increasingly tough
Kim Jong Un, however, sees the ability to threaten the United States
as essential to the survival of his personal rule.
"North Korea will conduct a sixth nuclear test in order to bring the
United States to negotiations," said Yoo Ho-yeol, professor of
unification and diplomacy at Seoul's Korea University.
"I donít know exactly when (it will happen), but a sixth nuclear
test is a less dangerous option for North Korea than firing missiles
(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Ju-min Park in Seoul,
John Walcott and Idrees Ali in Washington, Writing by Soyoung Kim;
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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