The Emperor's New Bomb

It's been a bad week for sensational media stories. The Mark Foley child sex scandal has no child and no sex. And it may well be there was no nuclear bomb exploded by North Korea, either.

While trying to puzzle out why Kim Jong—Il went for the underground bomb test option rather than the more flamboyant —   and characteristic — atmospheric test, there's one thought that never occurred to me, because it would never occur to any sane individual: that there might not be a bomb at all. But if reports can be trusted, that seems to be the case.

According to the Washington Times, The New York Times, and the UK Guardian, North Korea may not have successfully set off a bomb at all. The reason for doubt is the low yield of the explosion — 1 kiloton, or a thousand tons of  TNT, according to South Korea and the U.S., closer to half a kiloton, according to France.  (Russian observers put it at up to 15 kilotons, but who knows what that means?) The United States

believes North Korea attempted to detonate a nuclear device but that "something went wrong," and the blast was relatively small, a U.S. government official said Tuesday.

First—time tests of atomic weapons tend to be an order of magnitude larger than all estimates but that of the Russians, on the scale of 15 to 20 kilotons. (The Trinity test that opened the atomic era was approximately 18 kilotons.) This suggests that something is seriously wrong with the nuclear test scenario. While it's certainly possible to intentionally design and build a low yield weapon (for artillery shells, SAM warheads, and the like), it requires experience and skill that North Korean scientists are unlikely to have.

As might be expected, opinions differ. The Washington Times report, by veteran defense reporter Bill Gertz, suggests that the test was a complete fake, carried out using conventional explosives. NYT reporters William J. Broad and Mark Mazzetti are less willing to commit themselves beyond arguing that a conventional explosion is unlikely. The Guardian's John Leicester suggests that the North Koreans were attempting to test a plutonium bomb, a difficult trick for a technically unsophisticated nation. (First—time bombs usually use uranium—235.) Leicester believes that the test was a flat—out dud. Whatever the case, it leaves Kim, the would—be Lord of Asia, looking like Wile E. Coyote.

It also goes a long way toward explaining the puzzle of the choice of an underground test. If Kim in fact does not have a weapon, or a weapon that he can be sure of, he would, of course, not set it off above ground. An underground test would give him wiggle room in case of a failure, and a reasonable form of camouflage if he's faking it outright. It's next to impossible to duplicate the radioactive debris created by a nuclear explosion — the isotopes are too varied and complex, and their half—life decay rates easily interpreted. An underground test would not necessarily emit detectable fallout. So Kim went for the tunnel, either as cover or insurance. We will learn which soon enough.

So which was it, conventional blast, or fizzle yield? (A fizzle yield, for those just coming in, is a bomb failure where the chain reaction blows the fissionable material apart, curtailing a complete explosion. Interestingly, the typical yield of fizzle explosion is a kiloton or under.) I'll  stand firmly with Broad and Mazzetti and declare that I don't know. The evidence isn't all in yet, and in a few days we should have a clearer picture as to exactly what went wrong.

What is certain is that Kim has made a blunder of world—historical proportions. For years he's been terrorizing the neighborhood waving bombs that he did not have. Now, through his own arrogance, he's been exposed. Unless he can pony up a bomb in short order, things are going to get very tight for Hermit Kingdom.

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.

It's been a bad week for sensational media stories. The Mark Foley child sex scandal has no child and no sex. And it may well be there was no nuclear bomb exploded by North Korea, either.

While trying to puzzle out why Kim Jong—Il went for the underground bomb test option rather than the more flamboyant —   and characteristic — atmospheric test, there's one thought that never occurred to me, because it would never occur to any sane individual: that there might not be a bomb at all. But if reports can be trusted, that seems to be the case.

According to the Washington Times, The New York Times, and the UK Guardian, North Korea may not have successfully set off a bomb at all. The reason for doubt is the low yield of the explosion — 1 kiloton, or a thousand tons of  TNT, according to South Korea and the U.S., closer to half a kiloton, according to France.  (Russian observers put it at up to 15 kilotons, but who knows what that means?) The United States

believes North Korea attempted to detonate a nuclear device but that "something went wrong," and the blast was relatively small, a U.S. government official said Tuesday.

First—time tests of atomic weapons tend to be an order of magnitude larger than all estimates but that of the Russians, on the scale of 15 to 20 kilotons. (The Trinity test that opened the atomic era was approximately 18 kilotons.) This suggests that something is seriously wrong with the nuclear test scenario. While it's certainly possible to intentionally design and build a low yield weapon (for artillery shells, SAM warheads, and the like), it requires experience and skill that North Korean scientists are unlikely to have.

As might be expected, opinions differ. The Washington Times report, by veteran defense reporter Bill Gertz, suggests that the test was a complete fake, carried out using conventional explosives. NYT reporters William J. Broad and Mark Mazzetti are less willing to commit themselves beyond arguing that a conventional explosion is unlikely. The Guardian's John Leicester suggests that the North Koreans were attempting to test a plutonium bomb, a difficult trick for a technically unsophisticated nation. (First—time bombs usually use uranium—235.) Leicester believes that the test was a flat—out dud. Whatever the case, it leaves Kim, the would—be Lord of Asia, looking like Wile E. Coyote.

It also goes a long way toward explaining the puzzle of the choice of an underground test. If Kim in fact does not have a weapon, or a weapon that he can be sure of, he would, of course, not set it off above ground. An underground test would give him wiggle room in case of a failure, and a reasonable form of camouflage if he's faking it outright. It's next to impossible to duplicate the radioactive debris created by a nuclear explosion — the isotopes are too varied and complex, and their half—life decay rates easily interpreted. An underground test would not necessarily emit detectable fallout. So Kim went for the tunnel, either as cover or insurance. We will learn which soon enough.

So which was it, conventional blast, or fizzle yield? (A fizzle yield, for those just coming in, is a bomb failure where the chain reaction blows the fissionable material apart, curtailing a complete explosion. Interestingly, the typical yield of fizzle explosion is a kiloton or under.) I'll  stand firmly with Broad and Mazzetti and declare that I don't know. The evidence isn't all in yet, and in a few days we should have a clearer picture as to exactly what went wrong.

What is certain is that Kim has made a blunder of world—historical proportions. For years he's been terrorizing the neighborhood waving bombs that he did not have. Now, through his own arrogance, he's been exposed. Unless he can pony up a bomb in short order, things are going to get very tight for Hermit Kingdom.

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.