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Sunday February 3, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 3:40:52 PM
by the korea herald
SEOUL: As North Korea threatens to conduct a “high-level” nuclear test, speculation has been raised over its method, type, intensity and venue, as well as how far its military nuclear technology has come.
Seoul officials and experts say Pyongyang may conduct an underground test using highly enriched uranium. The first two tests in 2006 and 2009 used plutonium-based fissile material.
They largely concur that the explosive power of a future test will be greater than the past ones given that the communist state seeks to show off its “nuclear deterrence” capability to the international audience and bolster its negotiating power.
“As the North’s previous tests did not have a great political impact with the US downplaying it, Pyongyang could conduct a much stronger test,” An Jin-soo, senior adviser at the state-funded Korea Institute of Nuclear-nonproliferation and Control, told The Korea Herald.
“Pyongyang could conduct multiple tests all at once as India and Pakistan did. The international criticism it would face would be the same anyway, whether it conducts a single test or multiple ones all together.”
An added that the North did not carry out multiple nuclear detonations simultaneously in the past as its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium was limited.
Since the UN Security Council adopted a new resolution condemning the North’s December rocket launch, Pyongyang has hinted at conducting another provocative test via a series of official statements.
Seoul believes the North has already completed preparations for an underground test at the Punggye-ri test site in the country’s northeast, where it carried out the two atomic tests.
“With the current level of preparedness for another test, we judge the North can carry out the detonation experiment at any time. Therefore, we can detect signs of the test or cannot (as there may not be a significant change in activities at the site when the test occurs),” Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters.
Stressing the importance of precluding the test, experts said another nuclear test would focus on enhancing the detonation power and technology to miniaturise and lighten warheads.
Some nuclear experts said that in a future test, the North could use a device with the explosive power of up to 15 kilotonnes, close to that of the atomic bomb the United States dropped in Hiroshima in 1945. A kilotonne is equivalent to 1,000 tonnes of TNT.
In the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, its explosive power was about one kilotonne. Due to its weak explosion, experts evaluated the test as a failure. But the second one recorded the explosion of between two kilotonnes and six kilotonnes, which was regarded as a “half success”.
As to the type of fissile material, experts forecast Pyongyang may use highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium, given that its operation of five-megawatt reactors needed to yield plutonium-based fissile material has been halted.
“As Pyongyang is a state whose behaviour is hard to predict, we can’t draw an easy conclusion,” said An. “But considering the North can hardly produce additional plutonium and could have secret facilities for uranium enrichment, it is likely that the next test will use HEU.”
As the multilateral aid-for-denuclearisation talks progressed in 2007 and 2008, Pyongyang disabled part of its facilities that yield plutonium. After the six-party talks were suspended in the late 2008, it is thought to have begun restoring the facilities.
To produce warheads mountable on long-range missiles, their miniaturisation remains a critical task.
Since 1980, the North is presumed to have conducted more than 100 experimental high-explosive detonations as well as the two nuclear tests, all of which have helped it gradually enhance its miniaturisation technology.
After the North has conducted a nuclear test, South Korea and the US authorities will be able to gain information on the explosive power of its nuclear detonation by analysing seismic waves, sound waves and radioactive gases such as xenon and krypton, experts said.
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