DPRK declares fusion reaction

UPDATE 2: Gordon Chang offers another theory in Forbes:

And the North’s ability to surprise gets us back to the mysterious release of the xenon. We know its technicians can make nuclear weapons with plutonium cores. After all, they detonated two of them–in 2006 and 2009–and Kim has a half dozen more in his arsenal.

Did he set off one of his stock in May? Because there was no artificial seismic activity at the time, Seoul ruled out a third North Korean underground nuclear test. Xenon is also released during a nuclear accident, a possibility.

Another possibility–the most disturbing one, actually–is that the North Koreans had been telling the truth when on May 12, just two days before South Korea detected the high levels of xenon, they announced they had created a nuclear fusion reaction, a step necessary to the building of a thermonuclear device. At the time everyone thought the claim was “sheer mystical flapdoodle,” as one American expert termed it. Maybe the boast was a fantastic fabrication, but any possibility that Kim’s regime was closer to the world’s most destructive weapon is obviously of concern.

To find out what really happened, we have to think like North Koreans. So here’s a theory: Pyongyang made the hard-to-accept claim about fusion so that we would be distracted from what it is really doing. Xenon is released whenever uranium is enriched, such as when it is enriched for the core of a nuclear weapon.

The North Koreans started to obtain Chinese-Pakistani enrichment technology in the early 1990s from the black-market ring headed by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. They first boasted of a uranium enrichment program in October 2002. Most analysts think the North has not gotten very far even if it has been trying to build a nuclear weapon with a uranium core. The release of xenon gas in May throws the conventional view into doubt.

Bruce Bechtol of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College will deliver, next Monday at Brookings in Washington, a paper contending that North Korea is now or will soon be capable of building a uranium-core bomb. Not every analyst agrees with Bechtol’s conclusion, but doubters need to come up with a plausible explanation why xenon was wafting over the North Korean countryside last month. At least for now, he seems the one closest to the truth.

UPDATE 1: According to the Associated Press (6/21/2010):

Abnormal radiation was detected near the inter-Korean border days after North Korea claimed last month to have achieved a nuclear technology breakthrough, South Korea’s Science Ministry said Monday.

The ministry said it failed to find the cause of the radiation but ruled out a possible underground nuclear test by North Korea. It cited no evidence of a strong earthquake that must follow an atomic explosion.

On May 12, North Korea claimed its scientists succeeded in creating a nuclear fusion reaction — a technology necessary to manufacture a hydrogen bomb. The technology also one day could provide limitless clean energy because it produces little radioactive waste, unlike fission, which powers conventional nuclear power reactors.

South Korean experts doubted the North actually made such a breakthrough. Scientists around the world have been experimenting with fusion for decades, but it has yet to be developed into a viable energy alternative.

On May 15, however, the atmospheric concentration of xenon — an inert gas released after a nuclear explosion or radioactive leakage from a nuclear power plant — on the South Korean side of the inter-Korean border was found to be eight times higher than normal, according to South Korea’s Science Ministry.

South Korea subsequently looked for signs of a powerful, artificially induced earthquake — something that should have been detected if North Korea had conducted a nuclear test. Experts, however, found no signs of a such a quake in North Korea, a ministry statement said.

“We determined that there was no possibility of an underground nuclear test,” it said. The ministry did not mention any possible health hazard from the release.

Earlier Monday, South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that North Korea may have conducted a small-sized nuclear test, citing the abnormal radioactivity. The paper cited an atomic expert it did not identify.

North Korea — which is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half-dozen nuclear weapons, conducted two underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, drawing international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

The news of the detected radiation comes as tension is running high on the Korean peninsula over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. North Korea flatly denies the allegation and has warned any punishment would trigger war, with the U.N. Security Council reviewing Seoul’s request to punish Pyongyang over the sinking.

A Science Ministry official said the wind was blowing from north to south when the xenon was detected.

But the official — speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department policy — said xenon could have come from Russia or China, not necessarily from North Korea, as South Korea was unable to find the reason for the high-level of the gas.

The official also said that there was no possibility that the xenon could have originated from any nuclear power plants in South Korea.

ORIGINAL POST: According to KCNA (May 12):

DPRK Succeeds in Nuclear Fusion
Pyongyang, May 12 (KCNA) — Scientists of the DPRK succeeded in nuclear fusion reaction on the significant occasion of the Day of the Sun this year, according to Rodong Sinmun Wednesday.

It goes on:

The successful nuclear fusion marks a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology of the DPRK.

The nuclear fusion technology is called “artificial solar” technology as it represents a field of the latest science and technology for the development of new energy desired by humankind.

The nuclear fusion technology for obtaining safe and environment-friendly new energy the source of which is abundant draws great attention of world science at present.

Scientists of the DPRK have worked hard to develop nuclear fusion technology their own way.

They solved a great many scientific and technological problems entirely by their own efforts without the slightest hesitation and vacillation even under the conditions where everything was in short supply and there were a lot of difficulties, thus succeeding in nuclear fusion reaction at last.

In this course, Korean style thermo-nuclear reaction devices were designed and manufactured, basic researches into nuclear fusion reaction completed and strong scientific and technological forces built to perfect the thermo-nuclear technology by their own efforts.

The successful nuclear fusion in the DPRK made a definite breakthrough toward the development of new energy and opened up a new phase in the nation’s development of the latest science and technology.

According to NTI Global Security Newswire:

Aspiring nuclear power North Korea claimed today that it was able to conduct a nuclear fusion reaction, a process that could be used to produce energy or a hydrogen bomb, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, May 11).

The state-run Rodong Sinmun did not say whether the fusion reaction, which no other nuclear program has yet successfully turned toward energy production, would be put to use in the country’s nuclear weapons program.

“The successful nuclear fusion marks a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology of the D.P.R.K.,” the report asserted.

To achieve the reaction, “Korean-style thermonuclear reaction devices were designed and manufactured, basic researches into nuclear fusion reaction completed and strong scientific and technological forces built to perfect the thermonuclear technology,” said the report (Agence France-Presse I/Australian, May 12).

South Korea was skeptical today of the North’s nuclear fusion claim, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

An anonymous Foreign Ministry official told the Yonhap News Agency that Pyongyang’s assertion was “absurd” and said there was no evidence that the impoverished nation possessed the expensive nuclear infrastructure required to conduct fusion tests.

Should North Korea be telling the truth, though, it would have breached U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits Pyongyang from carrying out additional missile or nuclear tests, the official said (Xinhua News Agency, May 12).

The Stalinist regime, which is severely lacking in electricity generation capacity, compared the fusion reaction to an “artificial sun,” Reuters reported.

“Maybe if two suns show up in the sky tomorrow, then people could believe the claim,” Seoul National University nuclear expert Kune Suh said.

“This seems highly inaccurate and grossly exaggerated,” he said. “They probably conducted some small-scale experiment” (Herskovitz/Kim, Reuters, May 11).

The reaction was said to be conducted in honor of the April birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, which is now a holiday known as the “Day of the Sun.” Pyongyang regularly makes questionable claims on days recognizing Kim or his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, the Associated Press reported.

Hyeon Park, a physics professor who works on fusion research in the South, said North Korea could have successfully built a plasma device and generated a hot mass of supercharged particles, which is one of the first steps n to create a nuclear fusion reaction.

To judge the validity of the assertion, foreign scientists would require information on the scope of the North’s fusion test and the steps it took to create the plasma, Park said (Kwang-Tae Kim, Associated Press/Google News, May 12).

Meanwhile, Washington’s lead negotiator for the multilateral talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons work, Sung Kim, was in South Korea today for talks with his South Korean counterpart, AFP reported. The talks also involve China, Japan and Russia.

Seoul’s deputy foreign minister and deputy defense chief are set to travel to Washington tomorrow for talks about matters on the Korean Peninsula and nuclear concerns, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, May 12).


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