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Experts Are Skeptical That North Korea Detonated A Nuclear Weapon


News comes this morning that North Korea claims to have detonated a nuclear weapon. According to that country's state television, it was a hydrogen bomb. People who know North Korea well are skeptical. Daniel Pinkston spent nearly two decades in South Korea, most recently with the International Crisis Group. And he's been following North Korea's nuclear program for years. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL PINKSTON: It's a pleasure to be here.

MONTAGNE: What do we really know about what happened in North Korea this morning?

PINKSTON: Well, we do know there was a seismic event, and North Korea claims it was an experimental hydrogen bomb device that they tested to verify a design for a miniaturized H-bomb. They said it was successful, so they've put their claims out in state media. We also know that the South Korean authorities' initial reaction is very skeptical, and the military authorities say that this is probably unlikely. And they believe, initially, that it may have been about six kilotons in yield, which would not suggest a hydrogen bomb. So we'll have to wait and see what the analysts conclude after they gather all the forensic evidence. We also know that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft took off about 10 minutes before the blast from Okinawa, from Kadena Air Base. And that's probably about two-and-a-half, three hours away from North Korea. And they could collect atmospheric data if there are any nuclear particles that are vented after the blast.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is the fourth nuclear test by North Korea in the last decade. The others have been atomic bombs. If this really was an H-bomb, how big a deal is this?

PINKSTON: Well, I'm not sure. We have - in the past, their initial tests - I don't think North Korea had any reason to misrepresent or lie or exaggerate their claims. But recently, I'm not so sure. It's clear that in May, when they conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile ejection test, they tried to fabricate and portray the test as an actual flight test, but it's different. So they didn't misrepresent in that case. So if, in fact, they did misrepresent - to go through three possibilities here - one, it was not H-bomb test, but they claimed that it is. And if that is the case, we will have to ask why they would misrepresent and why they make this exaggeration. Is this for a domestic audience? Is this for the external international audience? And the political analysts will have to look at that question. A second possibility is that was not an H-bomb test, but that the leadership believes it was. I think this is quite unlikely, but it's not impossible. If you look at Kim Jong-un and how he manages a dictatorship, he runs a very intense, tight regime there that's very demanding. And there are political demands to deliver certain weapons systems. And maybe the scientists and engineers claimed that it was an H-bomb, but it actually was not.

MONTAGNE: Third possibility, in 10 seconds?

PINKSTON: Third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb test. And, of course, that has different consequences for the policy responses and how we array our deterrence and containment policy against North Korea.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

PINKSTON: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Daniel Pinkston, recently with the International Crisis Group. He now teaches international relations at Troy University, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous Web introduction identified Daniel Pinkston as being with the International Crisis Group. He is no longer there.

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