How Nor h Korea learned to love the bomb
With Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un threatening armageddon, Colin Freeman examines this latest chilling chapter in the nuclear arms race
OTHE H-BOMB WAS FIVE TIMES THE SIZE OF THE DEVICE THAT DESTROYED NAGASAKI
n a chilly November morning in 2010, Dr Siegfried Hecker, emeritus director of America’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the world’s most respected nuclear scientists, arrived for a visit to Yongbyon, North Korea’s main atomic reactor.
Hecker had been to the facility, built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, three times before and was expecting the usual tour of a crumbling plant, complete with ancient analogue-era dials.
Instead, he and two US colleagues walked up polished granite steps to the control room of a new ‘ultra-modern’ unit, with state - of-the -art flat-screen monitors. And spinning away before them were 2,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges, potentially capable of making weapons-grade bomb material.
‘Our jaws just dropped,’ Hecker later told colleag ues. ‘We looked down and said, “We can’t quite believe it.”’
It sounds like one of the closing scenes from a James Bond film, in which the villain obligingly shows off his master plan for destroying the world. Yet Hecker and his colleagues were academics, not secret-service agents, and their visit did not end with the plant exploding spectacularly. Instead their brief tour – the result of a carefully cultivated relationship between the scientists and their North Korean counterparts – was the last time any Westerner was allowed into Yongbyon, and since then, Hecker has been worried about just what further unexpected progress North Korea may have made behind closed doors.
Four weeks ago, his worst fears appeared to come true when the rogue state announced it had just tested its first hydrogen bomb, the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon.
‘The test of a hydrogen bomb designed to be mounted on our intercontinental ballistic missile was a perfect success,’ reported Ri Chun-hee, North Korea’s veteran newscaster, smiling so widely you would have thought she was revealing supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s wife had given birth to a son and heir. ‘It was a very meaningful step in completing the national nuclear weapons programme.’
Ri, known as the Pink Lady because of the cerise robe she normally wears, is 73 and wheeled out whenever Pyongyang has big news for the world. Sometimes she’s tearful, like the times she broke the news of the death of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in 1994. But she’s at her most frightening when she’s smiling – as she was on 3 September.
The explosion quite literally sent shock waves around the world. Within 12 minutes of the blast, vibrations from the underground test site had been picked up by seismology units as far away as Australia, Scotland and Canada. The needles showed it to be the equivalent of around 100,000 tons of TNT – roughly five times the size of the ‘Fat Man’ device that destroyed Nagasaki, and 10 times bigger than any of North Korea’s conventional nuclear-bomb tests.
International monitors are now conducting atmospheric tests to verify the Pink Lady’s claims, results of which will be known in the coming months.
Whatever the conclusion, though, anyone tempted to laugh this off as yet more wishful thinking by North Korea’s propaganda machine may want to think again. For, unlike the stories that Kim Jong-un learnt to drive aged three, or that his father shot 11 holes-in-one on his first round of golf, nuclear experts are taking the H-bomb claims very seriously.
‘The North Koreans do bluff sometimes, but when they make a concrete claim about their nuclear programme, more often than not it turns out to be true,’ says Tom Plant, director of the proliferation and nuclear policy programme at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), and previously an arms-control expert at Aldermaston’s Atomic Weapons Establishment.
‘They know that it can be verified by the outside world, and this is one thing they try to be credible on. We are still waiting for the test results, but I think the balance is in favour of it being a thermonuclear bomb [the technical term for an H-bomb] rather than a conventional atom bomb.’
The difference is not merely academic. Over the past decade, North Korea has already developed capability for up to 25 conventional atom bombs, all of which are deadly enough as they are. But a hydrogen bomb – which relies on fusing atomic nuclei together rather than splitting them
apart – is a weapon of an altogether different magnitude of mass destruction.
Its nuclear reaction is similar to those produced by the sun to heat the solar system, creating an explosion potentially hundreds or thousands of times greater than the atom bombs currently in Kim Jong-un’s arsenal. In effect, an H-bomb is to the atom bomb what a tank round is to a bullet.
Mercifully, the technology required to make H-bombs is complex even by nuclear-engineering standards, and to date, only the world’s five major nuclear powers – America, Russia, Britain, France and China – are known to possess them. The know-how is also one of the world’s most closely guarded nuclear secrets. It cannot be found on some internet Anarchist Cookbook, and is unlikely ever to appear on Wikileaks. Even the theoretical science in the public domain is guesswork, according to Plant, who declines to elaborate further because he has signed the Official Secrets Act. All he will say is that making one ‘is a supreme national endeavour, that requires complete mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, and substantial scientific research’.
Which therefore begs the question: how on earth could a small, potty hermit dictatorship like North Korea, isolated for decades by international sanctions, achieve it? This, after all, is not a country synonymous with technical advance: its normal nuclear plants look like props from B-movies, the internet and mobile phones are still a rarity. Most diplomats assumed that its H-bomb capability was decades away and some suggested it would never materialise.
Of course, Pyongyang keeps the finer details of its nuclear programme firmly under wraps. Little is known about its top nuclear scientist, 77-year-old Ri Hong-sop, who appeared in publicity photos accompanying the latest announcement, showing Kim Jong-un what purported to be the new H-bomb warhead.
But a clue to the mindset that may have made it all possible lies in those photos. Like most featuring Kim Jong-un, they show Ri and his colleagues brandishing pencils and notepads to jot down his remarks. It is seen as a way of gathering the leader’s wisdom first-hand. But North Koreans have also applied that same diligent habit of taking very careful notes when studying and copying other countries’ nuclear expertise. As a result, their scientists are smarter than many in the West might think.
Their atomic education goes back as far as the 1960s, when the Soviet Union trained Pyongyang’s academics at its top nuclear-research facilities and built the country’s main civil power reactor at Yongbyon, a mountainringed plain outside the capital. The techniques and centrifuges for conventional atom bombs were probably acquired in the early 2000s from Dr AQ Khan, the rogue inventor of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, who allegedly sold the secrets to both Iran and North Korea.
But since 2006, when North Korea announced its first successful atombomb test, the tightening of sanctions has meant that the scientists at Yongbyon have probably achieved any further scientific breakthroughs largely on their own.
While Pyongyang is thought to maintain smuggling networks for certain proscribed components through private middlemen in China, Beijing has long fallen out with Kim Jong-un over his erratic behaviour, and would not offer any help itself.
‘ The Chi ne s e wouldn’ t help them today, nor would the Russians, and neither Pakistan nor Iran have the necessary level of expertise,’ says Dr Martin Navias, of the Centre for Defence Studies at London’s King’s College. ‘ I would say they ’ ve done it independently, just moving forward a bit at a time.’
This appears to be the view of Siegfried Hecker, too. As a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project to build America’s first atom bomb was hatched, Hecker believes he was given that ‘jaw-dropping’ tour of North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility because the regime wanted to show off its achievements.
‘It wanted the world to know,’ he says. ‘ We were credible messengers to verify that North Korea not only has uranium centrifuges, but they are modern and sophisticated.’
This wasn’t the first time Hecker’s hosts had let their desire to boast outweigh their discretion. On a previous trip in 2004, the programme’s head handed him a sealed glass jar full of plutonium, the idea being to impress upon him that they had already reached basic atom-bomb capability. However, the sight of the centrifuges in 2010 was the ‘game-changer’ as far as Hecker was concerned.
True, the leap in required know-how is enormous. Making an H-bomb involves simulating conditions normally found on the sun, which, at 300,000 times the earth’s mass, has an immense gravitational force that crushes atoms’ nuclei together. The standard technique is to use a conventional atom bomb as a ‘ trigger ’ to cause a high-pressure implosion in a sealed container, usually packed with hydrogen isotopes such as deuterium or tritium. These isotopes themselves are difficult to make, just as it is tough to achieve the engineering tolerances required to make the whole thing function under such extreme duress. But still, if one has the ‘ trigger ’ in the first place, then the ‘hard part ’ is over, says Bhupendra Jasani, a nuclear physicist at King’s College. After that, it is a question not so much of scientific breakthrough but of trial and error and determination – all of which North Korea excels at.
‘WE WERE THE MESSENGERS TO VERIFY THAT THEY HAVE URANIUM CENTRIFUGES’
‘If a country puts its nuke programme at the top of the pile and has the will to weather the storms of sanctions and so on, then they can probably make it through,’ says Tom Plant. This, though, is not just a question of Pyongyang’s nuclear teams being warned that failure may mean a trip to the gulags, or worse. In a place as brutal as North Korea, the welfare of the entire nation can happily be sacrificed if it gets them to the desire d goal. Plant cites a re cent telling comment from Vladimir Putin, who warned that as long as North Korea feared America, they would rather ‘eat grass’ than give up their weapons programme. There is a certain grim poignancy in that remark. During the North Korean famine of the 1990s, in which up to three million North Koreans died, many did indeed take to eating grass. By that yardstick, even the toughest international sanctions would be unlikely to deter the regime from pursuing its H-bomb programme. As Plant puts it, ‘They have been through hardship before, but they just stick to their guns.’
The prospect of North Korea having such a weapon is a frightening one. From the dawn of the Cold War, the sheer power of H-bombs has always awed those who have possessed them, and imbued a certain sense of responsibility. There is no such guarantee that someone like Kim Jong-un will feel the same way.
Indeed, when the H-bomb was originally conceived by the Manhattan Project team, senior figures including J Robert Oppenheimer, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, objected even to their own side building one. As one of his colleagues, Enrico Fermi, put it, ‘The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole.’
The discovery that the Soviets had already invented their own bomb in 1949 saw those objections overruled, and in 1952, the US detonated its first H-bomb over a Pacific atoll. The size of the blast – 450 times that of Nagasaki – stunned even those who had watched previous bomb tests, with a mushroom cloud five times the height of Everest and 100 miles wide.
A decade later, Moscow responded with the ‘Tsar Bomba’, four times larger again, and so big that the pilots who dropped it over Russia’s icy northern wastes were warned that they might not escape the blast.
The terrif ying power of such devices helped spur both sides into arms-control measures, as to any sane leader, they would be far too destructive to b e deploye d in a tactical nuclear war. But H-bombs still turned out to have their use: because of their super-high explosive yield, much smaller, lighter ones could be fitted on to ballistic missiles, yet still deliver a big payload. (The Nagasaki atom bomb, which weighed nearly five tons, could only be dropped by plane.)
North Korea is also working on an intercontinental-missile programme, and in July, test-fired one that experts believe could reach the US mainland. In the recent photos of Kim Jong-un, whom Donald Trump calls ‘Rocket Man’, inspecting the new H-bomb model, there is also a strategically placed blueprint on the wall that suggests it will fit neatly into a missile’s nose cone. Once again, what looks like laughable propaganda may be no joke, according to Plant. ‘They will expect scientists in the US to look at it closely,’ he says. ‘Their message will be, “We think this works.”’
However, given that Pyongyang’s fledgling missile-guidance systems are unlikely to be very accurate, the fear is that they will use the H-bomb’s immense power to compensate, deploying it not as a precision weapon, but as a nuclear blunderbuss. In practical terms, that could mean the difference between destroying downtown Los Angeles and wiping out the entire city.
So can anything be done? While Donald Trump has now warned Kim Jong-un that America is ‘locked and loaded’ for action, Hecker reckons Washington should open direct talks with Pyongyang, to avoid ‘misunderstandings’ and promise they have no plans to topple Kim. (Though this is precisely what President Trump may be threatening.) He says that, most of the time, his North Korean colleagues claimed only to be building nuclear weapons because they feared attack from the US, and wanted it to be known that they had a deterrent. For a regime built on paranoia, that is perhaps an understandable fear. ‘Talking so soon after North Korea made such a major nuclear-weapons advance may make it look like the US administration blinked first,’ Hecker told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the inhouse journal for nuclear research, this month. ‘But I consider that much less dangerous than stumbling into a nuclear war.’
Hecker’s remarks may well be read by his admirers in Pyongyang. But with neither Trump nor Kim Jong-un looking keen to compromise, it may now be that the only way the H-bomb programme will be halted is by force. Whatever happens, the next time the Pink Lady appears on TV, the world will be watching carefully.
From top Ri Chun-hee, the ‘Pink Lady’, announces the success of the H-bomb test earlier this month; Kim Jong-un with North Korea’s top nuclear scientist, Ri Hong-sop (third from left); commuters in Seoul watch a report of a previous test, in January 2016