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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS -


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.


‘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

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