World wonders: Could N. Korea fire nu­clear mis­sile over Ja­pan?

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - TEXAS LIQUOR LAWS - By Kim Tong-Hyung

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Will North Korea’s next nu­clear test in­volve a ther­monu­clear mis­sile scream­ing over Ja­pan? That’s a ques­tion be­ing asked after North Korea’s for­eign min­is­ter said his coun­try may test a hy­dro­gen bomb in the Pa­cific Ocean.

The world hasn’t seen an above-ground, at­mo­spheric nu­clear test since an in­land det­o­na­tion by China in 1980, and North Korea up­end­ing that could push the re­gion dan­ger­ously close to war. The room for er­ror would be min­i­mal, and any mis­take could be dis­as­trous. Even if suc­cess­ful, such a test could en­dan­ger air and sea traf­fic in the re­gion.

Be­cause of that, many ex­perts don’t think North Korea would take such a risk. But they’re also not rul­ing it out given the North’s in­creas­ing num­ber of nu­clear and mis­sile tests.

The main rea­son for North Korea to take that risk would be to quiet out­side doubts about whether it re­ally has a ther­monu­clear weapon small enough to fit on a mis­sile, said Jef­frey Lewis, a U.S. arms con­trol ex­pert at the Mid­dle­bury Cen­ter of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies at Mon­terey.

So far, North Korea has been sep­a­rately test­ing nu­clear weapons and the bal­lis­tic missiles built to de­liver them, rather than test­ing them to­gether.

North Korean For­eign Min­is­ter Ri Yong Ho would not have spo­ken with­out ap­proval from Py­ongyang’s top lead­er­ship when he sug­gested to re­porters in New York on Fri­day that the coun­try could con­duct an at­mo­spheric hy­dro­gen bomb test to ful­fill the vows of the coun­try’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Kim, in an un­usual di­rect state­ment to the world, pledged hours ear­lier to take “high­est-level” ac­tion against the United States over Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s threat to “to­tally de­stroy” the North if pro­voked. Ri did not elab­o­rate and said no one knew what de­ci­sion Kim would make.

If North Korea at­tempts an at­mo­spheric nu­clear test at sea, it would likely in­volve its most pow­er­ful bal­lis­tic missiles, such as the in­ter­me­di­ate-range Hwa­song-12 or the in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal-range Hwa­song-14, ex­perts say. The coun­try lacks as­sets to air­drop a nu­clear de­vice, and send­ing a ves­sel out to sea to det­o­nate a de­vice raises the chances of be­ing de­tected and stopped by the U.S. mil­i­tary.

For the nu­clear mis­sile to reach a re­mote part of the Pa­cific, it would have to fly over Ja­pan, as the North did with two Hwa­song-12 test launches in re­cent weeks.

There have only been a hand­ful of times when at­mo­spheric nu­clear tests in­volved bal­lis­tic missiles, in­clud­ing China’s fourth nu­clear test in 1966. That in­volved a midrange Dongfeng-2 mis­sile be­ing launched from a deep in­land rocket fa­cil­ity to the Lop Nur nu­clear test site in the coun­try’s far west.

Lewis finds sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion sur­round­ing North Korea and the events that led to China’s 1966 test, which was driven by U.S. doubts of Chi­nese ca­pa­bil­i­ties to place nu­clear weapons on bal­lis­tic missiles.

“The United States is still tak­ing an attitude of skep­ti­cism to­ward North Korea’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” Lewis said. “The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that China fired its nu­clear-armed mis­sile over its own ter­ri­tory, not an­other coun­try.”

A nu­clear launch by North Korea would come dan­ger­ously close to an act of war, said Lee Choon Geun, a mis­sile ex­pert from South Korea’s Science and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy In­sti­tute. Mis­sile tests can eas­ily go wrong and the con­se­quences of fail­ure could be ter­ri­fy­ing if the mis­sile is armed with a nu­clear weapon.

A failed flight or an ac­ci­den­tal det­o­na­tion over Ja­pan would likely trig­ger re­tal­i­a­tion from Washington and Tokyo that might re­sult in a nu­clear war, Lee said.

“It’s rea­son­able to think that Ri was bluff­ing,” Lee said. “Would they be sure that the United States and Ja­pan will just sit there and watch?”

But Lewis said that’s ex­actly what the United States and Ja­pan would do.

“Although I am sure such a launch would be very alarm­ing to peo­ple in Ja­pan, there is lit­tle the United States or Ja­pan could do,” he said. “Would we re­ally start a war over such an act? I don’t think so.”

An at­mo­spheric nu­clear test would be far more dan­ger­ous than det­o­na­tions in con­trolled un­der­ground en­vi­ron­ments, both be­cause of the force of the blast and un­re­strained re­lease of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als that could spread out over large ar­eas. Such a launch would po­ten­tially en­dan­ger air­craft and ships be­cause it’s highly un­likely the North would give prior warn­ings or send naval ves­sels to the area to con­trol sea traf­fic.

An at­mo­spheric ther­monu­clear blast would also raise the risks of dam­age caused by an elec­tro­mag­netic pulse, an in­tense wave of elec­tri­cal en­ergy gen­er­ated by the ex­plo­sion that could de­stroy elec­tronic de­vices and equipment over a vast area, Lee said.

The United States and the for­mer Soviet Union com­bined to con­duct more than 400 at­mo­spheric nu­clear tests be­fore they joined Britain in a 1963 treaty ban­ning tests in the at­mos­phere, outer space and un­der­wa­ter. The treaty was later signed by more than 100 other coun­tries.

China con­ducted 22 at­mo­spheric nu­clear tests, which fre­quently in­volved bombers drop­ping nu­clear de­vices on test sites, be­fore its last one in 1980.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.