Kim Jong Un wasn't about to let the United States enjoy its labor day weekend without giving a reminder of the increasing threat his regime poses to America and its allies. New pictures have emerged showing what appears to be a mature thermonuclear warhead design, one that is capable of fitting into the tight confines of the rogue regime's latest long-range ballistic missile designs.
A "hydrogen" or "thermonuclear" bomb is exponentially more powerful than nuclear "fission" or "atom" bomb, like the ones used on Japan in World War II. Go to this live map to see for yourself the differences in effects between atom bombs and thermonuclear bombs, and different warhead types and yields, overlaid on a map of your home town. It offers a chilling depiction of just how much destruction modern nuclear warheads provide.
Livescience.com gives a good description of how these two types of nuclear weapons physically differ:
"The difference between thermonuclear bombs and fission bombs begins at the atomic level. Fission bombs, like those used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, work by splitting the nucleus of an atom. When the neutrons, or neutral particles, of the atom's nucleus split, some hit the nuclei of nearby atoms, splitting them, too. The result is a very explosive chain reaction. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki exploded with the yield of 15 kilotons and 20 kilotons of TNT, respectively, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In contrast, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb, in the United States in November 1952 yielded an explosion on the order of 10,000 kilotons of TNT. Thermonuclear bombs start with the same fission reaction that powers atomic bombs — but the majority of the uranium or plutonium in atomic bombs actually goes unused. In a thermonuclear bomb, an additional step means that more of the bomb's explosive power becomes available.
First, an igniting explosion compresses a sphere of plutonium-239, the material that will then undergo fission. Inside this pit of plutonium-239 is a chamber of hydrogen gas. The high temperatures and pressures created by the plutonium-239 fission cause the hydrogen atoms to fuse. This fusion process releases neutrons, which feed back into the plutonium-239, splitting more atoms and boosting the fission chain reaction."
We will have to wait for full analysis by nuclear weapons scientists to gain deeper insights into what the photos show and what they don't, but the design does look alarming legitimate, and its construction seems to be of high quality. Miniaturized thermonuclear warheads usually have "stepped down" bullet-like contours for Teller-Ulam configurations or are of an hour-glass like shape with the primary and secondary arranged in two sphere-like casings as seen in the photos from North Korea.
Below is a picture of the U.S. W80 thermonuclear warhead:
The images posted today of North Korea's supposed thermonuclear bomb design also may help validate to Pyongyang's claim that they have miniaturized their atom bomb design dramatically. A tested miniaturized nuclear warhead and reentry system are seen as two of the final boxes to be checked off before North Korea's long-range nuclear deterrent is considered verified.
For those who are quick to discount these photos as a propaganda disinformation play, that is always a possibility. But the truth is that North Korea has done exactly what it said it would and has shown off what ended up being real weapons systems, not fakes, over the last 18 months. For instance, nearly all of the weapons North Korea paraded around on April 15th, many of which were never tested before, have now been tested. This is a grand departure from years past.
Simply put, Pyongyang's open and frighteningly honest presentation of their nuclear capabilities and missile programs has been consistent as it has been startling as of late. Just a year and a half ago many laughed at the picture below, but it ended up being largely representative of where North Korea's nuclear warhead program was headed at the time.
Following their fourth nuclear test on January 6th, 2016, North Korea had claimed it tested a hydrogen bomb. These claims were debunked as seismic and atmospheric sampling data, as well as other intelligence, said otherwise. What North Korea likely tested instead was a "boosted fission device." This is an atom bomb that compresses tritium and deuterium gas during detonation. This enhances the yield of a fission weapon considerably, but it doesn't come anywhere close to the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. But this test and North Korea's claims did point to the fact that the reclusive regime was not content with fission bombs alone—thermonuclear weapons were its real developmental goal.
With all this in mind, there is a possibility that the status of North Korea's hydrogen bomb program could be why the country's sixth nuclear test has not occurred. National security pundits have longed claimed a sixth test is imminent and North Korea has said that it would carry out another test when it's ready. Almost weekly we get new reports of "suspicious movements" at North Korea's Punggye-ri underground nuclear test facility, yet a year after North Korea's last test, and the advent of a reliable intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missile capability, we are still waiting for that sixth test. It could be that North Korea has waited because the next weapon they test won't be an atom bomb, it will be a hydrogen bomb.
Going from a miniaturized atom bomb to a thermonuclear weapon, and a miniaturized one at that, is a massive and highly unlikely leap for the closed-off and poor country like North Korea. But it's clear they are getting help from somewhere and they have accomplished seemingly the impossible when it comes to their missile programs over the last 18 months. So it wouldn't be crazy to postulate that their nuclear weapons program is about to take a similar leap.
Regardless if or when a North Korean hydrogen bomb test occurs, the rogue state is making it clear what they intend to do with these types of capabilities. North Korea's state media proclaimed the following today:
“The H-bomb, the explosive power of which is adjustable from tens kiloton to hundreds kiloton, is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals."
They quoted Kim as saying:
“All components of the H-bomb were homemade and all the processes ... were put on the Juche basis, thus enabling the country to produce powerful nuclear weapons as many as it wants."
The high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) threat from North Korea has long been feared, and now that they have a delivery system that can hit the U.S. it is more realizable than ever before. But a North Korea launched HEMP attack is far more of an issue for North Korea's neighbors, like Japan, or even Hawaii, than it is for the continental United States. A cyber attack aimed at the power grid in the U.S. is a far more likely tactic North Korea could deploy here at home. Yet the possibility that North Korea has or will acquire H-bomb capability in the not too far off future makes the EMP threat more palpable than before Pyongyang released these latest images.
After an astonishing year of weapons development, and almost exactly one year since the last North Korean nuclear test, it seems that the next big escalation will be another underground nuclear test. When that will come is anyone's guess, but it will probably be sooner than later.
Author's note: This was written before North Korea executed their sixth nuclear test. Here is our post on the test.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com