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(News Focus) Test indicates progress in N. Korea nuke program though H-bomb claim faces skepticism

2017/09/03 17:42

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SEOUL, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- With its sixth nuclear test Sunday, North Korea has proven that its nuclear program is advancing at a fast clip, but it remains unclear whether it has actually developed a hydrogen bomb small enough to fit on a missile, officials and experts here said.

The North announced a "perfect success" in the test of what it claims to be an H-bomb for its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), hours after a 5.7 magnitude artificial earthquake was detected at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

It was far more powerful than quakes created by its five previous nuclear experiments in the same area in the country's northeastern mountainous province.

The scale increased to 5.04 magnitude in September last year, 4.8 in January of the same year, 4.9 in 2013, 4.5 in 2009 and 3.9 in 2006.

The Korea Meteorological Administration estimated that the explosive yield of Sunday's test was five to six times bigger than that of the previous one a year ago.

The North's fifth nuclear test is presumed to have triggered a yield of around 10 kilotons.

"The blast power is estimated to be more than 50kt this time," said Lee Chun-geun, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, put it at 60-80kt, short of some 100kt caused by a "real H-bomb."

  

An image of North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Hamgyeong Province. (Yonhap) An image of North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Hamgyeong Province. (Yonhap)

The South's military authorities have not revealed their official assessment yet.

"Given the scale of the artificial earthquake, its explosive yield appears to be scores of kilotons," a Ministry of National Defense official said. "It's assessed that the blast power has sharply grown, compared to the fifth nuclear test."

   It means the North has apparently succeeded in developing a more powerful nuclear bomb.

The question, however, is has it indeed acquired H-bomb technology.

In January last year, Pyongyang announced that it detonated an H-bomb. South Korean officials doubted the assertion, citing the estimated explosive yield of six kilotons at that time.

"It seems that North Korea used a boosted fission weapon again this time," the ministry official said.

Also at issue is whether the reclusive communist nation has successfully miniaturized its nuclear bombs for warheads.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) visits the country's Nuclear Weapons Institute in a photo released by Pyongyang's state media on Sept. 3, 2017. (Yonhap) [For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution] North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) visits the country's Nuclear Weapons Institute in a photo released by Pyongyang's state media on Sept. 3, 2017. (Yonhap) [For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution]

Prior to the nuclear test, North Korea said it has developed a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded into the country's new ICBM.

The North's state media released related photos, carrying a report of leader Kim Jong-un's visit to a state nuclear weapons institute.

Experts here pointed out the technological difficulties of making a tiny nuclear warhead for an ICBM.

They said the North is believed to have yet to master the technology, while it's apparently making progress in the program.

"Today's nuclear test is believed to be aimed at showing off the possibility of combining nuclear weapons that Kim Jong-un desires and the ICBM capability," Park In-hwi, a professor at Ewha Womans University, said. "I think North Korea is behaving in accordance with its own timetable. It's apparently getting closer to completing its nuclear missile capability."

   lcd@yna.co.kr

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