Politics

North Korea’s H-Bomb Test Explained

What you need to know about comic book-style villain Kim Jong-Un's latest outrage

North Korea, led by the reclusive and enigmatic Kim Jong-Un, further cemented its status as the world’s most virulent basket-case when it announced it had tested a hydrogen bomb.

The pariah state issued a statement saying the test was a “complete success” and a “self-defense against the U.S. having numerous and humongous nuclear weapons.”

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Obviously unconvinced of the test’s benign nature, world leaders rushed to denounce the explosion as a threat to regional stability. If North Korea does indeed possess advanced nuclear weapons, U.S. allies in the area like Japan and South Korea now have another reason to be gravely concerned about the dangerous and unpredictable nation.

But there are questions lingering over the nature of the test, its purpose and what the implications will be. Here are four things you need to know:

1: Whether North Korea actually detonated a hydrogen bomb is being widely questioned. Skeptics in China, South Korea and elsewhere point out that the seismic activity from the blast more resembled the detonation of a traditional atomic weapon than a hydrogen bomb. A traditional atomic bomb creates energy by splitting atoms, while hydrogen bombs use a two-step process of fission and then fusion to bring the atoms back together, creating what’s called a thermonuclear reaction. Tuesday’s blast measured a 5.1 on the Richter Scale, but North Korea’s test of an atomic bomb in 2013 registered the exact same level.

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The doubters say that North Korea likely exaggerated its claim of a hydrogen bomb as a propaganda exercise, but they note that an official determination of the test’s true nature won’t be made for some time. Others have suggested North Korea likely doesn’t have the capability to build a hydrogen bomb, but that it could produce a boosted fission bomb, which is more powerful than a regular atomic bomb.

2: While North Korea’s official statement alleges the test was in response to U.S. threats, the true motive appears to be an exertion of independence from China. North Korea has largely been a client state of China since World War II, but relations with its Communist overlord have deteriorated since Kim Jong-Un assumed power in 2011.

The test was immediately denounced by Chinese officials: “China strongly opposes this act,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “China will firmly push for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The blast could create more problems for China, which is seeking to establish regional dominance in the Pacific, by drawing new attention from Western military powers into its zone of influence.

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3: North Korea’s nuclear capability is no secret — this was North Korea’s fourth such test over the past decade, and it is widely believed to have enough plutonium for eight to 12 nuclear weapons. Therefore, this event does not fundamentally change the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula.

What makes this particular test concerning is that it comes as Kim Jong-Un has widely broadcast his goals of ramping up the nuclear program that was initiated by his father and grandfather. The comical Jong-Un, who is believed to be in his mid-30s, has boasted that his country possesses the technology needed to build a thermonuclear weapon. Until today, those remarks had not been taken very seriously.

4: In the United States, Republican presidential candidates quickly jumped on the test as more evidence of Obama’s failed leadership and his weak approach to confronting global threats. Three of North Korea’s four nuclear tests have occurred under Obama’s watch, and Iran has run roughshod over the obligations it agreed to in a nuclear deal with Western powers this summer — with Obama failing to offer any recourse.

“I have been warning throughout this campaign that North Korea is run by a lunatic who has been expanding his nuclear arsenal while President Obama stood idly by,” said Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement issued late Tuesday night.

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