Nations Hurry to Gather Data on North Korea Nuke Trial

South Korean protesters torch a mock representation of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un on Wednesday in Seoul, one day after the North's latest nuclear test (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).
South Korean protesters torch a mock representation of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un on Wednesday in Seoul, one day after the North's latest nuclear test (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).

The United States and partner nations are hurrying to collect as much scientific information as possible from Tuesday's atomic detonation by North Korea in the hopes of discovering just how much progress the reclusive country has made in wielding a deliverable nuclear weapon, the Associated Press reported.

Washington is still seeking to confirm that the North Korean blast was nuclear in nature, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday.

"We obviously are continuing to evaluate and assess," he stated during a Pentagon press briefing. "There's no question that North Korea has continued to enrich fuel. They've conducted [nuclear] tests in the past," and their ongoing pursuit of an ICBM capability "constitutes a real threat to the United States."

"We have to do everything necessary to increase our missile defenses with regard to that threat," he added.

Military and spy services are looking to learn what type of device was detonated at the Punggye-ri site, its explosive yield, and especially what fissile material fueled the explosion.

North Korea's previous tests in 2006 and 2009 employed plutonium. It was widely speculated in the buildup to Tuesday's blast that Pyongyang would use weaponized uranium produced from its nascent enrichment program. However, the Stalinist state's claim that the test involved a "miniaturized" device suggests plutonium might have been used again.

"A highly enriched uranium test would be a significant development. Unfortunately, we don't yet have any evidence as to the device's design yield or whether it was made from plutonium or highly enriched uranium," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear weapons expert James Acton told AP.

South Korea is projecting the explosive power of the detonation at between 6 and 7 kilotons while U.S. officials have said only the yield was "several kilotons." Regardless of which projection is correct, the test was the North's most powerful to date.

Outside scientists will also analyze any radionuclide emissions leaked into the air from the blast in order to determine whether the test did in fact involve a compact nuclear device. If true, it would suggest the aspiring nuclear power is making headway in developing warheads small enough to be mounted onto ballistic missiles. The view of most foreign specialists is that the North has not yet acquired the capability to miniaturize nuclear weapons.

News of the blast's fairly small yield would indicate the test did not involve a thermonuclear device. Such hydrogen bombs powered by nuclear fission have approximately 1,000 times more force than atomic weapons. However, the small yield would have negative implications if it happened as the result of a successful test of a miniaturized device, according to the New York Times.

It is not yet definitive that the blast detected by international seismic monitoring stations coming from Punggye-ri was in fact nuclear. It could have been a conventional explosion rigged to appear nuclear, though analysts said that does not appear to be the case. Detection of abnormal levels of radiation in the air will give a much stronger indication whether the explosion was nuclear.

The U.N. Security Council was quick to condemn the North's latest test though it could take weeks for the 15-member body to reach agreement on new punishments for Pyongyang. China is expected to stand with Washington in calling for stronger international economic penalties as the government in Beijing is angry its longtime ally disregarded its many entreaties to refrain from carrying out the test, the Times separately reported. Still, there is little expectation that Beijing's incoming leader, Xi Jinping, will drop his nation's longtime support of the Kim dynasty.

Washington did receive prior notice by the North that a nuclear test was coming, but it was not informed of the exact timing of the event, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a Reuters report.

The White House announced that President Obama and outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in a Tuesday telephone conversation agreed to work through the Security Council to secure a strong response, according to a separate Reuters report.

February 13, 2013
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The United States and partner nations are hurrying to collect as much scientific information as possible from Tuesday's atomic detonation by North Korea in the hopes of discovering just how much progress the reclusive country has made in wielding a deliverable nuclear weapon, the Associated Press reported.

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