- North Korea’s fourth nuclear test is unlikely to have been of a hydrogen (thermonuclear) weapon, as claimed by Pyongyang.
- Other possibilities are that the test involved tritium in a ‚boosted bomb‘, or that it was a simple fission weapon.
- Ultimately, North Korea is unlikely to have sufficiently operationalised a nuclear device for a warhead, and additional sanctions are the most likely outcome from the test.
On 6 January, North Korea claimed to have conducted an underground test of a nuclear explosive device at 1000 local time. The device is highly unlikely to have been a hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb, as announced by North Korean media outlets, but instead the use of the term ‚H bomb‘ may have been a reference to the hydrogen isotopes used in a boosted fission weapon, indicative of North Korea’s developing weapons capabilities.
This test – described by the United States as a „highly provocative act“ – followed the apparently successful launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 21 December, and a series of violent incidents along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the de facto land border with South Korea, in August 2015. North Korea views the development of its capabilities in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as key to its national security, specifically as a deterrent against South Korea and the United States, with which it is still technically at war.
The seismic event that signalled the nuclear test occurred near the previous nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, where three earlier tests were conducted in 2006, 2009, and 2013. In all likelihood, this was a fourth nuclear test. Early reports of the seismic magnitude were 5.1, similar to the most recent test by North Korea in 2013. If the test took place in a tunnel at a mountain site at Pyungge-ri – which is not necessarily certain – then this would probably have been conducted at one of the two southern tunnels, which are in deep shadow during this time of year and little activity is therefore detectable by commercial satellite imagery.
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