We Asked an Expert if the World Needs to Worry About North Korea's H-Bomb Claims

Did they really have a successful hydrogen bomb test? Can they really miniaturise their bombs and attach them to rockets? Or is it all just bullshit?

by Amelia Dimoldenberg, Illustration: Joe Frontel
07 January 2016, 6:00am

Yesterday, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Quickly, plenty of people said that no, it's quite likely they didn't successfully test a hydrogen bomb at all.

The United States Geological Survey measured seismic waves equivalent to a 5.1-magnitude earthquake, which is consistent with a nuclear explosion, but more likely indicative of an atomic bomb than the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. Pyongyang also said it was capable of miniaturising its nuclear weapons and attaching them to rockets, meaning it would feasibly be able to blast them at all its imperialist pig-dog enemies in the USA – though these claims, perhaps unsurprisingly, haven't yet been verified.

Regardless, members of political parties around the world – including China, North Korea's largest ally – were quick to criticise the claims in an array of hurried soundbites. In a statement yesterday, the shadow foreign minister Hilary Benn said: "If verified, the nuclear test carried out by North Korea represents a clear violation of numerous UN Security Council Resolutions and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms."

North Korea is known, however, to be all talk and no miniaturised hydrogen bomb, so we thought we should ask an expert about the validity of its claims. That expert is John Sweeney of BBC Newsnight, and the author of North Korea Undercover, a book about the time he spent in the country for a Panorama investigation (the BBC later apologised for using a London School of Economics trip as cover for entering the country).

We had a quick chat on the phone about the latest example of North Korea puffing its chest.

VICE: First off, do you think there's any truth to North Korea's bomb test claims?
John Sweeney: Yes, because the Americans have measured earthquake readings below the ground near their nuclear testing site. The North Koreans have been getting better at making bombs, and the Chinese help out in terms of their economy; it would seem that Kim Jong-un is using this money to develop the bomb.

Okay, so say the bomb test was successful, that doesn't necessarily mean they can get the bomb to anywhere it's going to do any damage, right?
No, the catch is this: making a bomb – an atomic bomb or hydrogen bomb – isn't that difficult these days, if you've got billions of pounds and you make it a priority. The difficulty is shrinking the bomb and putting it on a rocket.

Do you think they're capable of that?
People in the know still believe that the North Koreans are not in the position where they have shrunk nuclear weapons enough to put them on a rocket. They have had failing rockets, too, like flailing shrimp. The best rocket they've done has gone over Japan into the Pacific, but nowhere near the United States. There is a North Korean graphic of a nuclear missile hitting Washington DC, but that's a joke and remains a joke.

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So the world remains a scary place, but not all that scary.
They exaggerate their rocket capability an absurd amount; it's a foolish claim. They do have a rocket that can fly 500 to 800 miles, but not the thousands of miles it needs to cross to America.

So if they exaggerate all the time, why should we take their most recent claims seriously?
We should take them half seriously, because the dangers are that you could put the rocket into a ship and take the ship and sail it into a harbour and it blows up. But that would be suicide for North Korea, and I don't believe Kim Jong-un wants to commit suicide.

So why is he making such a big noise about it?
I think that the big picture is that North Korea is using their nuclear weapons and these announcements as a smokescreen to mask an enormous human rights tragedy, and the more we worry about the threat from North Korea it seems the less space we have in our minds and hearts for the ordinary people of North Korea, who are suffering. We need to pay less attention to all this hoo-ha.

You just used the phrase hoo-ha, so I'm going to assume we definitely shouldn't be worried for now.
We should be worried, because a psychotic lunatic has got his finger on the nuclear button.

Fair enough. How about what's left of North Korea's international allies? Where do they come in this discussion?
There is only one partner to North Korea these days, and that's China. The Chinese need to watch what's happening very, very closely. For the moment Japan hasn't got a nuclear weapon, but if North Korea [keep making nuclear threats Japan might start to develop a weapon], and then the Chinese will become extremely alarmed by that, and then there's a danger – via a series of miscalculations – that you have a situation like August, 1914. Things aren't good at the moment between China, Japan and other states in South East Asia.

So, basically, North Korea's claims, in the worst possible situation, could lead to escalation on all fronts?
The danger is that North Korea's recklessness might destabilise [the region] – it might push Japan into becoming a nuclear power. It's not immediately frightening, but it is disconcerting. But the essential reality is that North Korea is one of the darkest places on Earth

In terms of life for the average person?
Yes. Compare it to parts of Syria and Iraq currently under the thumb of ISIS. In 2003, after Saddam's fall, everyone [in Iraq] could use a satellite dish and freely listen to the world's media. Even people under ISIS have a better idea about how democracy works. No one in North Korea has any idea of what we think of their regime; they live in darkness. It's why I passionately believe that the BBC should get a service to broadcast into North Korea, and the BBC are working on it.

From your experiences in the country, how real do their threats seem? If they were capable, do you think they would really start a nuclear war?
When I was there for the BBC, the rhetoric was incredibly angry – threatening the United States with thermonuclear war. But there was an extraordinary, amazing mismatch between what they were saying to the West and how they were acting on the ground, happy as Larry. We took selfies with the colonel in charge of the DMZ; there is one in my book. And that same night our minder sang "My Way" by Frank Sinatra during karaoke. If you're at war, you don't sing that fucking song.

Thanks, John.


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