North Korea ups stakes with threat of hydrogen bomb test above ground

Students march in Pyongyang yesterday in support of leader Kim Jong-un. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Students march in Pyongyang yesterday in support of leader Kim Jong-un. Photograph: AFP/Getty
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Fears have been raised that North Korea’s next nuclear test could involve a thermonuclear missile being flown over Japan, after its foreign minister said his country may test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.

The world hasn’t seen an above-ground, atmospheric nuclear test since an inland detonation by China in 1980, and North Korea going ahead could push the region dangerously close to war.

I am sure such a launch would be very alarming to people in Japan

The room for error would be minimal, and any mistake could be disastrous. Even if successful, such a test could endanger air and sea traffic in the region.

Because of that, many experts don’t believe North Korea would take such a risk. But they’re also not ruling it out, given the North’s increasing number of nuclear and missile tests.

The main reason for North Korea to take the risk would be to quieten outside doubts about whether it really has a thermonuclear weapon small enough to fit on a missile, said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury Center of International Studies in the US.

So far, North Korea has been separately testing nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles built to deliver them, rather than together.

North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho would not have spoken without approval from Pyongyang’s top leadership when he suggested on Friday that the country could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test to fulfil the ambitions of premier Kim Jong-un.

Kim, in an unusual direct statement to the world, pledged hours earlier to take “highest-level” action against the US in response to President Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea if provoked. Ri didn’t elaborate and said no one knew what decision Kim would make.

If North Korea attempts an atmospheric nuclear test at sea, it would likely involve its most powerful ballistic missiles, such as the intermediate-range Hwasong-12 or the intercontinental-range Hwasong-14, experts say.

The nation lacks assets to air-drop a nuclear device, and sending a vessel out to sea to detonate a device raises the chances of getting detected and stopped by US military.

For the nuclear missile to reach a remote part of the Pacific, it would have to fly over Japan, as happened with two Hwasong-12 test launches in recent weeks.

A nuclear launch by North Korea would come dangerously close to an act of war, said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert from South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.

However, Lewis disagreed: “Although I am sure such a launch would be very alarming to people in Japan, there is little the United States or Japan could do.”