After North Korea’s third nuclear test, and continuous threats of war, scientists are struggling to evaluate the nuclear capabilities of the secretive country. Only one thing is clear; the country’s third underground nuclear test was much larger than the country’s 2006 and 2009 tests, coming in at around a 5.0 in seismic magnitude. Nuclear experts say that the magnitude of the blast was equivalent to approximately 6 kilotons of high-powered explosives.
Nevertheless, according to the New York Times, "Still, even the largest estimates are small by world standards. The first three nuclear tests of China, for instance, were measured at 22 kilotons, 35 kilotons and 250 kilotons."
Scientists throughout the U.S. emphasize the importance of determining whether or not the test was fueled by plutonium or uranium. In 2007, North Korea shut down its plutonium reactor, prompting experts to conclude that its supplies of the rare element are now running low. Intelligence officials estimated it had enough fuel for six to ten bombs. (Another source similarly estimated four to eight bombs.)
However, in 2010, North Korea revealed what appears to be a fairly advanced program to enrich uranium, which could fuel many bombs. Unfortunately, analysts say the uranium approach may also offer North Korea more secrecy since uranium plants are much easier to hide than plutonium reactors.
U.S. scientists may not be able to determine which product was used to fuel the third nuclear tests; however, North Korea’s recent threat to restart their plutonium reactor could ironically prove to be good news for the U.S., implying that the country’s nuclear program is running low on the rare fuel. In fact, even with the reactor up-and-running, it could be years before North Korea has enough plutonium for more bombs.
Generally, speculation suggests that North Korea's nuclear arsenal consists only of large, crude bombs and is far from being able to deliver a nuclear warhead to U.S. Soil. According to Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Stanford professor, North Korea has yet to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. In other words, North Korea has no way of transporting a nuclear bomb to the United States mainland. Furthermore, to put it simply, the nuclear bomb would have to be extremely small and light, which would require additional nuclear tests.
Hecker, who has visited North Korea on seven different occasions, and who has toured North Korea’s nuclear facilities, maintains that North Korea is years from becoming a serious and immediate threat to the United States. Hecker concluded an interview with the Los Angeles Times by saying, "Why would they want to strike the United States? It would be suicidal and the regime is not suicidal," indicating a strong belief in nuclear deterrence.
On Thursday, South Korea announced that North Korea had moved a missile to the Eastern coast of the country. However, experts say that even North Korea's short-range missiles lack accuracy.
This is not to discredit threats from Kim Jung-un and his regime. The United States has every right to be worried; North Korea has continually expressed hostility toward the United States and its long-time ally, South Korea. However, do we need to start building bomb shelters and stocking up on bottled water? Probably not right this minute.
Here is a timeline of North Korea’s Nuclear Program.