Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
May 25, 2009

The North Korean Nuclear Test

Today North Korea tested, apparently successful, a nuclear device. The size of the explosion was given as 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT equivalent. That is much bigger than the last test which resulted in a 'fizzle' with only 500 tons TNT equivalent. NoKo also launched three surface to air missiles with a range of some 130km.

This was likely a test of a "Fat Man" type device, comparable to the first second nuclear bomb. It is the easiest to build plutonium design and the most likely one to work without more intensive engineering and testing. It is also a bulky design that is difficult to fit on the missiles North Korea has.

As far as known, today's detonation left North Korea with enough Plutonium for two to six more bombs. It may restart reprocessing old nuclear fuel from its sole reactor and get material for another one within six month. It would have to restart the half dismantled reactor to produce more which would take some three to four years. North Korea may have an Uranium enrichment program, another possible way to nukes, but this program is likely not at industrial scale.

Everyone and his brother is condemning today's test including the Russians and the Chinese. The UN Security Council will meet and release some harsh words. But I doubt that any new sanctions will be issued.

Even if North Korea manages to put a nuclear device on a missile it is unlikely that it would use it in a first strike. There would be nothing to gain but devastation for itself and the certain end for its regime. Under attack the calculation would be different.

The concerned global parties about a North Korean nuclear strike are South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and China. South Korea and the especially the U.S. troops stationed there would be a likely aim for a defensive strike. Japan and U.S. garrisons there are another possible target. China does not fear a North Korean weapon. But it has two other concerns.

The first is a nuclear armed Japan. Japan is a latent nuclear state. It has the material and the know how to build a few nukes over a weekend or two. It also has the means to deliver them. If Japan officially takes up nuclear arms China would feel endangered. The Japanese occupation is not forgotten.

The second Chinese fear is a collapse of the North Korean regime followed by a 'peaceful' invasion from South Korea and the U.S. troops there that would come to 'help' the 'poor North Korean people'. This would put U.S. troops directly at its border.

Therefore I believe that China will block any attempt to put even more sanctions on North Korea.

But next to a nuclear strike there is another fear out there. North Korea could, in theory, export a nuclear device to interested party. As it has so few, the price would certainly be very high and I find it unlikely that anyone who can pay that price is interested in acquiring one or two weapons. But who knows? The U.S. will certainly play along that fear to further it aims.

It could argue that to prevent proliferation all ships must be searched when they enter and leave North Korea's territorial waters. If the UN security council would agree to that it would set a precedent that could later be used to essentially blockade Iran. 

Posted by b on May 25, 2009 at 14:22 UTC | Permalink


blockading North Korea would be an exercise in futility if the aim is to truly keep them from exporting a nuke. what would stop them from putting the nuke in a submarine?

it would also be very difficult to put up a blockade around Iran. too many nations need to trade with Iran, it seems doubtful that the security council would agree to such a thing. even the US's new partner India would have to swallow pretty hard to go along with it.

Posted by: dan of steele | May 25 2009 14:30 utc | 1

Are the NKoreans testing Iran's nukes? :)

Posted by: DavidS | May 25 2009 14:46 utc | 2

@DavidS - no - Iran does not have the material to make a nuke (plutonium or HEU).

The wonks now estimate a yeild of 3-8 kilotons. Either another fizzle or a different kind of device than Fatboy. The second would be of some concern as it could hint to miniaturization.

Posted by: b | May 25 2009 14:51 utc | 3

Wow, B - your ability to see two or three (or more) steps ahead on issues is just amazing.

Posted by: Maxcrat | May 25 2009 15:16 utc | 4

Recalling the last NK nuclear test in 2006, there was uncertainty and not unanimity among Russia, China, Japan and US whether there was an actual nuclear explosion. The seismic data from 2006 did not confirm a nuclear device rather than a large conventiional blast had occured, and initially there was no radioactive atmospheric "tail" detected. That blast was said to have been set off in an old abandoned mountain mine shaft. Only 2 days after the blast was atmospheric radiation confirmed, it was almost as though NK had forgotten to send up some of their "evidence". This test is so far only slightly more convincing.

The political response has been the same with both of the incidents, of course. NK is a very handy whipping boy for the military corporate alliance that controls so much of US govt - our Iran of the East. When I see the near frenzy of some media and political talking heads over NK, it reminds me of President Chirac's off hand comment at the end of a news conference(on the record despite his attempted retraction the next day) that even if Iran had several nuclear weapons it didn't really matter, "they are not interested in non-existence" because if they launched one, "it would not have gone 200 meters into the air before all of Iran would be obliterated by counterstrikes". He was forced to retract, mostly by US and Israeli backlash against his remarks because he was not saying his proper lines to keep the world safe for war.

Posted by: ds | May 25 2009 15:41 utc | 5

WRT Iran, my guess is it will distract attention more that focus it on Iran. Quite frankly, if Iran wanted nukes it would have gotten them two decades ago. Hard to believe that Pakistan and North Korea can get them but Iran cannot.

If Japan nukes up, that will only reduce the heat on Iran even more. It will also encourage China to expand its small nuclear arsenal into one large enough to ensure a "second strike" capability.

Still, this doesn't seem to be as big a deal as one thinks. Outside of South Korea, Asian markets are ok. European markets seem to stable for the moment. (granted, they all have bigger problems to worry about.) U.S. markets are closed for Memorial Day.

Posted by: Lysander | May 25 2009 16:05 utc | 6

ds 5) so true. As b points out, this news is jibber-jabber. PRNK's first 'nuclear test' was 0.25 kiloton, about what a tank truck full of ANFO would cause, and now debunked. This test was larger, some claim as high as 20 kT, but there is no gauge for how big that weapon was ... it could have been the size of a box car and could have been placed in a tunnel packed with all the outdated and unstable military ordinance Pyongyang wants to detonate along with it.

Now, Pyongyang has short range missiles, but every test they made with their so-called ICBM Taipo Dong 2 failed. International missile experts agree, the Taipo Dong 2 is just slapped together, (unlike the recent Iranian satellite launch), and is structurally incapable of carrying a warhead, much less itself, fully downrange, as the recent test failed also. So at this moment, PRNK has 1) short range missiles capable of carrying up to a ~500 pound warhead, and 2) a very small and primitive "nuclear" bomb the size of a tractor trailer, likely weighing 5000 pounds or more.

E.g. Kim Jung Il is a threat to their own people starving to death, **not to US.**

America, on the other hand, is more than 160% of its GDP in debt, unemployment is rising at a time when hiring should be increasing, California is about to implode and turn its poor and insane out on the street, US food processors have admitted they can't and don't provide food safety, US Treasury officials admitted we're not going to see that bailout $Ts ever again, local and State governments are bankrupt, for the most part, and more then 1/3 of Americans are now upside down as perpetual debt slaves to 'credit' banks that were NOT put in check by BO, and all thanks to the Republican Party, and their relentless deregulation and globalization putsch.

So what was it you wanted to tell all of US, Memorial-Days-Arms-Crisis-Right-On-Cue National-Propaganda-As-'News'-Radio (NPR) media? Is it that our Defense USA™ needs more than the ONE TRILLION A YEAR it burns now, to chase around the North Pacific?

Posted by: Tom Fink | May 25 2009 16:08 utc | 7

correct an error in my post - Fat Man was the second bomb (plutonium) - the first was Little Boy (uranium).

@ds @5 - convincing enough if the world public sees them a nuke tests (which I think at least this one was - we'll be sure in a few days when more analysis was done)

Posted by: b | May 25 2009 17:20 utc | 8

further to b's #8

In case anybody is not up to speed on primitive nukes, Thin Man (Hiroshima) was a "gun-type", that is, the fissionable material was slammed together in a sort of "shotgun". Originally, they had thought to use plutonium, but, because of the amount of highly fissile isotopes of Pu in the shit they had made, it was not a good design, so they used uranium highly enriched with U235.

Since this was the the most simple and likely to be successful bomb, it was used on the first target, Hiroshima, on my birthday.

The plutonium device used on Nagasaki, was an implosion device, using plutonium and the technology tried out on the first nuke blast on July 16, in the "Trinity" test. This is the technology preferred by the more prominent terrorist rogue states.

Under financed terrorists will have to do with crumbs from the rich folks table, but will do as boogie men to divert attention to the serious arsenals that could still send us all to hell in ½ an hour.

Posted by: Chuck Cliff | May 25 2009 18:55 utc | 9

Ya gotta respect North Korea's refusal to be a colony. I can't help but think of the dreadful punishment meted out to former South Korea prez Roh Moo-hyun when he tried to do the same thing more peacably.
Since no one seems to know whether Roh knew of his wife's dalliances with rich people's money there is little point in arguing whether the charges against Roh were true or not, although Monolycus would have a better idea than most.
What we do know is though that Roh's 'gifts' from the rich appear considerably less than what any other South Korean prez has taken, some of whom held the vaseline jar as fat assed chaebol bosses stuck it to the South Korean people.
Roh's major crime appears to have been to have sought a better relationship with the North eventually leading to re-unification. This would have worried China, agitated the Japanese and really pissed off amerika who 50 years after the fact are still desperate to recover all their WW2 tribute, which was meant to have included all of Japan's colonies not ones sawed in half then given to the yellafellas.
So for all the criticism of Pyonyang that will be shat out by a compliant western news media about peeps in North Korea starving, it is worth remembering that although their starvation may be the result of despotism, the root cause is the alleged dictator's refusal to kiss amerikan ass. amerikans who like to pretend they prefer death to dishonour, liberty before life are typically unable to respect those who act out on such beliefs.

Even though I hate nuclear weapons and find it amazing that the world is destined to run out of sufficient fissionable material to generate energy by 2050, I loath that most of the uranium that has been dug up is sitting in warehouses destined to blow the shit outta humans, I still want to tip my hat to emperor Jong-il and the rest of his mad mob for showing true grit rather than the bland acquiescence to murdering thugs that most pols in smaller countries adopt.

Posted by: Debs is dead | May 25 2009 21:03 utc | 10

I may be wrong but I think that if North and South Korea eventually unite then the US will be asked to remove its troops. North Korea needs nuclear weapons to act as deterant to any US attack. If the US wasn't so hostile I doubt that the North Koreans would have bothered developing nuclear weapons in the first place. I guess the media's coverage of this issue is yet another example of the demonisation of a country without looking at the wrong doings of the USA with its big stick of 760 plus (defensive???) bases outside of the USA. If the US was really keen to stop nuclear proliferation then they wouldn't be planning to place nuclear weapons in Poland which Russia will be forced to respond to with its own deployments.

Posted by: Charles | May 25 2009 22:07 utc | 11

Perfectly put, Tom Fink. Let's keep our eye on the ball. The non-existent threat of North Korea is not the ball, and just plays int the fear-mongering propaganda.

Shortly, we are going to have two destabilized nuclear superpowers scrambling for the remaining shreds of global geopolitical power that exist as a result of the tremendous power vacuum opening up. This could spell the end for all of us. That's the real threat.

Posted by: Obamageddon | May 25 2009 22:18 utc | 12

'This was likely a test of a "Fat Man" type device, comparable to the first second nuclear bomb.'

so the International Community (REgd TM) is condemning North Korea for doing what US has done countless times! The same IC that has giveng nuclear secrets and material to countries like Israel,and India.
Which of the condemning countries have nukes? Nuclear Hypocrisy?

Posted by: brian | May 25 2009 22:21 utc | 13

@ Debs #10 "...there is little point in arguing whether the charges against Roh were true or not, although Monolycus would have a better idea than most."

I have to confess that I don't have any more idea about that than the next guy. My impression was that Mr. Roh's knowledge of it came post facto, at which point he could do nothing except hope that nobody asked very many questions. That strikes me as a very plausible scenario and is consistent with my understanding of the man coupled with the dynamics of Korean politics and family/spousal relationships.

At any rate, china_hand2 linked to a very good obit for Mr. Roh in this thread.

@Charles #11 "...I think that if North and South Korea eventually unite then the US will be asked to remove its troops."

Which is precisely why the US will not sit idly by and allow reconciliations to take place. SoKo is the only toehold the US has on mainland East Asia and it will not lose that, come hell (likely) or high water (also likely).

Posted by: Monolycus | May 26 2009 1:52 utc | 14

Even though I hate nuclear weapons and find it amazing that the world is destined to run out of sufficient fissionable material to generate energy by 2050

Of course the idea that the world will "run out of sufficient fissionable material to generate energy by 2050" is "amazing" because it's a pack of lies put forward by Storm van der Leeuwen, who is the Dutch secretary of the Club of Rome (that oh-so-charming organization which called mankind a "cancer" and wants to reduce Earth's population to less that one billion people - genocidal cocksuckers...)

Here are the deliberate mistakes made in van der Leeuwen's so-called "study" (he worked with a Philip Smith, and the study is therefore usually referred to as "StormSmith"):

1. He assumed that only light-water reactors would be used, not breeder reactors, or even non-breeder reactors running on unenriched uranium (such as the Canadian CANDU reactor)
2. He assumed that all uranium would be enriched using the obsolete gaseous diffusion method. In fact most uranium enrichment now uses the centrifuge method, which requires 100 times less energy.
3. He overestimates by about two orders of magnitude the amount of energy needed to extract uranium from low-grade ores. There is a mine in Namibia whose expected energy consumption according to StormSmith's calculations would be larger than the TOTAL amount of energy actually used in Namibia for ALL PURPOSES!

Posted by: George Carty | May 26 2009 17:41 utc | 15


I think this is a better place than most to point out that the charges against Roh were suspiciously similar to the charges currently being leveled against Chen Shuibian, in Taiwan.

Could it have been a case of tit-for-tat?

Could it simply be a case of like minds thinking the same?

Or might it be something more sinister than even the fugliest of posters here dare contemplate?

Who knows. I don't know enough about Roh to say, but i have had close dealings with Chen's cadre, and i can authoritatively say:

it's certainly plausible in Taiwan's case. Probable, i'd argue.

But Roh?

I'm not Korean. I can't say. But it doesn't sound too different from what people are saying vis a vis Hillary and Bill.

Posted by: china_hand2 | May 28 2009 16:08 utc | 16

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