North Korea Coming Closer to Producing Hydrogen Bomb, Expert Says

North Korean soldiers are seen on military vehicles during the parade for the 'Day of the Sun' festival on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, 15 April 2017. Photo: How Hwee Young/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • North Korea’s regime has come closer to being able to make its own hydrogen bomb, according to US nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker.
  • Kim Jong-un regime clearly has the ability to produce tritium internally, Hecker has said.
  • However, in his words, North Korea appears to be unable to weaponize it yet.
  • Hecker deems efforts to denuclearize North Korea should start with a “no-use” agreement with the country.
  • He has estimated that North Korea possesses enough nuclear material to make up 25 nuclear weapons, and to 6-7 more each year.

The regime of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is coming closer to being able to produce a hydrogen bomb, also known as thermonuclear weapon, as it is able to produce tritium, a key element, a US nuclear expert has said.

Last week, North Korea carried out a new test of a rocket engine that could be used for powering an intercontinental ballistic missile, the weapon that can threaten directly the US mainland, according to a report citing US officials.

North Korea had tested a new high-thrust rocket engine under the “supervision” of its “supreme” leader Kim Jong-un as recently as March 2017.

Aslo last week, on behalf of the Kim Jong-un regime, North Korea’s Ambassador to India offered the US a conditional moratorium on his country’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

The offer which is seen as an attempt to hold direct talks with the US comes against the backdrop of the death of US college student Otto Warmbier who has passed away after 17 months in North Korean captivity, and for which Pyongyang has denied responsibility, and South Korea’s decision to suspend the further deployment of the US THAAD missile shield.

In the latest of its constant ballistic missile provocations, in early June, North Korea fired several anti-ship cruise missiles.

North Korea’s previous ballistic missile firing was at the end of May when the regime of Kim Jong-un has alleged that its had been a successful test of a precision-guided system as it was known to be in pursuit of developing an “aircraft carrier killer”, i.e. an anti-ship ballistic missile.

North Korea has performed 11th ballistic missile tests since Donald Trump became President of the United States, with eight successful and three failed tests.

Ongoing activity and a large number of people have been spotted at North Korea’s nuclear test site, the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, amid lingering concerns that the regime of leader Kim Jong-un could carry out its sixth nuclear test.

There have been reports that North Korea has been bracing for a preemptive US missile strike similar to the missile strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to the April 4 attack with chemical weapons.

In early June, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed new sanctions on North Korea and entities trading with it over its ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and continued violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

Dr Siegfried Hecker, then Senior Fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is seen here in 2004 testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, 21 January 2004, about his tour of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility closed to outsiders since December 2002 in North Korea. Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Making Hydrogen Bomb

North Korea is closer to being able to make its own hydrogen bomb, a second generation nuclear weapon design, as it clearly has the ability to produce tritium internally, a basic element for making hydrogen bombs, according to Siegfried Hecker, a professor at Stanford University, cited by South Korean news agency Yonhap.

North Korea, though, has yet to weaponize its tritium, the expert said onTuesday.

“The evidence is quite clear that North Korea is able to produce tritium, which is necessary for a hydrogen bomb to create fusion. So you need tritium when you are going to have hydrogen bombs,” Siegfried Hecker, a professor at Stanford University, told a group of journalists at Stanford.

During his 2010 trip to North Korea, he was allowed to take a look into the country’s uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon.

North Korea claimed it used a hydrogen bomb when it conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, although that has not been proven.

“I believe they have made tritium. In fact, last year there have been some indications that they were trying to market one of the key ingredients for making tritium, something called lithium-6 … So it’s clear they know how to make tritium. We know that’s official,” he noted.

Citing also commercial satellite imagery, the nuclear expert added that North Korea was building at least one more tritium production facility to an already existing one.

But he was negative about North Korea’s alleged ability to weaponize the material.

“They can make tritium so they have the basic element for a hydrogen bomb. But it takes much more than that to weaponize hydrogen bombs. I don’t believe they can do that (yet),” Hecker said.

‘No-Use Agreement’

In Hecker’s view, the first step to denuclearize North Korea should start with a “no-use” agreement with the country to guarantee that Pyongyang would not use its nuclear weapons.

Without the agreement, accidental launch, miscalculation or loss of control could wreak unimaginable damage on the Korean Peninsula, he said.

“Those possibilities are sufficiently worrisome that I maintain that the crisis is here now, not when they (North Korean missiles) are able to reach the US,” Hecker declared.

“Once you do no-use,… then it’s halt, roll back and eliminate,” he said, indicating that the denuclearization process should be carried out in three phases.

“It’s (also) important for the U.S. and South Korea to come to an agreement (on how to phase the process) before they would negotiate with North Korea,” the nuclear expert recommended.

Commenting on American college student Otto Warmbier, who died last week less than seven days after being released from a 17-month detention in North Korea, Hecker said that the event would weigh on the US administration’s stated willingness to hold dialogue with North Korea.

“I think that what happened to Warmbier has put focus on three other Americans that are there (in North Korea). Getting them out becomes more important and an obstacle to moving down the path,” he said. “I don’t think it completely stopped it, but it’s another roadblock or pothole.”

In an earlier presentation given to a forum on North Korean nuclear issue, hosted by the Institute of Korean Studies, Hecker also said that North Korea appears to be in possession of enough nuclear fuel to make as many as 25 nuclear weapons in addition to the ability to produce about six or seven additional nuclear weapons every year.

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