Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

What’s behind North Korea’s hydrogen bomb claim

Photo: NViktor (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo: NViktor (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

North Korea’s announcement on January 6 that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb caused worldwide debate both about the validity of the claim and its implications for world security if true.

U of T News spoke to Tina Park, a University of Toronto PhD student researching Korean-Canada relations and lecturer in the history department in the Faculty of Arts and Science, about the North Korean claims.


What do you think of North Korea’s claims that it has detonated a hydrogen bomb? 

This news, whether confirmed technically or not, indicates a bellicose hostility towards the rest of the world that is deeply troubling. It is a violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions, despite the united call by the international community to cease such activities. It is also a grave contravention of the international norm against nuclear testing.

North Korea’s testing is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has said that its monitoring stations picked up “an unusual seismic event” in the DPRK and that its initial location estimate shows that the event took place in the area of North Korea’s nuclear test site. CTBTO experts are analyzing the event to establish more about its nature. The universal norm against nuclear testing is a norm that has been respected by 183 countries since 1996 and North Korea’s willingness to engage in nuclear testing, however unsuccessfully, poses a grave threat to international peace and security.


Some experts are skeptical. 

There are reasons to be skeptical, and we will have to wait for more definitive evidence. For one thing, the estimated yield, or energy, from the explosion appeared to be too small to be that of a hydrogen bomb. It is plausible that North Korea has instead tested a so-called boosted-fission bomb – which involves placing a tiny amount of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, at the core of an atomic bomb, but is more destructive than a traditional nuclear weapon.

The site that was chosen for testing is also questionable, since more remote areas would be suitable for hydrogen bomb testing.


How do nuclear experts establish the validity of North Korea’s claim of testing a hydrogen bomb? 

A hydrogen bomb would most likely involve a fuel called lithium deuteride, and it is not known if North Korea has the infrastructure to produce such material. Proving that the blast was a hydrogen bomb would depend on the presence of the hydrogen isotope tritium, which would set it apart from a fission atomic bomb and which in turn would require the presence of lithium.


What’s the difference between this bomb, and North Korea’s previous bombs? 

If confirmed, this will be the fourth nuclear test carried out by the country since 2006. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea launched two long-range rockets, putting a satellite into orbit in the second attempt, in December 2012. The same year, North Korean revised its constitution to declare itself a nuclear power. Two months after the North’s third nuclear test, in February 2013, the DPRK Workers’ Party adopted a new national strategy: growing its nuclear arsenal and rebuilding its economy at the same time. Hydrogen bombs are far more potent than the nuclear weapons they tested in the past and would prove North Korea’s technological advancement if successful.


Why would North Korea claim to be detonating a hydrogen bomb? 

North Korea thrives on the notion of “a strong and prosperous nation” which puts the primary focus of the society on military readiness, and negotiating on the edge as part of its tactics for survival. If they really did explode a hydrogen bomb, they did it to get attention and use it as leverage. Their purpose is to appear militarily dominant over South Korea, a non-nuclear nation. That is because technologically the South Korean forces, in partnership with the US Command, are superior to those of North Korea‎.

The tactic of deploying a heightened military presence is also often used by North Korea to manage internal dissent within the regime. As we’ve seen with previous six-party talks and escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, claims of a successful atomic weapons testing boosts the Kim regime’s credibility for domestic consumption but also gives them leverage in terms of dealing with the outside world.


How should the rest of the world respond?

North Korea is always testing to see what response it gets, and it continues to show reckless disregard for international norms and regional stability. Economic sanctions from Russia and China would most likely be effective, though it is unclear whether they would be willing to engage. We have seen in the past that diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea have not been very successful, largely because of differences in national interests around the negotiating table.