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Kim Jong Un Claims North Korea Has Thermonuclear Weapons, But It Probably Doesn’t

North Korea Nukes

As an important anniversary nears, North Korea is now claiming that it has made a major advance in its nuclear arsenal, but many observers are skeptical:

North Korea has hinted that it has built a hydrogen bomb to “defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation,” a development that, if true, would mark an alarming step in its nuclear capabilities.

It is the first time that the regime, which has already conducted three atomic tests, has claimed to have built an exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb. But analysts were doubtful of Kim Jong Un’s latest bellicose claim, saying the young leader appeared primarily concerned with trying to bolster his legitimacy.

“Do I think they have the capacity to make a hydrogen bomb? I think that’s virtually impossible,” said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons who is currently at Babes-Bolyai University in Romania.

Kim, the third-generation leader of North Korea, made the claim while visiting the site of a former munitions factory in central Pyongyang. North Korea has become “a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation,” he said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

An atomic bomb uses fission to break up the atomic nucleus and release energy, while a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb uses fusion to add to the nucleus. This leads to an enormous explosion resulting from an uncontrolled, self-sustaining chain reaction, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The site that Kim was touring, known as the Phyongchon revolutionary site, was visited several times by founding president Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather, and by Kim Jong Il, his father. Kim Il Sung reportedly test-fired a submachine gun at the shooting range at the site soon after the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.

The site routinely appears in official documentaries about revolutionary history and on North Korea’s military industrial complex, according to Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership. Photos showed Kim Jong Un inspecting rifles inside a building and speaking outside the building, his aides with notebooks at the ready taking down his every word.

The fact that the statement came not from the National Defense Commission or the politburo, which usually make major pronouncements, but from Kim while he was extolling the achievements of his grandfather and father suggested that he was trying to burnish their legacy and his legitimacy, said Pinkston, a fluent Korean speaker.

Parsing the Korean version, which was slightly different from the English, he said Kim claimed that the sound of his grandfather’s gun was heard at the site 70 years ago, while today North Korea has become a nuclear state “that can make the boom of a hydrogen or atomic bomb.” It did not necessarily mean that North Korea had developed a bomb, he said.

“I’m super-skeptical that they’ve been able to make this scientific advancement,” Pinkston said.

South Korean intelligence specialists also were skeptical and dismissed Kim’s words as rhetoric. “We don’t have any information that North Korea has developed an H-bomb,” Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified intelligence official as saying. “We do not believe that North Korea, which has not succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear bombs, has the technology to produce an H-bomb.”

The North Koreans have demonstrated on several occasions now via testing that they have the ability to construct a nuclear weapon, of course, and current estimates suggest that the nation’s current arsenal is somewhere below thirty actual warheads of varying yields. It’s important to note, though, that the weapons that have been tested, as well as those believed to be in the North Korean arsenal are fission-based weapons not dissimilar from those that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. One step above these fission-based atomic weapons are the thermonuclear weapons that have dominated the arsenal of the United States, Russia, China, and other members of the so-called “nuclear club” possess for decades and which are capable of far more destruction than an atomic weapon. Those weapons require far more advanced technology than the North Koreans are believed to have, as well as access to raw materials, as well as an ability to miniaturize the weaponry that North Korea is presently not believed to have. Indeed, on that last point, there have been signs that the North Koreans have been decidedly unsuccessful so far in attempting to create even fission-based warheads that would fit on missiles capable of reaching any further than Alaska, Hawaii, or the extreme edges of western North America.

Given that, it’s likely that this is yet another example of North Korean exaggeration about its military capabilities not unlike what we’ve seen before. For example, in recent years the government in Pyongyang has claimed to have developed a submarine-based missile capable of delivering a warhead, nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a missile, and to have restarted its primary nuclear research facility. None of these representations has been proven to be true and the fact that there have been several confirmed failures of missile tests in the recent pasts it would seem clear that at least the first two representations are just braggadocios nonsense. Given that we are approaching the fourth anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, it seems more likely than not that the younger Kim’s claims here are meant to be nothing but propaganda, especially given the fact that he made the claim in a statement that referred directly back to his father and grandfather.

None of this is to say, of course, that the North Koreans probably wouldn’t like to have thermonuclear weapons, of course, because possessing such weaponry would make them an even more formidable force on the peninsula and in the area than they already are, and potentially a far more direct and concerning threat to South Korea, Japan, and American interests in the Pacific. As things stand right now, though, it’s unlikely that they’ve been able to nearly far enough to get there, although as with everything else in North Korea this is largely guess work for people in the West. Moreover, the prospect of a North Korea with thermonuclear weapons would arguably be the kind of intense up-tick in tensions on the peninsula that all the parties involved, including Pyongyang’s sponsors in Beijing would be intensely worried about if there actually were close to achieving that goal.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Mu says:

    Both fusion weapons and rockets with orbital capabilities were developed over 60 years ago by people with sliderules. The problem limiting most states is access to enough uranium to get started, not technical information.

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  2. Matt says:

    @Mu: Well the skills and tech to miniaturize is the real issue.

    I have no doubt they could set off a thermonuclear warhead. I just doubt their ability to put it on top of a missile or in a bomb casing.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I wonder how much longer will the Chinese feel secure that the tether will hold the pit bull?

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: If the Chinese get pissed off enough, exit one megalomanic leader.

    Kim Jong Un is like the belligerent drunk you have in your neighborhood with a really nasty pit bull that you leave alone as long as he leaves you alone. He stops leaving you alone? Bring out the Tommy guns and the howitzers and the tanks…

    Of course, we don’t know how much of this is showboating for one or another of the factions that must exist inside North Korea.

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  5. Paul Hooson says:

    I have always strongly suspected that North Korea’s claimed past underground nuclear bomb tests were faked by exploding a large amount of TNT rather than a real nuclear blast. In addition, their Nodong missiles only continue to display a short range. Their air force still uses a number of WWI vintage biplanes rather than more modern single wing propeller planes or jets. The country has only proven the industrial ability to produce about 300 automobiles per year. In every technology regard, North Korea exhibits little means to produce modern technology in higher numbers.

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Paul Hooson: That’s an interesting theory. Did we do any sniffing around for radioactives?

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  7. Andre Kenji says:

    As we like to say in LAtin America, the dog that barks does not bite. And North Korea likes to bark a lot.

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  8. Paul Hooson says:

    @grumpy realist: As far as I understand, spy satellites did not find evidence of radioactive activity, but only seismic activity that could easily have staged with a large amount of TNT or a possible crude atomic device. – Small atomic devices can be built if North Korea even has the technology. The U.S. once had 100 compact 53 pound atomic bombs that could be fired by a two man recoiless rifle, the Davy Crockett Recoiless Rifle. These were a battlefield nuclear weapon deployed both in Korea and in Berlin.

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  9. Mu says:

    For those that consider us safe as long as they can’t “weaponize” it – there’s nearly a million containers unloaded in Long Beach alone every year. A standard container has enough weight and volume for even the crudest LiD based bomb.
    As for the previous tests, I’m sure our non-proliferation people can tell whether it’s a nuke or a conventional explosion. So probably no tell us ;).

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  10. dazedandconfused says:

    They have decided to start transforming their million-man-army economy towards something viable which might even someday be able to re-integrate with the world. To that effect they have told their people that the plan is to fall behind their nuclear shield and start reducing the size of their army. A path fraught with peril…externally from the required nuclear blustering (actually having a deliverable nuke is irrelevant) and internally from the vested interests of the existing economy. Bottom line: Can’t be intimidated away from saying they have nukes or having them, if they are able. They view it as the only way they can keep the lie going that they might be attacked at any minute and still reduce their military.

    Bottom line: “He eats breakfast 600 yards away from generals who are trained to assassinate him, so don’t think for a minute you can go over there, wave some paper, and scare him.”

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  11. Matt says:

    @Mu: Yeah and standard shipping containers are scanned when they arrive here. Those containers being loaded in some areas are scanned before even being allowed on the ship heading here.

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  12. JohnMcC says:

    @Matt: How many smallish yachts are scanned? I have been a cruising sailor and live-aboard in the Southeast (from Annapolis to St Pete) and have never had more than the most cursory look from the Coasties (safety equip’t checks, and probably to see if I fit the drug-smuggler profile).

    There is a huge amount of useless and nearly-useless BS done in the name of security and there are simple work-arounds for anyone who seriously wanted to deliver a nuke that couldn’t be placed in a warhead.

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  13. Matt says:

    @JohnMcC: You’re going to fit a bomb the size of a full sized railway car in a smallish yacht as North Korea without anyone noticing anything?


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  14. Matt says:

    @Matt: Frankly they’d have better luck with a shipping container that is heavily shielded.

    A dirty bomb that would irradiate miles land around the port would work too…

    I’m pretty sure though if NK did such a thing the rest of the world would line up behind the US response pretty quickly. Even China would have serious issues with such a move by NK.

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  15. Mu says:

    Of course, the greater LA area has more people and more value then all of NK combined, so even a “severe” response isn’t going to be close to make up for things.

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  16. Matt says:

    @Mu: Then we should just surrender before it happens….

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