What Next for the DPRK Fusion Claim?

By | March 05, 2012 | No Comments

Solar Radiation X-Ray, March 2012 | Click image for a list of geo-magnetic storms in April 2010 | Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, h/t @crazypulsar

What Next for the DPRK Fusion Claim?

by Jende Huang

As discussed yesterday in a post by Sino-NK’s editor, an author writing in the German newspaper Die Welt is claiming that the DPRK performed a nuclear test for the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2010. The claim, made by a former German defense official, can be traced back to an article in the journal Nature, which reported on the research of Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric scientist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm. De Geer, who is publishing “Radionuclide Evidence for Low-Yield Nuclear Testing in North Korea in April/May 2010” in the March issue of Science & Global Security, states that radionuclide data collected from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization’s (CTBTO) International Monitoring System stations in South Korea, Japan and Russia suggest that the DPRK performed one or two low-yield nuclear tests in the spring of 2010.

De Geer’s Data Collection Sites — China remains a large blank area, it appears, for international radiation data collection | Image Courtesy Science and Global Security

The dates which De Geer believes the tests took place coincide with a seemingly random article published by KCNA on 12 May 2010 claiming that the DPRK had “succeeded” in creating a nuclear fusion reaction. KCNA’s claim was met with by skepticism from nonproliferation experts, though it gave Jeffery Lewis the opportunity to do an interesting thought experiment at 38 North as to what sort of fusion work the DPRK could have theoretically pursued. Chinese media reaction was also split, with the English-language version of China Daily announcing that the DPRK “claims nuke fusion.” This is in contrast to Xinhua English-language headline that the DPRK “announces success in nuclear fusion reaction.”  The latter is simply a recitation of a Rodong Sinmun article, while the China Daily is more skeptical in tone, and promotes the view that the “political significance of the announcement far outweighs its scientific value.” [1]

Even after the Chosun Ilbo reported on an eightfold increase of xenon detected on 14 May 2010 by the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, the idea of a third nuclear test having been conducted by the DPRK was dismissed both by the South Korean government, and outside experts alike. But now the issue has reemerged with the imminent publication of De Geer’s article, and this past Sunday’s Die Welt article fed the anticipation, although it has yet to appear in English. Lewis, who was able to peruse an advance copy of the journal article in question, comments on the methodological issues he takes with De Geer’s work, and also lays out some alternate hypotheses that could possibly account for the data that De Geer is seeing.

The bloggers of Arms Control Now also appear to have received an advance copy of the journal article, and quote De Geer, saying “The fact that such experiments were still detected by another technology in the currently evolving CTBT verification system … suggests that there are fewer and fewer grounds for countries to refuse ratifying the CTBT by questioning the effectiveness of its verification regime.” This quote may inadvertently open De Geer to accusations that political considerations regarding ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty are overriding what should remain a scientific issue— notwithstanding, of course a) the questions about the validity of his conclusions and b) the fact that most topics involving the DPRK inevitably end up with a political angle.

And what of the Chinese reaction to De Geer’s article? Their doubling down on Kim Jong-Eun, along with their displeasure at the DPRK’s 2009 test will create an interesting dynamic for Beijing. If there was a third test under Kim Jong-Il in the spring of 2010, should the Chinese condemn it (as the international community surely will) and create a small seed of discord between Beijing and the changed leadership in Pyongyang? Or are they averse to taking any actions that might show less than full support for Kim Jong-Eun during this still potentially sensitive time? Will the Chinese media even comment on De Geer’s claims, or be told to ignore the topic? With the issue of the forced return of North Korean refuges to the DPRK already giving the government some headaches, the best the Chinese can hope for is De Geer’s article being dismissed or shown as inaccurate, before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is forced to comment on its claims.

[1] It is interesting to note that the English-language Global Times went ahead and reprinted the Xinhua article about the DPRK’s supposed fusion success, and then six months later, runs an opinions piece by a professor at Tsinghua University, titled “No clear danger from Korean bomb fizzle.” The author quotes He Zuoxiu, a scientist involved in the design of China’s first hydrogen bomb, that the DPRK’s 2006 and 2009 tests were a “fizzle” and that the North Koreans had “produced a dud.” While the Global Times was unclear on taking one position (that the DPRK is a scientific powerhouse) or another (that the DPRK is in fact unable to produce an explosion of nuclear consequence), the Chinese version of the paper (e.g., 环球时报) was particularly unsparing in their critiques of North Korea’s claims, comparing the country to a “dancer on a nuclear tightrope” who could easily fall.

Scientists of the Chinese Environmental Protection Administration (Office of Nuclear Safety) Check Radition Levels in Eastern Heilongjiang, 2011 | Click image for link to China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration (国家核安全局), headed by Li Ganjie (李干杰) a 48-year old engineer from Hunan and a Tsinghua University graduate who presumably has unique information as regards the present matter

Editor’s Afterword —

Or rather a codetta, as we endeavor to cover this story further and provide more new data to consider. Regarding the Chinese response to the 2010 “fission” event, please note this relevant slice of a post from 27 May 2010, entitled “The Perils of Friendship“:

On May 13 [2010] – literally two days after Kim Jong Il returned to Pyongyang — the North Korean news agency crowed that North Korean scientists had achieved nuclear fission. China responded with a blistering editorial that called North Korea excessively proud, a country “acting like a great power without reason.”  North Korea responded by issuing press releases about how Kim Jong Il was behaving as “a great man who left sacred footprints on the vast Chinese land true to the noble intention of Kim Il Sung” and amp up the personality cult with signature moves.
The key citation above is Huanqiu Shibao’s May 14, 2010 op-ed, entitled “North Korea Should Not Act Like a Dancer on an Atomic Tightrope [环球时报社评:朝鲜莫在核钢丝上跳舞].” As in other cases when the Chinese state has really wanted to raise its ire at North Korea, there is no English version. 
Finally, the PRC”s Ministry of Enivronmental Protection [环境保护部] does collect radiation data; for a run-down of how China collects radiation data in the provinces abutting North Korea, this 28 March 2011 post, “Radiation Reported in China’s Heilongjiang Province” could be useful. 
— Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

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