North Korea Might Explode Many Nukes at Once
Pyongyang could be preparing for its first salvo test
North Korea appears to be carrying out the final preparations for another nuclear test. There are also some worrying signs Pyongyang may be preparing for its first salvo test, in other words, detonating more than one underground nuke—potentially two or three—all at the same time.
If true, that wouldn’t be business as usual. A salvo test is a key stepping stone for North Korea if it chooses to accelerate its nuclear weapons program. It’s already succeeded in detonating a nuke and scaring the world. But to have a nuke that can fit on a ballistic missile and be a real military threat, Pyongyang will have to pick up the pace.
The latest indications are that sometime in the past several days, the North sealed a tunnel at its mountainous nuclear site at Punggye-ri. That’s one of the final preconditions before Pyongyang can carry out another underground test.
Possible command and communications vehicles have also appeared at the site, according to satellite images collected by DigitalGlobe. North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests to date.
But there are two signs this could a be different kind of test. First, North Korea warned of a “new form of nuclear test” on March 30. The United States “had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly,” the Korean Central News Agency stated. What “new” test could Pyongyang be talking about?
“For now, I am inclined to believe that ‘new form’ of nuclear testing most likely means simultaneous tests, part of a program of more intense nuclear testing that we are likely to see over the next few years,” Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program blogged at 38 North.
That North Korea says so doesn’t mean much on its own, but Lewis points out that before the each of North Korea’s three prior tests, it would dig a single horizontal tunnel into the mountains around the site. But while gearing up for its next test, Pyongyang has dug entrances into both the northern and southern sides of the mountains.
It’s impossible to tell if the two tunnel entrances connect inside, or if they’re parallel. But if they do intersect, then North Korea “might have plans to conduct more than two or three additional detonations in that area alone,” Lewis noted.
That would be consistent with Chinese nuclear tests and tests carried out by the U.S. at the Nevada Test Site. Not single tunnels for single nukes, but a tunnel complex for multiple, simultaneous nuclear detonations.
It’s also a logical next step for North Korea’s nuclear program. There are practical reasons to test multiple nukes at the same time.
Nuclear sites—such as Punggye-ri—are typically remote and costly to operate, and engineers are only based at such sites for short periods.
For a country trying to build a nuclear arsenal on a budget, detonating two or more nukes at the same time doubles or triples the testing at a lower price. It’s also not unusual. Both the Soviet Union and the United States carried out dozens of salvo tests during the Cold War.
Unfortunately, there’s little the U.S. or China can do about it. Beijing has tried to restart talks with Pyongyang, but there’s been little progress. The execution of Jang Sung Taek—Kim’s uncle and an important broker with China—may have also dashed China’s ability to exert much influence on the country.
The Obama administration has given up on believing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un can be convinced—or pressured—into abandoned his atomic ambitions, The New York Times reported on April 24.
The next step is to wait and see if Kim has a nuclear surprise party waiting.