Could the North Korean Nuclear Test be a Game Changer for Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program?

by Jerry Gordon and Ilana Freedman (January 2016)

At 10 AM Local time (6PM ET in the US) North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test at the Punggye-ri, underground test site in the east of the hermit state. The blasted registered 5.1 on the Richter scale recorded by seismographic agencies in China, South Korea, Japan and the US Geological Service, effectively a mini-earthquake. The North Korea news agency declared that it was the test of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, which met with both skepticism, yet concerns from China, Russia, US, UK and especially the UN. According to a Guardian report:

Pyongyang said the test and was “self-defense against the US having numerous and humongous nuclear weapons”. In a TV announcement it also said the test went “perfectly”.

Secretary General Ban ki-Moon convened an emergency meeting at the UN Headquarters in Manhattan at 11am to discuss this latest provocation. China, heretofore a supporter of North Korea, immediately ordered evacuation of schools in communities adjacent to the blast site for fear that it might unleash excessive radiation. China, Russia, the US and other Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, condemned North Korea’s defiant nuclear test suggesting the possibility of new sanctions against the hermit state. 

What might "sniffer" planes reveal of this latest North Korean nuclear test?

The Japanese Defense Force launched so-called "sniffer" tactical aircraft from three different locations to determine the extent of any radiation material released by the underground blast with results to be reported. The US has contemplated sending sniffer aircraft, a WC-135, the “Constant Phoenix” to detect radioactive materials that may have been released in the atmosphere. 

CNN noted the background and use of US sniffer aircraft:

The Air Force has two of the WC-135 jets that operate out of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Officials said the United States also has ground stations in the area that will also be taking samples to verify or debunk North Korea's claim.

The Constant Phoenix program originated with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1947. The then-Army Air Forces, which would later become the US Air Force, used WB-29s, variants of the B-29 bomber model, to try to detect evidence of Soviet nuclear tests, according to the Air Force. The WB-29s were replaced by WB-50s beginning in 1950, with the current WB-135s coming on line in 1965.

The radiation-sniffing planes have been used to monitor compliance with nuclear weapons treaties, and also monitored effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the Soviet Union, the Air Force says.

Informed sources tell us if a Xenon isotope is detected in the samples taken by the Constant Phoenix sniffer aircraft mission it might confirm a possible game changer, test of a miniaturized nuclear warhead. Some believe these miniaturized warheads may have been cooperatively developed by Iran in North Korea enabling them to be fitted on existing missiles in the possession of both North Korea and Iran. Thus, if the sniffer flights of both Japan and the US detect this radio-isotope it would mark an upgrade in the threat posed not only towards Israel, but to the Middle East as a whole, East Asia, possibly Europe and the West. That was reflected in a comment in a Wall Street Journal, analysis, “North Korea Test Shows Technical Advance:”

By advancing its warhead technology while refining its missiles, Pyongyang could eventually threaten the U.S. mainland and American allies South Korea and Japan. Pentagon officials had said last year that North Korea likely had the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon.

This latest nuclear test, the fourth since 1996 according to nuclear inspection experts, probably produced a yield in the range of 6 to 9 kilotons, below that of a Hiroshima type bomb, 11 plus kilotons. Nonetheless, if missiles fitted with miniaturized nuclear warheads are launched  against urban targets of 250,000 or more in population it could produce significant casualties from blast and radiation effects.

The North Korean nuclear device might have been a test of a possible one stage hydrogen device.

David Albright is the executive director of the private nuclear watchdog agency, the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security. He was among a chorus of technical experts who, while dismissive of the North Korean assertions, indicated what might have been tested were elements of a one-stage thermonuclear boosted fission explosion. In Albright’s analysis, ”North Korea’s Nuclear Test 2016,” released just after the North Korea report, he noted:

It is likely that this was not a test of what in the popular literature is interpreted as an H-Bomb, namely a two-stage fission-fusion weapon developed by the major nuclear-weapon states capable of obtaining explosive yields of hundreds or thousands of kilotons.

First, the explosive yield of the test did not match the expected yield of the H-Bomb. If North Korea had indeed tested this type of H-bomb, the device’s yield would be expected to be many tens of kilotons, at least. However, the need to contain the underground explosion and prevent radioactive releases from its test site may have led North Korea to limit the yield of this test device. Thus, if it tested an H-bomb, it is possible that it did not test the device at its full potential yield. Nonetheless, the explosive yield of a two-stage H-Bomb test would have been expected to be far higher than reported so far. Second, the development of a two-stage thermonuclear weapon is very challenging. It is assessed as beyond North Korea’s capabilities at this stage. On balance, it is not believed that North Korea tested a two-stage H-bomb.

What could it have tested? On one side, North Korea may be bluffing about this test, meaning it tested a fission implosion device similar to the ones it previously detonated. This possibility should be carefully considered. On the other, another thermonuclear weapon design, also developed by the major nuclear-weapon states, should also be considered, namely a one-stage thermonuclear device. This design is easier to achieve than a two-stage H-bomb and can achieve very high explosive yields. There are many types of such weapons. Several are very complicated, involving plutonium, large amounts of weapon-grade uranium, and thermonuclear materials, and can achieve explosive yields of hundreds of kilotons. However, relatively simple variants exist that can achieve many tens of kilotons.  

Even at relatively low yields, North Korea may have tested aspects of such a one-stage design, namely the ignition of the thermonuclear material in a predominately fission nuclear explosion.

Moreover, success in developing simple thermonuclear devices is likely a matter of time and a relatively small number of additional tests.

Albright’s policy implication given his assessment is:

A priority must be to find ways to both further pressures on North Korea to limit its nuclear weapons capabilities and engage it diplomatically to halt and eventually end its nuclear weapons program. Recently, U.S. and Chinese efforts have failed to either increase pressure or achieve negotiations. Whether a lame duck U.S. administration or a reluctant China can limit North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities remains to be seen. In this environment of North Korean advancements and little prospect of negotiations, as it did in the case of Iran several years ago, Congress should act. It should pass bipartisan financial and secondary sanctions legislation that increases the costs on North Korea and on those suppliers who support or turn a blind eye to its nuclear weapons endeavors. After establishing a new, more effective level of pressure, negotiations may have a better chance of bearing fruit.

This analysis does not consider the ongoing collaboration between North Korea and Iran, and seems to assume that North Korea is working independently, with all of the technical limitations that this might imply. Informed sources advise that there may be an estimated 5,000 Iranian scientists, technicians, intelligence assets and a small complement of IRGC troops, working  in North Korea on joint projects. When considered in conjunction with that collaboration with Iran, a supporter and purveyor of terrorism around the globe, the threat to the rest of the world grows exponentially.

What is significant is the possibility that the Iranian-North Korean collaboration may have achieved a breakthrough in the miniaturization of a hydrogen bomb. Although this might make it less powerful, it could render it small enough to be mounted on existing ICBMs. If this is true, then the parameters, which are guiding the experts evaluating the importance of this test, have changed dramatically.

The mounting threat of Iranian North Korean nuclear and missile development.

The matter of joint North Korean Iranian nuclear weapons development and missile technology  has been addressed by the authors and others. In March of 2014, we published an article indicating North Korean testing of nuclear warheads for Iran as part of a cooperative program bent on evasion of UN and US sanctions, “Has Iran Developed  Nuclear Weapons in North Korea.” In April 2015, we published reports discussing intelligence findings during the Iran pact negotiations violating UN resolutions banning acquisition of such technology for ballistic missile testing, see, “Obama Administration Knew of Illegal North Korea Missile Technology Transfers to Iran during Talks.” In a July 2015, American Thinker article, “Does Iran Already Have Nuclear Weapons?”, Stephen and Shoshana Bryen raised the issue of whether Iran engaged in cooperative development of weapons with North Korea that might upend the nuclear pact with Iran. In a September 2015 NER/Iconoclast post we noted the concerns of CIA Director John Brennan expressed about joint Iranian North Korean nuclear cooperative developments, “CIA Director Brennan Worried about Iran and North Korea Nuclear Cooperative Development?

The authors, Ilana Freedman, Stephen and Shoshana Bryen, Israeli Missile defense expert Uzi Rubin, DIA and Office of Naval Intelligence reports been warning for five years about cooperative nuclear weapons and ICBM developments between these partners. They may already have developed a small number of nuclear weapons, tested warheads to be fitted on Shahab 3 missiles, and launched missiles with disposable boosters for satellite bombs and ICBMs. 

Former CIA-Director, Ambassador R. James Woolsey and Dr. Peter Pry drew attention to the possibility that both North Korea and Iran might have the capability to launch a small nuclear device in a satellite into a polar low orbit. That could be capable of producing an Electronic Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. That bomb in a satellite weapon would be difficult to detect and if exploded over the US would devastate the economy sending it back to the pre-electrical era of the 19th Century.

The recent Iranian tests of Emad and other precision ballistic missiles in October and November 2015, in patent violation of the 2010 UN Resolution 1929 barring such developments and tests, forced the hand of the Administration to consider promulgating additional sanctions. Those efforts came to a virtual halt on the cusp of the fourth North Korean nuclear test on January 6, 2016. The implication being that the Administration doesn’t want to jeopardize the lifting of $100 billion in Iranian sequestered funds under prior sanctions. Allegedly, this holdback was to support election of moderate elements to the Iranian parliament next month in furtherance of diplomatic outreach to Iranian President Rouhani. 

What might the North Korean nuclear test reveal about Iran’s capabilities?

The threat of illegally tested Iranian missiles equipped with miniaturized warheads emerged in a discussion with former Pentagon official and noted national security analyst, Dr. Stephen Bryen. We were discussing a scenario that Israeli missile expert Uzi Landau had expressed in a 2011 NER article, “The Iranian Missile Threat.“ That scenario involved the possible Iranian launch of conventional and nuclear warhead equipped missiles against targets in the Middle East and Europe. Bryen’s views both confirmed Rubin’s Iranian missile capabilities and what the North Koreans had likely tested:

In regard to Iran's missiles I think Uzi Rubin is correct as to what they have. One big problem, if Iran were to launch any long range missiles at a NATO target, it would have to be assumed they were nuclear since there is no way to know what weapons are on them.  The danger will increase exponentially if North Korea is able to demonstrate a nuclear warhead on a missile because I see the nuclear programs of both countries as linked. In fact we really don't know whether  the latest Korean nuclear test was for Iran. If it was, it was a small test (6KT compared to the Hiroshima bomb of roughly 10 to 11 KT). A small weapon means a small fission atomic weapon (not a hydrogen bomb). Either it means they don't have enough uranium or plutonium, or they are trying to make a small weapon to be used by missiles or perhaps by artillery.

The big constraint on North Korea is having sufficient fissile material (uranium or plutonium). I suspect Iran is involved in this, perhaps providing centrifuge equipment to the North Koreans. This past year North Korea is said to have significantly increased its uranium enrichment facility. As you remember both countries cooperated on putting together a facility in Syria that Israel destroyed in Operation Orchard (September 2007). This was a nuclear reactor under construction for producing plutonium. The Iranians needed it to hide their plutonium production. Where else to get plutonium? North Korea is the only outside source of plutonium if the Iranian Arak reactor is under tight inspection. (Plutonium is produced primarily from U-238, but also from U-235. Moderately enriched uranium is ideal for plutonium production.)

If my speculation is right about the North Korea-Iran test, then the story about a hydrogen bomb was a cover for what they really were doing, and convenient propaganda for the North Korean people, since the test was widely broadcast and promoted by NK TV.

A final note: Israel has some missile defense thanks to Arrow and the forthcoming David's Sling. (Iron Dome is for short range missiles.) Europe hasn't any missile defense outside of the Patriot which is questionable against a heavy ballistic missile. Ditto for Saudi Arabia.

Obama’s furtherance of the nuclear pact with Iran brings to mind Winston Churchill’s quote about the Russians in late August 1939 just after Stalin inked a non-aggression pact with Hitler, “[Russia] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Substitute Iran for Russia and you may have an explanation as to the dangers inherent in Obama’s foreign policy and national security legacy. A legacy left with the US, NATO members, South Korea, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East allies facing the threat of an emboldened Islamic Regime in Tehran equipped with nuclear tipped missiles developed in cooperation with North Korea.

Remember comments by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, a member of the US negotiations team that produced the Iran nuclear pact, in a US Senate hearing in early 2014? Sherman said, “That if Iran can’t get the bomb then its ballistic missiles would be irrelevant.”

 

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Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.

 

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