North Korea watched for nuke test, but not bomb

Regime makes mystery moves

TOKYO — If getting international attention is North Korea’s goal, then there is nothing quite like detonating a nuclear device to make your adversaries sit up and take notice.

But analysts say North Korea probably has a long way to go before it will be able to deploy a nuclear weapon.

While North Korea is adept at getting political mileage out of showy military displays, Pyongyang’s attempts to show off its strength are, just as often, reminders of its weaknesses - and a nuclear test likely would fit that pattern.

Fears that such a test may be imminent were heightened last month when North Korea marked an important anniversary with a long-range rocket launch. Its two previous tests were conducted soon after such launches.

Satellite imagery also suggested stepped-up activity at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site.

Little progress at the site has been reported since, which could mean the activity was a ruse or the device is simply not ready. It also could mean that the new regime headed by Kim Jong-un, who assumed power after the death of his father in December, is having second thoughts about risking international sanctions by forging ahead.

Sooner or later, however, a test is likely.

“The North Koreans clearly value the demonstration effect of nuclear and missile tests, even if the test is only partially successful,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “North Korea gets a tremendous amount of leverage from our fear that these weapons might work someday.”

But he noted that Pyongyang failed miserably in its attempt to launch a multistage rocket last month, then capped off a lavish military parade with the unveiling of a half-dozen ominous-looking missiles that analysts now believe were low-quality mock-ups of a design that could never fly.

“They are trying to run before they can walk, with the predictable outcome of tripping,” Mr. Lewis said.

A test could have two practical goals.

North Korea may be developing devices that use highly enriched uranium, instead of the harder-to-obtain plutonium it has relied on in the past. If so, it needs to try one to see whether it works. Either way, the North has to shrink its warheads to fit them on a missile, so it needs to test that capability as well.

“There can be a huge difference between a nuclear explosive ‘device’ and a weapon,” said Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear weapons consultant and former head of strategic weapons at the Federation of American Scientists.

“We have no idea how large North Korea’s bombs are, or even whether they have anything that would be described as a ‘bomb.’ *

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