How North Korea Could Pull Off a Pacific Nuclear Test

Re-Blogged From Stratfor Worldview

With the steady escalation of both multilateral and U.S. sanctions against it, North Korea is threatening once again to ratchet up its response. It began with U.S. President Donald Trump telling the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on a “suicide mission” and the United States would “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary to protect itself and its allies. Trump followed up his remarks by signing an executive order on Sept. 21 that will allow the U.S. Treasury Department to go after entities trading with North Korea. On Sept. 22, Kim responded by promising countermeasures.

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Kim’s vague threat was sharpened by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who speculated to reporters in New York that Kim might be considering carrying out “the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific.” Ri said he did not know what Kim was considering and that the nature of the response was entirely Kim’s decision.

These threats don’t necessarily suggest that North Korea would immediately detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, but it’s not impossible that it could. Ri’s allusion to Kim’s power to choose a course of action is similar to North Korea’s August threat against Guam, which was followed by missile tests but none along the lines of those that had been outlined.

A North Korean nuclear test in the Pacific likely would involve launching a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile over the ocean and exploding the warhead at a high altitude. Such a test also likely would involve flying the missile and its warhead over Japan. A flight over Japan would showcase the likely flight path of an intercontinental ballistic missile launched toward the U.S. mainland as well.

North Korea could try to minimize collateral damage from an atmospheric nuclear test by testing at a very high altitude — perhaps as high up as the edge of space — in a remote location of the Pacific where there is little maritime traffic. A high-altitude test also could allow North Korea to get around the limitations of its still rudimentary re-entry technology.

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