Kim Jong Un's Thermonuclear Dreams

What does it mean when North Korea announces it has a "new form" of nuclear testing coming soon?

In late March, when the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea for test firing two medium-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, Pyongyang shot back, warning of "next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine" -- including "a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence."

Golly, that sounds awfully hostile.

A "new form" of nuclear test? My thoughts immediately turned to Pyongyang's next step in its nuclear weapons development. North Korea might test a device using highly-enriched uranium (if it hasn't done that already), or start down the path toward tactical nuclear weapons or perhaps burning thermonuclear fuel. I suspect that these are their ultimate objectives, although it is hard to know Pyongyang's near- and long-term technical goals for its nuclear arsenal.

The phrasing of the statement in the original Korean, however, suggests that there is something new about how North Korea tests, not what it tests. After checking with a number of Korean speakers, the phrase appears to refer to a new form of testing, as opposed to simply a new device.

North Korea says we can hardly imagine what that might be, but I think we can try.

The simplest explanation is that North Korea may conduct simultaneous detonations of two or more nuclear devices. Most nuclear powers use these "salvo tests" in order to test more weapons in less time. None of the test personnel live year-round at the nuclear sites, which are often located in remote areas. These areas are often remote because the weather stinks. So the idea of getting two-for-one (or even three-, four- or five-for-one) while the scientists are on site has plenty of appeal, even if it makes the tests more complex. Here is how the Russians explained it:

For underground nuclear explosions the special technology of salvo nuclear tests was developed, when two or more nuclear devices were simultaneously detonated within one nuclear test. This technology represented an essential step forward in comparison with testing of individual nuclear devices because it allowed [the Soviet Union] to intensify testing activities, even if its realization required some increase in the complexity of the experiments. This approach was advanced both in the USSR, and in the U.S., but was more widely practiced in the USSR, apparently due to the more severe weather conditions at the nuclear sites and lower financial and material capabilities. The Soviet Union conducted 146 salvo nuclear tests in which 400 nuclear devices were detonated, while the United States conducted 63 salvo nuclear tests in which 158 nuclear devices were detonated.

Lower financial and material capabilities and severe weather are also factors for Pyongyang. In particular, the North Korean test site has lousy winters, followed by spring floods. This would fit well with my hypothesis that North Korea's tunneling at Punggye is intended to support more intense nuclear testing than the country has conducted to date. On March 28, North Korea hinted at this, warning that the United States should expect "more annual and regular" efforts to bolster and demonstrate Pyongyang's "war deterrent." That general statement suggests we should expect more missile launches and nuclear tests in the coming years.

There are other, more speculative possibilities. North Korea has conducted its previous tests in tunnels drilled horizontally into the mountains around the test site. The size of bombs that the North Koreans can test in these tunnels is limited by the size of the mountain and the resulting overburden. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the current test site can only accommodate a few tens of kilotons.

Larger tests, then, would need to be conducted in shafts drilled horizontally much, much deeper into the ground. Shaft tests are usually limited to several hundred kilotons -- although you can always dig deeper. In 1971, for example, the United States conducted a 5-megaton test in Alaska, Cannikin, in a 1,860 meter shaft. (And, no, I don't think Sarah Palin could feel that from her house. Why do you ask?) At some point, though, drilling deeply is harder than simply scaling the test, given the costs of drilling and challenges of testing below the water table. Thus, this would probably require a different test site than Punggye-ri. So far, there are no reliable reports of a second test site.

Of course, one needs to be careful: Underground tests can release radioactivity into the atmosphere. This happened to the United States with its 1970 Baneberry test, which, much to the chagrin of its team, vented radioactivity. Oops. The author of one U.S. report on containing underground nuclear explosions offered this wry observation about the event:

(Illustration from Caging the Dragon: The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions.)

This raises the last possibility that North Korea might consider atmospheric nuclear testing -- something that is prohibited by the Limited Test Ban and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaties, neither of which North Korea has signed. Pyongyang has taken special care to point out that its nuclear tests have no negative environmental impact. That may well be because they are reluctant to inflame Chinese public opinion. The Chinese government released radiation readings after the last nuclear test, to reassure the public in Northern China.

Atmospheric testing is tricky though: For a rich example, look at China's nuclear testing program, which is largely a story of managing international opposition to atmospheric nuclear tests while trying to master the technology of testing underground. (This is, in fact, the origin of China's "no first use" policy.) North Korea has the same constraints, only in Pyongyang's case, the downwinders are its primary lifeline.

I suspect, for the moment, that Chinese public opinion is enough to keep North Korea's nuclear tests underground.

There are, of course, things that might change. If North Korea wants to develop thermonuclear weapons -- something the Chinese achieved with its fifth and sixth nuclear tests -- North Korea might want to test these very large devices at full yield, which probably means atmospherically. And then there is the precedent set by China's fourth nuclear test -- a live warhead delivered by a live missile.

The United States had denigrated China's nuclear program then, as it does North Korea's now, by claiming that a few tests did not mean that either party was capable of actually arming a missile with a nuclear weapon. The Chinese wanted to leave no doubt about that, firing a nuclear-armed missile from a missile test center to the Lop Nor test site. North Korea might conduct atmospheric testing if Kim Jong Un feels the need to develop thermonuclear weapons or perhaps, like China in 1966, wants to demonstrate the ability to deploy nuclear-armed missiles or artillery. A nuclear-armed Musudan, an intermediate-range ballistic missile, would get my attention. Kim Jong Un is only likely to do that, however, if he no longer cares what Beijing thinks.

For now, I am inclined to believe the "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. Still, it is useful to remember that Kim Jong Un has a number of other unpleasant provocations from which he might choose.

 This column was produced in partnership with 38 North, where the article first appeared.

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Do Politics Actually Have Any Affect on India's Economy?

In a fevered election battle, India's top candidates are claiming that they -- and only they -- can get the faltering economy back on track. But the data shows they're missing the point.

As Indians head to the polls this week in the first stages of an epic five-week election process to determine the next prime minister of the world's largest democracy, the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are clashing sharply over India's faltering economy. The country's GDP growth rate has slowed from 9 percent in 2010 to under 5 percent, and voters are deeply frustrated by rising inflation and corruption. Congress candidate Rahul Gandhi and BJP challenger Narendra Modi are battling over whose approach -- redistributing wealth or promoting economic liberalization and fiscal responsibility, respectively -- has done more for the majority of Indians.

The good news is that, for once, an election campaign in India, which normally focuses on the candidates' personalities and castes rather than their platforms, is taking the economy seriously. The bad news is that the debate is backward-looking, mired in misleading claims, and oblivious to India's place in the world. 

The truth is that India's economy tends to rise or fall with the global economy, not with the party in power. For virtually every five-year period since 1980, Indian GDP has grown at a rate about 1.5 percentage points faster than the emerging-world average. This is mainly because even after two strong decades of growth, India's per capita GDP is still only about $1,300 -- and it's always easier to grow fast from a low level. Over the course of the last three governments, one under the BJP and the last two under departing Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India's average annual GDP growth has ranked somewhere between 40th and 50th out of the roughly 150 countries in the emerging world, regardless of which party was in charge. 

The last BJP-led government took office in 1999 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He helped liberalize India's economy by selling stakes in state-owned companies and established a cap on the budget deficit, but his reforms had little impact on India's ranking in the developing world. Over the next five years, India posted average annual GDP growth of 5.8 percent, ranking 50th in the emerging world, and average annual inflation of 3.9 percent, ranking 70th. This record represented little change from the prior two decades, so it is hard to see why today it should provoke much criticism, or bragging.

When the Congress party and Singh replaced the BJP in 2004, India stayed on a similar course. After 2003, with international trade booming and easy money pouring out of central banks in the West, growth accelerated sharply across emerging countries. India's GDP grew at an average of 8 percent from 2004 to 2008, but its ranking barely improved: From 2004 to 2008, India clocked in at 39th in the emerging world for average GDP growth and 73rd for inflation. And now the BJP campaign is implying that these boom years under Singh grew out of the reforms completed by Vajpayee. Although these reforms played a role, the real story is that India was simply reveling in a global party.

As a result of the economic boom, Singh won a second term as prime minister in 2009, but global conditions were getting tougher. After 2008, when the tide of easy money dried up in the global financial crisis, India, like many emerging countries, unleashed a stimulus package to keep growth alive, spending heavily on measures like guaranteed wages and income supports for the poor. But even that could not prevent India from slowing along with the world economy. Over Singh's second term, India's average annual GDP growth rate slowed to 6.5 percent, but its ranking remained basically the same at 45th. Underneath the headline growth number, however, the economy is starting to show serious cracks, in the form of rising deficits and inflation.

As India ramped up government spending after 2008, it began to slip in the global rankings of countries based on the size of the government deficit, which has risen from 3.3 percent of GDP in 2007 to 5.8 percent on average since 2008. Congress officials defend their record of heavy spending on income support and welfare for the poor, but this spending has driven up inflation, which attacks the poor hardest. India's inflation rate has risen from 6.5 percent in Singh's first term to 10.5 percent in the second, while its inflation ranking has fallen from 73rd in the emerging world to 130th. Since Singh took office, the misery index -- the combination of the unemployment and inflation rates -- has risen from a low of 12 percent in 2005 to 20 percent.

To be sure, it is not only Congress that overlooks inflation. India is in the grip of a money illusion, imagining gains that are in fact symptoms of an inflationary economy. Daily headlines hype the "record highs" of the stock market, which Congress officials spin as a vote of confidence in India's economic fundamentals and which BJP officials spin as a rally, anticipating reforms under Modi. But both sides are ignoring that these highs are being reached in nominal, not real, terms -- the apparent peaks are not corrected for the rise in inflation or the fall of the rupee, which has dropped more than 25 percent against the dollar in the last three years. Thus corrected, the market is about 35 percent below the highs it achieved in early 2008. Since then, corporate earnings have been rising 10 percent a year in nominal terms -- which means they have gained roughly nothing when adjusted for inflation.

The raging election debate over the economy is new and healthy, but it would be far more useful if it were less backward-looking. It is hard to understand why Modi and Gandhi are spending so much time defending the mediocre records of governments in which neither played a decisive part. Instead, they should be shifting their sights to the future.

The genuine Asian miracle economies, like Japan, South Korea, and China, were rising manufacturing powers that maintained decades-long runs of unusually rapid growth with low inflation, even when the world economy was struggling. As yet, no Indian party has achieved that feat. The question Gandhi and Modi should be answering is not what their predecessors did for the economy, but what they can do to make India a real miracle.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Times of India’s website on April 4, 2014. Republished with permission.

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