N.Korea's Nuclear Fusion Claims 'an Empty Boast'

      May 13, 2010 13:02

      Is there any truth to North Korea's unexpected announcement on Wednesday that it has succeeded in creating a nuclear fusion reaction? South Korean government officials and North Korea watchers think it is unlikely, especially the claim that the technology would be used for energy production.

      ◆ H-Bomb

      While atomic bombs and atomic power generation use a nuclear fission reaction, H-bombs use a process whereby multiple atomic nuclei are fused to form a single and heavier nucleus. The technology to produce H-bombs is believed to be achievable three to four years after mastering atomic weapons manufacturing know-how. The U.S. tested an H-bomb seven years after it produced an atomic weapon, while it took the former Soviet Union six years and China three. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in January 2006.

      The key components of an H-bomb are deuterium and tritium. A nuclear fusion reaction occurs generating a tremendous amount of energy when high temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius and high pressure are applied. "An atomic bomb needs to be used as a detonator to generate the intense temperature and pressure conditions," said Suh Kune-yull, a nuclear engineering expert at Seoul National University. "This is why only countries that develop atomic weapons end up being able to produce H-bombs."

      Lee Chun-geun, a researcher at the Science & Technology Policy Institute, said, "To my knowledge, North Korea has been conducting research on nuclear fusion technology since the early 2000s at a science complex in Pyongsong. We should not underestimate North Korea's atomic weapons capabilities." He said North Korea is studying ways to enhance the explosive impact of its atomic weapons by inserting elements that trigger nuclear fusion.

      But Hong Sang-hee, a nuclear expert at SNU, said, "North Korea probably succeeded merely in testing a nuclear fusion device." Some experts say the North probably does not have the proper facilities to test an H-bomb, considering the intensity of its blast, which can be up to hundreds of times stronger than an atomic bomb.

      A senior government official flatly ruled out that North Korea could have developed nuclear fusion technology for power generation. No country in the world has built a power plant for nuclear fusion technology. South Korea, China, the European Union, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. are building the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France. Experts say it will take another 40 years to harness the technology for energy production. Considering North Korea's technological and economic capacity, experts say the North would never be capable of developing nuclear fusion technology for power generation.

      The Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research, or KSTAR, at the National Fusion Research Institute in Daejeon

      ◆ Seeking Attention

      Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea observer at Dongguk University, said the announcement "appears to be a protest gesture of sorts to grab the attention of the international community ahead of the resumption of the six-party talks." North Korea may be trying to get attention with unspoken threats since it appears increasingly unlikely that it will be able to exact economic aid through the six-party talks due to the fallout from the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan. During his trip to China last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly said he is trying to create "favorable conditions" for the resumption of the talks.

      Others believe North Korea may be boasting to its own people at a time of unprecedented discontent over a botched currency reform. A South Korean intelligence official said, "It appears that North Korea is instilling a fantasy of the greatness of the country to soothe increasing unrest due to a worsening food crisis during the spring dry season." North Korea said it succeeded in creating an "artificial sun" and associated the feat with late leader Kim Il-sung, whose birthday is know as the "Day of the Sun" there.

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