Third Time’s a Charm, and By “a Charm” I Mean Exactly the Same

DPRK test, actual scale (Not actually) [image: Petey Santeeny]

Following the other night’s North Korean nuclear test, there was definitely enough anxiety to keep observers and analysts up for hours. But there are a couple factors at play allowing me to sleep pretty soundly. Hopefully they’ll help you do the same!

The first is the relatively small yield – yes, it’s larger than the first two tests, but that really doesn’t mean anything. A 10 kiloton (or 6-7 kt or 15 kt) nuclear weapon is nothing to sneer at, but as the world saw with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a weapon of that kind isn’t much more effective than conventional explosives. The firebombings of Tokyo did more damage and took more lives than either nuclear blast in World War II.

They’ve also talked about switching their nuclear fuel from plutonium to highly-enriched uranium, which is weird and kind of a step back. The United States used to use HEU but once we perfected plutonium processing techniques we stuck with that. It’s a much more effective fuel for a multi-stage thermonuclear explosion, and it’s a little weird for anyone to change from plutonium. If true, it could indicate a processing and/or supply issue, but that would be a good sign; it would means that they’re having trouble sourcing fissile material. So they may not even have the raw materials necessary to build many bombs.

The other part is a little up in the air and I’ve heard competing claims, but nothing I’ve read so far confirms (despite Pyongyang’s claims) that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon – which would be a prerequisite for mounting it onto an ICBM. It’s one of the most difficult steps in the technological scale of nuclear science and requires increasing reaction efficiency. The small gain in yield this test provided makes me think that they definitely haven’t reached that step yet. I’m also not positive on the physics – and it might just be a coincidental concurrence rather than cause – but I believe the only miniaturized, i.e., ICBM warheads in existence are thermonuclear, and a failure to demonstrate that technology definitely means something.

So, in short, I’m not worried yet. They can’t build very many bombs; the bombs they can build aren’t especially powerful; they have no missile with the range to reach the United States and even if they did they haven’t miniaturized a warhead sufficiently to mount on it; and their only means of delivering one of the few extant bombs is by bomber, which exist in low numbers and also don’t have the range to hit the US, much less reach here undetected. So we’re all safe over here for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know that this really changes anything strategically even in the region. We’ve known, the South Koreans have known, and the Japanese have known; it’s common knowledge that North Korea has some nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t led to regional proliferation or a move to oust the Kim regime or anything like that. I don’t see “just another test” making a dramatic difference on that front. Dr. Farley probably says it best: “Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States.”

Yeah, great job there, Pyongyang.

High Technology in the Hermit Kingdom

The Main and Academic Buildings at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

38North (the US-Korea Institute at SAIS blog) has been producing some fantastic reporting lately, and today came out with an article on the new Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which opened in October.

Its very existence is a contradiction in terms. It is a pool of 160 of the best and the brightest computer and engineering students in North Korea, proud graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University. Perhaps most out-of-character for the tightly sealed country, these students will eventually be allowed free access to the internet. At first, only email capabilities will be granted, but eventually their access will open up and students able to venture beyond the Guang Myung internal North Korean intranet.

PUST itself is backed and funded by evangelical Christians, but steps are taken to ensure that no proselytizing takes place on campus. The university is also in negotiations and talks with the Department of Commerce and South Korean agencies, clearing everything from the names of schools to the curriculum itself. PUST’s cooperation is deemed necessary to securing new technology and avoiding dual-use restrictions on tech imports.

School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”

The school hopes to have 2,600 students by 2012, visiting faculty, and all the other accoutrements of a successful modern research university. But they will also have some unique challenges to North Korea:

Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.

Signs of openness? An attempt to forcibly drag North Korea into the 21st century? A smokescreen for weapons-grade technology imports? Or just an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of a few lucky North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, on the whole, whether this is a good or bad development. The students attending PUST will have more access to knowledge and the broader world than ever before, and depending on whether their contact with ‘normal’ North Koreans is limited, could possibly spread the gospel of the free world. Then again, developments and breakthroughs made at PUST could very well have military implications, despite all assurances to the contrary (indeed, how could Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong Un resist?).

If this really “might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy,” that should be good for North Korea in the long run. But then again, we’re still feeling the agony of our shift from one to the other, and for a country like the United States that transition was not an easy one to make. I suspect it may be even more painful for the DPRK.