What Was That ?
Wall Street Journal October 13, 2006; Page A12
Asked the best place to be if an H-bomb goes off, the gadget's legendary father, Edward Teller, responded, "Standing next to somebody who says: 'What was that?'"
Few realize that whatever it was that North Korea detonated on Sunday, it packed barely the explosive force of a 10-yard cube of explosive fertilizer. A hundred thousand bucks' worth of ammonium nitrate could produce much the same bang. Far larger quantities of explosives have gone off accidentally in the last century. Sometimes, these big booms claimed thousands of victims, as at Texas City in 1948. Sometimes, they took only one -- the night watchman of the fertilizer plant in Toulouse that disappeared from the face of the Earth in 2001.
Since the Dear Leader is as unpredictable as North Korean society is opaque, it's hard to reckon exactly what he did. Yet if Sunday night's rumble was intended as an entry-level nuclear test, it must have been a disappointment. One twenty-fifth of a Hiroshima may scare the hatpins out of the Better Red Than Deadheads making the pre-election TV rounds, but it won't get a grouch like Kim Jong Il a decent table at the nuclear club. The Dear Leader's half-kiloton debut was 100,000 times less powerful than the world's largest-ever nuclear test, the 59.2 megaton "Tsar Bomba" set off by Kim Il Sung's shoe-pounding pal, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1961.
Little wonder some optimists are muttering that maybe it was not a proper nuke at all. Perhaps it was only a parody physics package, consisting of a huge conventional explosives charge designed to squeeze the pips out of a tiny plutonium kernel. That's what folks in the H-bomb business in Doctor Strangelove's salad days would deride as "using a blast furnace to light a match."
Cold comfort that, within a decade of Hiroshima, Cold War imperatives drove American bomb designers not just to turn A-bombs into the basis for the H-bomb, but to devise nukes that a man could handle and a six-inch howitzer could fire. Could the North Koreans have been equally clever? If so, better watch out -- half a kiloton in a suitcase is something bin Laden would cheerfully give his last hundred megabucks to acquire. After all, a suitcase on the loose is a lot harder to target than a wheezy liquid-fuel missile clamped to a fixed launch pad.
What, if anything, the Dear Leader has to bet with is hard to know, because, at the low end of the spectrum, muffling nuclear tests to confuse seismic eavesdroppers is not exactly rocket science. Sucking the air out of an underground test cavern containing a bomb has much the same dampening effect as a large silencer on a small pistol.
This much is certain, though -- Murphy's law cuts both ways. In hundreds of experiments by mature nuclear powers, fission tests that fizzle have far outnumbered thermonuclear runaways. But give a man a match, and he can fire off a blast furnace that uses an old-fashioned A-bomb to ignite "fusion fuel," lifting a nuke's explosive yield from kilotons -- as at Hiroshima -- to megatons. That's how thermonuclear mushroom clouds grew from incandescent atomic acorns -- a few kilotons was all it took to trigger the tub-thumping Tsar Bomba.
Fulfilling the late Doctor Teller's "what was that?" criterion in that all-too-real test case would mean standing his imaginary interlocutor 100 miles from Ground Zero. As the Korean peninsula is barely that wide, America's South Korean allies have an understandable interest in exploring alternatives, diplomatic or otherwise.
So it really does not signify whether North Korea's greatest living movie fan thinks he's Doctor No or Yosemite Sam. Though Kim may be persona non grata at the nuclear and Groucho clubs, until we get to see his hole card, he's guaranteed a seat at the poker table.
Mr. Seitz is a former associate at Harvard's Center for International Affairs and consultant to Los Alamos National Laboratory.