March 13th, 2013
06:16 PM ET

Material in North Korea's nuclear test unclear, worrying for U.S.

By Jill Dougherty and Pam Benson

More than a month after North Korea tested a nuclear device, the United States is unable to pinpoint whether the regime was able to use uranium to fuel the explosion, a capability that would represent a significantly enhanced nuclear program.

The lack of clarity comes as North Korea ratchets up its bellicose rhetoric each day.

New video broadcast on North Korean television showed the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un, addressing his troops along the border on Monday and issuing a blood-chilling threat, "Throw all enemies into the caldron, break their waists and crack their windpipes." It was the same location he and his late father visited in November 2010, just two days before the North shelled an island, killing four South Koreans.

The bellicose comments have been intensifying over the past months, increasing worry about Kim's unpredictability.

"I am very concerned about what they might do. And they are certainly, if they chose ... could initiate a provocative action against the South," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

North Korea has threatened a pre-emptive nuclear attack not only on South Korea, but on the United States too. Military and White House officials have said the United States can defend against any such threat. President Barack Obama told ABC news this week that he does not think North Korea can make good on the threat.

"They probably can't, but we don't like margin of error," Obama told ABC News.

That ambiguity is not lost on Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "There's perhaps nowhere else on Earth where the capacity to wreak enormous damage is matched by the possibility of North Korea using their nuclear weapons," the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee said.

Particularly worrisome are the advancements the North Koreans have made in their nuclear and missile programs. In December, they successfully launched a long-range ballistic missile for the first time under what the United States and other Western nations say was the guise of putting a satellite into orbit.

The United States is concerned that a long-range ballistic missile could be fitted with a nuclear warhead and could be capable of striking the mainland, although experts say North Korea does not yet have the expertise to do so.

And then last month, the Pyongyang regime conducted its third underground nuclear test.

U.S. officials tell CNN they have not determined what kind of nuclear device the north tested underground from its Pung-gye-Ri nuclear test site.

A U.S. intelligence official said "nothing has changed" since the Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out a statement within hours of the February 12 nuclear test indicating the test had an explosive yield of several kilotons.

The U.S. Air Force uses sniffer planes to take air samples after a test in hopes of scooping up radioactive particles that will provide more specific details about the contents. The official's comment indicates the United States has obtained no further information that would help determine the type of nuclear material used, and at this late date, probably would not.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, an international group that monitors nuclear tests, also said it was unable to get a fix on what fissile material was used by the North Koreans and didn't expect it ever would.

"What we are not sure of is if the North Koreans used plutonium, which they used in their earlier tests or highly enriched uranium for this third test," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. "If they used highly enriched uranium, that would be very worrisome because it would suggest they have a larger supply of this material that would allow them to build a larger number of nuclear weapons."

Kimball said detection is always iffy. If the chamber where the explosion takes place deep underground is well-sealed, few particles may be released into the atmosphere. And if samples are gathered, they need to be "relatively fresh and very good" to determine whether it was a plutonium-based or uranium-based explosion.

The type of nuclear material matters because North Korea gave up its production of weapons-grade plutonium six years ago and only has a limited amount of the fissile material in its stocks, enough for approximately six bombs, according to experts. After years of denial, the regime acknowledged in 2010 it had an enriched uranium facility. That's problematic because such facilities are hard to detect and could produce large supplies of highly enriched uranium.

Kimball doesn't like the trend. "They don't yet have the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could reach the U.S. Despite whatever they say, they may soon - in the next two to three years with further testing - be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile that could strike their neighbors," Kimball said.

A North Korean expert believes that Kim Jung Un's regime is playing the international community. "North Korea had done three tests: the ballistic missile, the nuclear and a test of all of us, and the question is, what are we going to do?" said Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons foundation.

The United States and the United Nations have recently imposed additional economic sanctions against North Korea, but so far sanctions have not led to the resumption of talks.

The U.S. special envoy to North Korea says unless the regime is serious about talks and meets its obligations to de-nuclearize, its future will be bleak.

"North Korea will not achieve security, economic prosperity and integration into the international community while it pursues nuclear weapons, while it threatens its neighbors, while it tramples on international norms, abuses its own people and refuses to fulfill its long-standing obligations and commitments," Glyn Davies told a congressional panel. "This is one of the hardest foreign policy problems out there."

soundoff (873 Responses)
  1. 01DOGG01

    This video demonstrates how to detect a North Korean nuclear test in no time, right from your PC, before the news even know it happened.


    March 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  2. Hey-Zues Marimba

    A little guy in an overblown Dear Leader role surrounded by puppet masters.

    March 16, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  3. Jaimie

    Squash'em like a bug.

    March 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Reply
  4. f

    Dont say "crack" too loud, merion berry night get excited

    March 16, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  5. Rob

    If we get nuked by North Korea after all this time. We had when we could have destroyed them the government and it alone will be help responsible. If we used just one bomb when MacArthur asked for it. We wouldn't be having this conversation.

    March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
    • freedom lover

      You're insane.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  6. Pwd

    The should just start bombing them and get it over with once and for all.

    March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  7. Emilio Dumphque

    Is there any evidence at all that any of these "nuclear" test actually involved a nuclear explosion? It wouldn't be that hard for a totalitarian nation to set off a couple thousand tons of TNT in a deep cave and send some radioactive dust into the path of a sniffer. Any evidence at all???

    March 16, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply
    • Hiphurtsoww

      Your name shoud be Dumphuqe.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  8. jesus

    shouldnt they just go ahead and kill this egomaniac?

    March 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Reply
    • phil

      We are not allowed to assassinate political figures.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  9. Mr vic

    Uuuuuhhhh... Can-t. Bre-ath... W-w-windpipe.... b-brok-en. Kim Jung's big fat ,,, f-foot.

    March 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  10. Jim

    I say, let's send some our sample nuke heads on over to this (strange) little man for his first hand inspection:-)

    March 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  11. Sam

    International Policy Digest has an interesting article regarding North Korea’s behavior toward the West and how its belligerence is nothing more than a failing regime finally acknowledging their rule is coming to an end.

    March 16, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  12. Schnautholio

    I'm so Ronery / So ronery / So ronery and sadry arone / There's no one / Just me onry / Sitting on my rittle throne / I work rearry hard and make up get prans / but, nobody listens, no one understands / Seems rike no one takes me serirousry / And so, I'm ronery / A rittle ronery / Poor rittle me / There's no one I can rerate to / Feewr rike a biwd in a cage / It's kinda siwry / but, not reawry / because, it's fiwring my body with rage / I'm the smartest, most crever, most physicawry fit / but, nobody erse seems to rearrize it / When I can the worrd maybe they'rr notice me / And untiwr then, I'wr be ronery / Yeaaaaah, a rittle ronery / Poor rittle me...

    March 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  13. Kenneth MacKenzie

    .. “NO MISSILES NEEDED!” Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Hiroshima Landmines (rated 60 Kilotons. Horoshima was 20KT) are currently concealed inside of & under feet of US & Europe. SEE: U.S. House Hearing 106-158 chaired by U.S. House Rep. Dan Burton. Further testimony by Sen. Lugar.
    ..Again, to “falsehood journalists”: “NO MISSILES ARE NEEDED for delivery of Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Hiroshima Landmines, which cannot be detected on radar & cannot be shot down once underground inside backyards of United States, Wash, DC, NY, OH, MI, GA, FL, IL, TX, CA, etc., etc!”
    ..U.S. proposed "Anti MIssile Shield" is obsolete like the "Maginot Line" in France before WW2. Wasted money!
    ..SEE: U.S. House Hearing. 106-158. Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Hiroshima Landmines are one-man portable, carried as backpack or “suitcase nuke” from a small boat or Kayak at the US coastline to your city.
    .. Alleging “missile delivery” of these weapons has been recognized as a “ruse” by top military planners since the “Cold War” when these Nuclear Landmines were being “seeded” by the U.S. & the Soviet Union.
    ..Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Hiroshima Landmines are inside the U.S. and inside Europe & this truth is impossible to deny, unless you are mentally disabled or a very good liar.

    March 16, 2013 at 12:29 am | Reply
  14. Yury

    It is a scientific (and indisputable) fact that Americans are a bunch of stupid animals easy to manipulate and subdue; these slobs are extremely gullible and incapable to think for themselves – trained not to think. Moreover, these mules are lovers of wealth and pleasure; they are selfish, slothful, indolent and can be inspired to raise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.

    March 15, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • The Cat

      So, Yury, where's the evidence of the ridiculous statement that you made? Let me can't produce any, can you? I'm also going to guess that you're NK; I'm so sorry for you...

      March 16, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • phil

      Yuri, you are so stupid.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Reply
    • 1EYE2OPEN


      March 16, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
      • phil

        You need a good enema.

        March 16, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • phillyflyers

      Yuri you are truly a sorry human being, but then again calling you human would be a compliment.

      March 16, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  15. paul

    nukes. 9-11 could have been. 'suitcase nukes were the worry back then. my people say that a deep cover cia/mkultra agent,helped down play the koreans insistance on using a 'suitcase nuke' on the twin towers. suitcase nukes,were the real nucliar deturrent of the 1950s-60s,with the 'big three'[ussr,usa,prc,each having secret nukes,located in the other twos capitals. look at todays 'gamma ray dection efforts. these secret nukes,much more of a threat than n.koreas efforts. china controls n.k.,and the current sabre rettleing aside,the us state dept. must get back on the ball.

    March 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  16. heywood

    Instead of threats, shouldent this little cherubic asian man make another Gangnam Style video to follow up the first?

    March 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  17. Dustin

    I have to admit, reading this makes me believe that another World War may be around the corner. Although North Korea has a strong military, I don't know if any other nation would side with it.

    March 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  18. Mike

    Sanctions just do not work. They hurt the ordinary person in the street, but not the NK leadership or their military.
    Ideally, if the U.N. stood for anything, they would have acted with a combined military force a long time ago, both against North Korea and Iran.
    Of course, the two major stumbling blocks have been Russia (Iran) and China (NK). The crime is, the U.N. never called their bluff. This, yet again, leaves the fate of the Free World in the hands of the USA. Good ole USA, yes they will fight our wars for us and keep us safe. And, when all is said and done, and the threats are extinguished, the USA will be a prime scapegoat for peaceniks, the liberal minded, and those too afraid to grow a pair, throughout the Free World.
    There comes a time when the USA has to think about itself and its own people. Why dunk the US into yet another tank of financial depression fighting the Free World's wars for them. It's time the USA took a back seat from their assumed role as World's police officer. All while maintaining the highest state of alert in keeping an extremely watchful eye on NK and Iran. And, if either one so much as blinks, or fuels a rocket, in the general direction of the USA, then that's motive enough to bring down the hammer.
    Let’s face it, if NK threatened Russia or China, it would be game over already!

    March 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
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