North Korean state newspaper the Rodong Sinmun published pictures of what appear to be a “miniaturized” nuclear device on Wednesday, adjacent to a Hwasong-13 (KN-08) ballistic missile that could be used to deliver a weapon.
The pictures – if true – are the first photographic evidence Pyongyang has presented related to the state of North Korea’s nuclear warhead technology.
“It is gratifying to see the nuclear warheads with the structure of mixed charge adequate for prompt thermo-nuclear reaction,” state media outlet the KCNA reported Kim Jong Un as saying upon inspecting the missile facility.
“The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” Kim reportedly continued, after meeting with local nuclear scientists at an undisclosed location.
However, two observers said the pictures might not be of an actual nuclear warhead.
“It’s possible the device seen in the photographs is a mock-up,” said NK News Intelligence Director John Grisafi.
“However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t closely modeled on the actual design North Korea is developing, similar to how North Korea showed mock-ups of the Hwasong-13 (KN-08) while actually developing said missiles.”
Suh Kune-yull, a nuclear scientist from Seoul National University, said the warhead shown in the pictures was at a very premature state of development when compared to modern standards.
“One thing is for sure, the bomb seen on the media is a mock up,” Suh said. “If you look at the mirrors attached to the warhead, there are only around 30 to 40 of them. This shows that the warhead is still in a very premature state, and its explosive power would be relatively low by today’s standard.”
Suh said hundreds of mirrors would need to be mounted on the warhead, precisely and exquisitely concentrated to stimulate maximum explosive power on one spot inside the device.
“The mirrors are used as reflectors to send explosive power and neutrons back to one spot that is round the size of a single nanometer. This requires a very high level of scientific accuracy.”
But Suh said the arrangement of mirrors shown on the warhead looked coarse, estimating that the device would be at the very baseline of plutonium warhead development, far from either a fusion or hydrogen bomb, as North Korean claimed January nuclear test.
TIMING OF PHOTO
The photographic development comes just two days after North Korea’s traditional ally Russia denounced recent threats from Pyongyang to conduct “preventive nuclear strikes” against its opponents, calling the threats “absolutely impermissible.”
North Korea’s threats followed the tightest ever UN sanctions to be placed on Pyongyang, following a dramatic start to 2015 for the Korean peninsula.
“The timing of this revelation was almost certainly intentionally planned to follow recent developments such as the nuclear test, satellite launch and consequential sanctions,”Grisafi continued. “Pyongyang may be seeking to ratchet up tensions similarly to spring of 2013.”
But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed in Wednesday’s report that nuclear weapons development are part of a permanent national strategy, not a temporary counter-action against the rapidly changing international situation.
“(Nuclear weapons) are the most just and reliable way of preventing the country from a nuclear war disaster,” said Kim.
“If the U.S. imperialists infringe upon the DPRK’s sovereignty and right to existence with nuclear weapons, DPRK will never hesitate to make a preemptive nuclear strike at them.”
Crucial details regarding Kim’s visit, such as the precised time and place, were not revealed by state media, as is customary in reporting about the leaders’ visits.
(JH Ahn is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. He previously worked as an interpreter for United States Forces Korea.)