Jeffrey Lewis"Newly Developed Way" for NORK Nukes?

Reading the tea leaves at KCNA is always fraught with peril, but Josh Pollack noticed a wrinkle in what appears to be North Korea’s latest threat to conduct another nuclear test (or, really, demonstration).

North Korea is again indicating that it will “bolster its nuclear deterrent.” North Korea has used this phrase previously in reference to its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests — or, as Tom Schelling would have it, demonstrations. So, for example KCNA explained that the 2006, that US policy compelled the DPRK “to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent. Similarly, in 2009, KCNA explained North Korea had conducted “one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent.” (The DPRK has also described reprocessing plutonium in this way.)

KCNA has spent much of the spring suggesting Pyongyang would, once again, bolster the ol’ nuclear deterrent, leading some South Koreans to anticipate another nuclear test. (A third test had looked unlikely until the Cheonan incident.)

North Korea’s latest threat comes with a new addition — “to bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way:

The recent disturbing development on the Korean Peninsula underscores the need for the DPRK to bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way to cope with the U.S. persistent hostile policy toward the DPRK and military threat toward it.

What could “a newly developed way” mean?

As I’ve already written over at 38 North, I doubt very much that North Korea could build a staged thermonuclear device. On the other hand, North Korea might be able to build a boosted device, either gas-boosted, or a “layer cake” design similar to the one Israel appears to have. AQ Khan claims Pakistan tested a boosted device, but has been hazy on the details and, well, it’s AQ Frickin’ Khan.

Building and testing, er demonstrating, more sophisticated bomb designs makes for an effective signal by North Korea. But allow me to suggest that a few more kilotons won’t objectively alter the regional security situation unless we allow it to:

At the end of the day, U.S. policy toward North Korea is based on a variety of factors. Are North Korean leaders willing to re-commit to a denuclearization agreement and follow through on it? Will North Korean leaders work toward resolving other issues, from abductions of Japanese citizens to the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan? Can the United States balance the interests of multiple parties, including allies like Japan and South Korea, as well as China? Can the United States sustain a prolonged policy of engagement? The answers to these questions fundamentally determine whether we pursue engagement or containment. The yield of North Korea’s nuclear weapons may be on the list somewhere, but it ought to be near the bottom.


  1. Binyamin

    From whence comes the tritium? They don’t have a functioning reactor anymore.

  2. anon

    “North Korea is again indicating that it will “bolster its nuclear deterrent.”


  3. Josh (History)

    I tend to read recent NK statements as threatening to resume or expand fissile material production rather than resume nuclear testing. I’m not sure what to make of the “newly developed” line, either. It could refer to boosting or maybe to HEU. Or it could be hollow rhetoric. Hard to say. Once upon a time, the North Koreans might have invited some Americans in to see their facilities, but they don’t seem to be in “transparency” mode lately.

  4. MarkoB

    perhaps not a test, nor a demonstration, but weaponisation. do we know whether the DPRK has actually deployed warheads in specific military units or not? Or is the dear leader trying to create a diversion following his disastrous directions to the nork coach at the world cup?

  5. Anon

    Just idly speculating here, but could this be a reference to HEU? DPRK over the last yearish has issued a series of statements declaring its intention to develop an indigenous LEU LWR fuel production capability and claiming a certain level of success. The details in these statements are (probably intentionally) annoyingly vague, but perhaps they’re laying the groundwork for some sort of future unveiling of an enrichment capability and using the LWR excuse as a fig leaf of legitimacy?

  6. Beta

    or a “layer cake” design similar to the one Israel appears to have.

    What makes you think they had built such devices?

  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Mordechai Vanunu revealed that Israel produced lithium-deuteride in hemispherical shells.

    See: Frank Barnaby’s statement.

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