North Korea May Test Several Nuclear Devices at Once, South Says

North Korea’s next nuclear test may involve several detonations to showcase its improved capability, the chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

North Korea may simultaneously explode an upgraded plutonium bomb and another of highly-enriched uranium, General Jung Seung Jo told lawmakers today in Seoul at a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee.

“Because they’ve already used plutonium twice, they will want to experiment with a warhead that has better performance and power,” he said. “They could showcase technological advances with highly-enriched uranium or by testing both types at once.”

South Korea earlier this week said arrangements for a North Korea detonation are nearly complete, and it is pushing for an internationally coordinated effort to deter the totalitarian regime. United Nations diplomats are weighing how much opposition may come to further sanctions from China, the North’s biggest ally, should the regime follow through.

South Korea’s military is not considering a preemptive attack on the testing location in Punggye-ri to prevent an experiment, Jung said. The North seems ready to carry out the blast at “any time,” based on leader Kim Jong Un’s decision, he added.

Experimenting with both types of fissile material gives the North “a political advantage,” Siegfried Hecker, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said yesterday at a forum in Seoul. “You essentially get two for the condemnation of one.”

Small Warheads

North Korea has twice conducted nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and both were plutonium-based. Plutonium is considered better for building small warheads, which North Korea is believed to be attempting to procure so it can threaten the U.S. with long-range nuclear-tipped missiles, said Hecker, the last foreigner to have toured the North’s nuclear facilities.

The regime may prefer to make nuclear weapons out of highly-enriched uranium because its production is easier to hide and requires smaller amounts of fissile material than a plutonium bomb, he said.

Hecker visited a light-water reactor and nuclear-material enrichment plant during a November 2010 trip to Yongbyon, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of the capital Pyongyang. North Korea has 2,000 centrifuges already installed and running at the Yongbyon facility, and making low-enriched uranium, Hecker said he was told on what was his fourth visit to the facility since January 2004.

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