Would North Korea Actually Fire Off The ‘Juche Bird’?

Ryan Pickrell | China/Asia Pacific Reporter

North Korea is threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean, something that was once unthinkable for the rogue regime.

The North tested a small, disappointing nuclear device a little over a decade ago. Since that first test, the North has continued its pursuit of nuclear weapons, successfully testing a staged thermonuclear bomb early last month. The regime’s sixth nuclear test produced an explosive yield significantly larger than anything the North has previously tested.

Now, Pyongyang is threatening to take its booming nuclear program one step further.

After President Donald Trump’s tough speech at the United Nations, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un threatened to “tame” the American president “with fire,” warning that the North’s response will be severe. When asked what such a reaction might entail, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained, “It could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific.” (RELATED: North Korea Warns It May Detonate An H-Bomb In The Pacific)

“The foreign minister is very well aware of the intentions of our supreme leader, so I think you should take his words literally,” Ri Yong Pil, deputy director of the Department of North American Affairs in the foreign ministry, told CNN Tuesday. North Korea “has always brought its words into action,” he added. (RELATED: North Korea Warns The World Should Take Its Threat To Detonate An H-Bomb In Pacific ‘Literally’)

North Korea appears to be threatening what some leading experts are calling the “Juche Bird.”

For those who do not follow the musings of North Korea experts, “‘Juche Bird’ is Jeffrey Lewis’s clever term for a North Korean answer to the American ‘Frigate Bird’ nuclear test of 1962,” Joshua Pollack, Lewis’s respected colleague in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Frigate Bird was a test of a nuclear-armed Polaris missile launched from the ballistic-missile submarine USS Ethan Allen in the Pacific. “Frigate Bird was the only live end-to-end test of a nuclear-armed missile conducted by the United States,” Pollack explained. The Soviets conducted such a test over land in the 1950s, and China did the same in the mid-1960s. In both cases, the payload was carried on medium-range ballistic missiles.

Juche is a reference to North Korea’s state ideology.

North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and while the regime claims to have the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, a capability confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the North has not yet tested a live nuclear-armed ballistic missile. “The one thing they have not demonstrated to the United States is the ability to put everything together end to end and use it.” North Korea is threatening to do precisely that and may already be preparing to conduct such a test.

North Korea has twice launched Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the Pacific. “There’s no strong reason to doubt that another one could be tested with a live nuclear warhead if desired,” Pollack told TheDCNF.

“North Korea probably has the ability to conduct such a test if it so desired,” Ankit Panda, the senior editor at The Diplomat, told TheDCNF. Its reentry vehicles continue to pose some problems, mainly with terminal phase stability, but they could get around this by carrying out a high-altitude or exoatmospheric burst to demonstrate an end-to-end nuclear capability.

“If the point is to demonstrate American vulnerability, they will do it on a Hwasong-14 [intercontinental ballistic missile] instead,” Pollack said. North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 twice successfully in July. The North has yet to test the weapon along a minimum energy trajectory, one similar to an intercontinental strike on the U.S. “The logical sequence of actions would be to start testing them to full range into the Pacific, and then to use one for a live nuclear test if it is deemed necessary to convince America’s leaders that a new reality has emerged,” Pollack argued.

“This is a high-risk enterprise, extreme even by Pyongyang’s standards,” he explained, noting that this would be the first atmospheric nuclear test in decades. “If something goes wrong, a live nuclear warhead could fall onto Japan. It will be seen as an extraordinarily provocative act, one that could create a new unity among the great powers against North Korea and inspire a drive for rearmament in Japan.”

“I’m the first to take the North Koreans ‘seriously’ and ‘literally,’ but I still find it difficult to buy that they’ll go ahead with a test like this that promises to have exceptional international costs for the regime. It’s leagues beyond anything they’ve done to date in terms of provocativeness and could result in unintentional casualties,” Panda explained. “I do worry, though, that multiple North Korean officials have alluded to atmospheric testing. It suggests to me that they’re priming the international community for such an eventuality.”

The North has clearly put the idea on the table, but it remains unclear whether it would choose to take such a provocative step. If pushed, North Korea may feel the need to demonstrate its full capabilities.

“North Korea makes a lot of threats, and we are ready for anything that may come,” Chief Pentagon spokesman Dana White said Thursday. While the U.S. considers the latest nuclear threats “very concerning,” the military is monitoring the situation closely.

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