• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Hydrogen Bomb Shakes Asia And America

September 2017


Once again, and this time no less intrusively so, North Korea is living up to its hard-earned title as the world’s most irritating rogue nation. Just as America is settling in and readying itself for an extended booze-soaked and bratwurst-infested Labor Day weekend, the Korean People’s Army is testing yet another nuclear bomb. In fact, the North Koreans have made it something of a habit to spoil American holidays with their attention-grabbing nuclear antics (their last test of an atomic bomb was on July 4th). Yet this particular test is more forebodingly “attention-grabbing” than the others. I said it was just another nuclear bomb, but that’s too blasé and misleading. Deep in its subterranean Punggye-ri military testing facility, burrowed within the side of the country’s Mount Mantap in the peninsula’s northeastern corridor, the North Korean army tested its first hydrogen bomb.


The hydrogen bomb is, of course, rather different from your run-of-the-mill atomic bomb and the latter seems to have become antiquated, or at least less attractive in the eyes of Kim Jong-un. It’s not difficult, when you examine further the destructive potential of the hydrogen bomb to see why. The atomic bomb is much less potent than its hydrogen, or thermonuclear, cousin. It’s important first to understand the mechanisms by which each bomb acts. The energy that makes the atomic bomb so deadly is created through a process known as nuclear fission. During this process, heavy, fissionable radio-isotopic elements like Plutonium-239 and Uranium-235 are compressed and forcibly split apart. Once separated, the inordinate energy stores that once held together the isotope’s tenuous bonds are set free. In the absence of a more stable form, neutrons are also released and they cause an explosive cascade that sustains the bomb. With the proper isotopic concentration and the proper vessel in which it can be transported and delivered, this energy is released on a massive and finally cataclysmic scale.


This sort of cataclysmic destruction is precisely what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the war in the Pacific saw its terrible end. The Enola Gay, gravid with the first military-ready nuclear bomb, soared above Hiroshima with Little Boy nestled her bowels. Bockscar, three days later with Fat Man in his cargo, did the same over Nagasaki. Little Boy was designed with a fissionable Plutonium core; Fat Man with Uranium. It was the first real-world application of the Manhattan Project and it proved a harrowing success.


In the decades following V-J Day, nuclear weapons technology improved steadily. Atomic bombs were tested at high altitudes, as they were during Operation Fishbowl, as well as on the ground, as during Castle Bravo. Eventually, with the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which sought to mitigate the radioactive fallout from errant bombs like that at Bikini Atoll, the testing of atomic weapons was pushed underground. They were becoming ever more dangerous and ever more cleverly designed.


Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American physicist and Alamogordo alumnus was the father of the most ingenious and dangerous modern weapon design. His would be the most significant breakthrough that the field of military science had yet begotten. Teller played an instrumental role in developing what came to be the atomic bomb’s successor—the hydrogen bomb. He strove in his lab in America theorizing, calculating, building, and eventually realizing the hydrogen bomb’s potential in the early 1950s. He, almost exclusively by way of his independent research, ushered in the sequel of the atomic age.


Mechanistically, the hydrogen bomb works in a way similar to that of its atomic forebear. It, like the atomic bomb, begins with fissionable Plutonium and Uranium in order to trigger an initial explosion. Where the hydrogen bomb differs, however, is in its next step. Having released this initial energy, the fission process immediately causes a fusion event. This is achieved by x-rays, which are housed within the bomb, that are “turned on”, thus instigating the “hydrogen” second act.


Frightening a phenomenon though it may seem, fusion is an essential aspect of life. Fusion is the process responsible for sustaining the sun’s mighty glow and, by extension, for sustaining us here on Earth. 90 million miles from Earth, the sun is continually and, so far, inexhaustibly smashing together elements. It takes hydrogen, in much the same way its namesake bomb does, and creates via fusion slightly heavier isotopes like deuterium and tritium. Deuterium, whose prefix shared with Deuteronomy means “second”, comes immediately after Hydrogen and tritium after that.


At this point, if you were to imagine the hydrogen bomb harnessing the power of the sun and unleashing it on a city, your mental image wouldn’t be too far off-base. Once the hydrogen bomb’s fissionable materials stimulate the x-rays, which—if still analogizing to the sun, serve in place of the sun’s extreme temperature, thus giving to the bomb its “thermonuclear” name—the deuterium and tritium lying in wait are combined and a massive explosion occurs. It’s a bomb whose power can be up to one-thousand times more than that of an average atomic bomb. Put another way, this amounts to 104 kilotons to an atomic bomb’s 101 kilotons of destructive force.


For a small nation like North Korea, there presents a challenge in furtively testing such a massive Even testing events smaller in scale than the testing of a hydrogen bomb are usually detectable from the outside. As such, when the North Korean army detonated its hydrogen prototype early Monday morning, the tremors were felt the world over. Stationed on the Pacific coast, the US Geological Service recorded a 6.3 earthquake. Contiguous and surrounding nations also felt the seismic tremor. China registered a 5.3 earthquake, while South Korea and Japan recorded a 5.7 shake. Although the cause of the tremors were rather artificial than geological, the implications behind the rumbles are sobering and real.


To no one’s great surprise, North Korea hasn’t sated itself with acquiring the mere rudiments of nuclear arms. Kim Jong-un clearly has his eyes set on his state becoming a veritable nuclear threat. In this pursuit, increasingly toughened international sanctions haven’t dampened his ambition. The latest and harshest sanctions were imposed on North Korea this past month and to what end has this brought the international community? Since their implementation, we’ve witnessed a North Korean missile launched over Japan and the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. Sanctions, in a word, seem to be not only failing us, but emboldening Kim.


The response from Washington to this latest test was tepid and conflicted. Maybe it was rendered tepid because it was conflicted. Every cabinet member seemed to be on a different page. For starters, as is his wont, President Trump responded by bashing South Korea’s efforts toward “appeasement” with the North and by blaming China for its culpability in this mess. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.N. Secretary Nikki Haley, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis all had different things to say. After previously affirming to the North Korean regime that “we are not your enemy”, Tillerson persisted with his diplomatic tone. Days prior to the hydrogen bomb detonation, Tillerson said, “We’re going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign as I have described it, working with allies, working with China as well to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table”. Tillerson has devoted himself to this irenic approach, however at odds it may be to that of his boss.


Less amicable was Nikki Haley. As our country’s U.N. representative, she threatened North Korea with additional and economic sanctions. She said, “The time has come to exhaust all diplomatic means to end this crisis, and that means quickly enacting the strongest possible measures here in the U.N. Security Council”. She continued to say that “only the strongest sanctions will enable us to solve this problem through diplomacy” and that the US will “look at every country that does business with North Korea as a country that is giving aid to their reckless and dangerous intentions”. These countries conducting business with North Korea are few (but not insignificant; they include three-quarters of the BRICs nations—Brazil, China, and Russia with the addition of France), but extending sanctions to involve them would indeed be drastic and without promise of success.


Last but not least, there’s General Mattis. His militaristic response echoed most closely Trump’s “fire and fury” remark. When pressed to comment, Mattis said that any threat to the US or her allies would be “met with a massive military response—a response both effective and overwhelming”. He certainly doesn’t mean “any threat”, as North Korea has threatened Americans (or worse, if you’ll sadly recall Otto Warmbier’s fate) and her allies in Guam, Japan, and South Korea heretofore with impunity. Mattis made clear that “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country…But, as I said, we have many options to do so”.


That’s four administration officials and four different responses. Confused? North Koreans might be. The president and his top three international emissaries are all of a different mind. The only constant is that North Korea’s nuclear capacity is growing and strengthening seemingly by the day. America’s strength is in her solidity and her unanimity of will. The administration must work to this end.

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