North Korea has been signaling that a third nuclear test is imminent, and speculation of a major advance has been fueled by the assertion of its top military body, the National Defense Commission, that any test will be of a “higher level”.
Numerous analysts believe this could point to the first-time test of a uranium device. The North’s two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 used plutonium for fissile material. The test will offer a rare chance to gauge where its nuclear program is headed, with most expert attention focused on what type of device is detonated and how.
“It’s not that a uranium test would reflect any great technical achievement,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But it would confirm what has long been suspected: that the North can produce weapons-grade uranium which doubles its pathways to building more bombs in the future,” Fitzpatrick said.
A basic uranium bomb is no more potent than a basic plutonium one, but the uranium path holds various advantages for the North, which has substantial deposits of uranium ore. North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit a centrifuge facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Another red flag raised by a uranium device relates to proliferation, according to Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation based in California. “Highly enriched uranium is the preferred currency of rogue states or terrorist groups,” Carroll said. “It’s the easiest fissile material to make a crude bomb out of and the technical know-how and machinery for enriching uranium is more readily transferred and sold,” he added.
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