Preliminary Samples Hint at North Korean Nuclear Test
With the United Nations preparing to vote on whether to impose harsh sanctions on North Korea, American intelligence officials said Friday evening that they had found new evidence that the country detonated a nuclear bomb deep inside a mountain in its desolate northern territory.
An analysis of air samples taken in the region on Wednesday found radioactive material that is “consistent with a North Korean nuclear test,” according to a document sent to lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Friday by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.
But a senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the results were still preliminary and that final analysis of the data would not be completed for several days.
The document was provided to The New York Times on Friday evening.
One day after the blast, the Pentagon dispatched Air Force planes with special radiation detectors into international airspace near North Korea. The official did not say whether the planes had collected the radioactive sample.
One question that remains is whether the explosion that North Korean leaders announced with great fanfare might actually have been a failure or merely a partial success.
Intelligence officials and independent scientists have said that the detonation was a “sub-kiloton” blast — an explosion far smaller than typical nuclear tests by novice bomb designers. One widely held theory is that the nuclear blast was less powerful than the North Koreans had hoped it would be.
This week, American officials said the North Koreans had notified the Chinese government that the nuclear test would be in the range of four kilotons.
“Based in very incomplete information, it smells to me like a fizzle,” said Sidney Drell, a theoretical physicist and arms control expert at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Given the comparatively small size of the blast, American officials said, it is possible that only a small amount of radioactive material leaked from the subterranean test site.
Because the test was conducted by one of the world’s most closed societies, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have had to construct complicated computer models to try to prove North Korean claims of a nuclear test. They used the models to calculate the times when the Air Force’s WC-135 “Constant Phoenix” aircraft would have the best chance to collect samples of radiation from the explosion.
Military officials said this week that the ability to detect any radiation would depend partly on the uncertainties of nature because the prevailing winds would have to blow east toward the military aircraft patrols.
Professor Drell also said any radiation leakage would depend on the geology of the test site. The explosion could have blasted new holes in rock formations that would allow radioactive material to seep into the air. But the blast could also have sealed off subterranean passages and reduced the chances for leaking.
“We’re in the process now of going through, looking through all the data and all the facts to try to come up with the best possible explanation for what, exactly, happened there,” said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman.
“We don’t know yet.”
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