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Experts doubt N. Korea's claim of having miniaturized nukes

North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday published this front-page photo of leader Kim Jong Un posing with a silver ball that purportedly is a miniaturized nuclear bomb in front of what appears to be a missile.

PHOTO FROM RODONG SINMUN

By PAUL ALEXANDER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2016

Experts immediately cast doubt on North Korea’s claim Wednesday that it has developed a nuclear bomb small enough to fit into a warhead, saying that even if the boast is true, the country probably still has a lot of work ahead to be able to deliver it effectively.

Pyongyang splashed the news via its two main media outlets, showing leader Kim Jong Un — looking chubbier than usual in a fur hat and long coat — inspecting the silver globe that purportedly contained the bomb. A green-and-brown camouflage missile sat in the background.

The two-pronged message seemed clear: “Mess with us and this is what you’ll get,” to the outside world, and “Don’t ever question that I’m in charge,” to his populace in general and the military in particular, which reportedly has yet to completely accept the youthful grandson of the country’s founding father.

The announcement came on the second day of annual spring exercises between South Korean and U.S. forces, which have been described as the largest ever. The drills always anger Pyongyang, which calls them a rehearsal for invasion. South Korean media have fed the paranoia this year with claims that they include scenarios for destroying the North’s nuclear facilities and taking out its leadership.

It was also the latest salvo in the steadily escalating crisis on the peninsula, which started with the North’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a multistage rocket launch a month later. The crisis has included high-profile shows of U.S. force, the shutting down of a joint South/North Korean factory complex, and more recently, Pyongyang threatening to turn South Korea, the U.S. mainland and U.S. bases in the Pacific into a “sea of fire.”

Yet, despite new, tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the impoverished North has proceeded with them at full speed. It has said its rockets are part of a peaceful space program and claims the nuclear weapons are solely for self-defense, despite its threats to use them in a pre-emptive attack.

“The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as telling a meeting of scientists and technicians. “This can be called true nuclear deterrent.”

Pyongyang’s claim came just hours after U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a Pentagon briefing that the North isn’t believed to have developed the ability yet to miniaturize a nuclear bomb enough to fit into a warhead.

Welsh said the commander of U.S. Northern Command “spends a lot of time worried about how we can be sure to take it out if they ever did develop the capability to combine a long-range missile with a warhead that was operable. I don’t think they’re at that stage yet.”

Even if the North has developed a small enough bomb, other questions remain, particularly whether it could withstand the rigors of takeoff and re-entry into the atmosphere, and how accurate and reliable the missiles are, given they have been tested only twice. Devastating retaliation would be certain.

“If you can’t put it on a missile, you can’t do much with it,” said Carl Baker, a Korea expert at the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu. “And there’s no indication whatsoever that they’ve been able to weaponize a nuclear weapon that they could put on an intercontinental missile. Satellite launches don’t prove that. It doesn’t prove you can launch an ICBM. It doesn’t prove you can put that kind of weight on that kind of rocket.”

Baker said he sees the claim as yet another attempt by the rogue regime to claim success so “they can be part of the club.”

“They’re saying, ‘We have all this capability, so what are you going to do about it? Now you have to talk to us because we have all this capability.’ ” he said.

But North also has been known to exaggerate its capabilities, so the claim of a miniaturized warhead could be aimed at responding to the U.N. sanctions and the U.S.-South Korea war games, along with bolstering Kim’s support ahead of the first congress by the ruling Workers’ Party in three decades.

Four years since taking power after the death of his father, Kim reportedly has still not consolidated power and has conducted bloody purges of top-level officials as an apparent warning against disloyalty.

Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired lieutenant general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force and professor at Teikyo University, said Kim’s message was particularly aimed at the North Korean military, which basked in a “military first” policy under his father.

“Kim Jong Un’s sole aim is to put the military under his control. What he is afraid of most is a military coup d’etat,” Shikata said. “By boasting the success in nuclear weapon technology, he is trying to solidify his power.”

Chiyomi Sumida, Hana Kusumoto and Stars and Stripes reporter Wyatt Olson contributed to this report.

alexander.paul@stripes.com

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