SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Will North Korea’s next nuclear test involve a thermonuclear missile screaming over Japan? That’s a question being asked after North Korea’s foreign minister said his country may test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
The world hasn’t seen an above-ground, atmospheric nuclear test since an inland detonation by China in 1980 and North Korea upending that could push the region dangerously close to war. The room for error would be minimal and any mistake could be disastrous. Even if successful, such a test could endanger air and sea traffic in the region.
Because of that many experts don’t think North Korea would take such a risk. But they’re also not ruling it out given the North’s increasing number of nuclear and missile tests.
The main reason for North Korea to take that risk would be to quiet outside doubts about whether it really has a thermonuclear weapon small enough to fit on a missile, said Jeffrey Lewis, a U.S. arms control expert at the Middlebury Center of International Studies at Monterey. So far North Korea has been separately testing nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles built to deliver them, rather than testing them together.
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North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho wouldn’t have spoken without approval from Pyongyang’s top leadership when he suggested to reporters in New York on Friday that the country could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test to fulfill the vows of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim, in an unusual direct statement to the world, pledged hours earlier to take “highest-level” action against the United States over Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” the North if provoked. Ri didn’t elaborate and said no one knew what decision Kim would make.
If North Korea attempts an atmospheric nuclear test at sea, it would likely involve its most powerful ballistic missiles, such as the intermediate-range Hwasong-12 or the intercontinental-range Hwasong-14, experts say. The country lacks assets to air-drop a nuclear device and sending a vessel out to sea to detonate a device raises the chances of getting detected and stopped by the U.S. military.
For the nuclear missile to reach a remote part of the Pacific, it would have to fly over Japan, as the North did with two Hwasong-12 test launches in recent weeks.
There have only been a handful of times when…