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Experts Doubt North Korea's Claim of Having Miniaturized Nukes

People watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with superimposed letters that read: "North Korea has made nuclear warheads small enough to fit on ballistic missiles" at Seoul Railway Station on March 9, 2016. Ahn Young-joon/AP
People watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with superimposed letters that read: "North Korea has made nuclear warheads small enough to fit on ballistic missiles" at Seoul Railway Station on March 9, 2016. Ahn Young-joon/AP

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

Pyongyang splashed the news via its two main mouthpieces, 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 with a missile, painted in green-and-brown camouflage, 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 never completely accepted 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. It has included threats by Pyongyang to turn South Korea, the U.S. mainland and U.S. bases in the Pacific into a "sea of fire."

"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."

If true, the claim would mean the North potentially has the capability to reach the U.S. mainland with such a weapon. However, the North also has been known to exaggerate its capabilities, so the claim could be aimed at responding to U.N. Security Council 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, reportedly executing one with an anti-aircraft gun in front of a high-level crowd, 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."

Despite 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.

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.

"If they really have this miniaturized nuclear weapon, then why not invite some of their friends from wherever -- if they have any -- to confirm it? That's basically what they did with their uranium enrichment."

Shikata agreed, although he said the North probably has made some gains, given the resources it has put into the project.

"However, North Korea has not been successful yet to make re-entry of the missile into the atmosphere. It is pointless unless you can hit a target with a miniaturized warhead," he said.

Baker 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.

Pyongyang claimed the January underground blast involved its first hydrogen bomb, which would be a major improvement over its previous, less-powerful plutonium or enriched uranium devices, but experts have questioned the assertion on the basis of data they have collected.

In addition, experts say photos the North released of missiles being launched from a submarine appeared to have been faked, and a rocket shown off in a military parade four years ago was believed to be just a mock-up.

Since the rocket launch, the Security Council has passed what have been described as the toughest sanctions against the North in 20 years, actions that clearly are targeted at hitting the country in its wallet and depriving it of fuel for its rockets and other key materials.

In addition, South Korea shut down a joint factory complex that was the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation and a source of hard currency for Pyongyang, hardened its policy against the North, passed its own sanctions and agreed to talks with the U.S. on accepting a missile defense system that it had been reticent to take because trading partner China sees it as a threat.

The U.S. has made high-profile shows of force by sending a B-52 bomber from Guam on a low-level flyover above Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, and dispatching four F-22 fighter jets from Okinawa.

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

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