North Korea Boast About Nuclear Warhead on Missile Seen Likely

(Bloomberg) -- This time North Korea may be telling the truth.

While Kim Jong Un’s regime has long trumpeted its ability to mount nuclear warheads on rockets -- a process known as miniaturization -- weapons experts who analyzed its fifth nuclear test on Friday say the claim is now starting to look believable.

"The power of explosion is believed to be twice as large as the fourth test, which makes me believe it finally succeeded with the miniaturization," said Park Jiyoung, a senior research fellow of the science and technology policy program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. The North has claimed success with the miniaturization process ever since its third test in 2013, she said.

The intervals between tests has shortened, and the weapons now have a far greater power of destruction, the Asan Institute said in a statement. If Friday’s test was as successful as North Korea claims, Park said, the nation will "soon be heading toward developing a hydrogen bomb, and if so, a device with a bigger impact."

Kim’s regime conducted the test at 9:30 a.m. Seoul time, triggering an artificial earthquake with a magnitude of 5.3, larger than the magnitude-5.1 tremor after its fourth test in January. South Korea’s defense ministry said the explosive force was around 10 kilotons, compared with an estimate of six kilotons in January’s blast.

The test "confirmed the structure and specific features of movement of nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets," the official Korean Central News Agency said. "The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power."

North Korea has a history of exaggerating its technical prowess. In January it carried out what it said was the detonation of a hydrogen bomb -- a claim disputed by experts. The nation’s claims of putting a satellite in orbit in 1998 and again in 2009 were also disputed by South Korea and the U.S., before the nation achieved the feat in December 2012.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is concerned that the North may be making fast progress on miniaturizing nuclear weapons, opposition party lawmaker Kim Byung Kee told reporters after parliament listened to a briefing from the spy agency.

Han Yong-Sup, a professor at the Korea National Defense University and former adviser to the National Security Council standing committee and foreign ministry, said that the regime can probably already mount warheads on mid-range missiles.

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said she couldn’t rule out that North Korea is able to miniaturize nuclear weapons, Kyodo News said, citing a briefing by the minister.

it’s hard to know the extent of North Korea’s ability to miniaturize warheads, according to Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at Japan Institute of Affairs in Tokyo.

"By carrying out repeated tests, they want to show the world that their nuclear capability is growing," said Kotani. "But it’s hard to know how far they are able to miniaturize the bombs and make them into war heads. We don’t know if they have the ability to fire warheads into space and have them return into the earth’s atmosphere."