(CNN)North Korea just intimated that it may test a nuclear weapon somewhere above the Pacific Ocean.

If Pyongyang follows through on the threat, it would be the first nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere in decades.
The threat risks escalating an already volatile situation, and comes after US President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech to the United Nations.
So how would Pyongyang conduct a nuclear test over the Pacific and what impact would it have?

Can they do it?

North Korea has been working tirelessly on developing missiles that can reach the United States and its allies and pair them with a miniaturized nuclear warheads.
After six nuclear tests and a succession of missile tests, the consensus is that Pyongyang is close.
When asked when we’ll know for sure if North Korea has a nuclear-tipped missile, nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis sometimes responds with a bleak joke: “you’ll see a giant bright light.”
Lewis, from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, agrees with most experts that we’ll only know for certain when they do it.
The United States military, however, operates under the assumption that North Korea already has the capability.
“I know there’s some debate about the miniaturization advancements made by Pyongyang. But PACOM (US Pacific Command) must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word. I must assume his (Kim Jong Un’s)claims are true — I know his aspirations certainly are,” Admiral Harry Harris, the head of PACOM, said in a June speech.

How would they do it?

Though the bomb could in theory be dropped from a plane, North Korea analysts say Pyongyang is likely to opt for a missile, as a means of showcasing its newest and most sophisticated technology.
Nuclear-armed missiles have only been tested a handful of times, said Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT and expert on deterrence and nuclear policy.
“The worst-case scenario would be a Juche bird test,” Narang said. “That would be not only provocative, but a lot can go wrong if the missile goes awry.”
The phrase “Juche bird,” used by nonproliferation experts monitoring Pyongyang’s activities, is a play on the 1962 missile test codenamed Frigate Bird. The test involved a nuclear-tipped missile fired from a US submarine toward Christmas Island and detonated over the Pacific Ocean.
North Korean state media often employ the word Juche, the North Korean state ideology of self-reliance, when referring to the country’s nuclear tests.

Tracking North Korea's missile tests

Tracking North Korea’s missile tests 02:13

Will they do it?

When Ri floated the possibility of testing a nuclear weapon over the Pacific, he was careful to say that the final decision was in Kim Jong Un’s hands.
“I think that was clever for them to specify the worst-case test while still leaving room to walk away from it,” Narang told CNN.
Narang thinks that it’s more likely that North Korea would conduct a smaller-scale action first — such as launching another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.
“It would be surprising to me if it’s (the Juche bird) their lead-off hitter now,” he said, borrowing from a baseball term.
But Lewis, who described Ri’s comments as in keeping with the country’s broader strategy of “little warnings to be followed by more explicit ones,” believes there’s danger in not taking North Korea seriously.
“We dared the Chinese in 1966 (when they tested a nuclear missile) and they did it. Now we’re daring the North Koreans,” Lewis told CNN.

How much damage can North Korea's weapons do?

How much damage can North Korea’s weapons do? 01:04

What if they do it?

Regardless of the geopolitical fallout, the environmental effects could be devastating. Those living near Bikini Atoll, where the US tested many of its nuclear weapons in the mid to late 20th century, are still dealing with a range of health-related issues.
The blast would likely destroy or contaminate fish and marine life, leaving a series of incalculable knock-on effects.
The world hasn’t dealt with an atmospheric test since 1980, when China detonated a weapon over Lop Nur, in the country’s northwest, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Of more than 2,000 tests that have been conducted since the advent of nuclear weapons, more than 100 were detonated in remote locations in the Pacific, according to the CTBTO.
On the Marshall Islands, where the US also tested weapons, the local population suffered from higher rates of cancer, birth defects and thyroid disorders.
In French Polynesia, similar affects were reported, and tests were found to have caused landslides, tsunamis and earthquakes, the CTBTO said.
But the damage to humans could be limited if North Korea picks a particularly isolated spot, analysts say.
“It really depends where they explode the device and what the weather patterns are like at that time,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior researcher also with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “That being said, we know from testing over decades that there are persistent environmental effects and impacts on humans.”

Where in the Pacific would North Korea test a hydrogen bomb?

The rhetoric has taken a sharp turn in recent days between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Countries in the Pacific region near to North Korea are on high alert after Pyongyang warned it was considering a huge nuclear test somewhere in the area.

After a fierce war of words between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the hermit nation brushed off any threat of sanctions and military action with the announcement they are considering testing “an unprecedented scale hydrogen bomb”.

It is unknown if North Korea possesses the technology to back up their threats, but recent missile and nuclear tests suggest they are moving closer to being able to successfully place an atomic weapon onboard an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, told IBTimes UK Pyongyang’s latest plans are the “logical next step” for a regime intent on flexing its military muscle.

For many years the North Koreans oversaw unreliable missile tests. The country’s sudden recent successes have caught the world off-guard. “The worrying thing is that they seem to be a couple years ahead of where we thought they were,” Bretton-Gordon said.

Kim Jong-un, in a rare personal statement on Friday 22 September, said: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire. Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wanted to say.”

This came just days after Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it continued with its nuclear weapons development.

If an H-bomb is tested in the Pacific, a nervous world will be watching very closely. “If it works, and it is reasonable to assume that they can place an atomic bomb onto a missile, then a red line will have to be drawn, particularly if it is a hydrogen bomb,” Bretton-Gordon said.

Any test would be illegal under international law. If a test was carried out, it would almost certainly be happen over a patch of international waters and at little or short notice.

It would give North Korea’s opponents little opportunity to intercept or prevent the ICBM, unless the missile was aimed at waters or land around Japan, Guam or the mainland US, all stated targets of the regime.

Asked what Pyongyang crossing the red line could mean, Bretton-Gordon said the most likely response from the Trump administration would be a “full military option”.

But he warned the consequences of this would be “horrific” and must be “avoided at all costs”. Crucially, North Korea, with its history of unreliable military tests, would have to prove that the doomsday technology it possesses actually works.

“If it goes wrong, then the world will be able to see where he is in terms of his nuclear capabilities,” he said.

Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the defence detachment on Jangjae Islet and the Hero Defence Detachment on Mu IsletReuters

All you need to know about North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal

Recent missile launches and nuclear tests from North Korea have put the world on edge.

But as always there are more questions than answers from about this pariah state, creating an unknown threat to the planet.

The H14 or Hwasong-14 is North Korea’s most powerful inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

After a test in July, state media in Pyongyang reported the missile had flown 580 miles and reached a peak altitude of 1,741 miles.

Some experts believe this missile could easily reach the US mainland, placing cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles at risk.

The ICBM is made up of various components. The base includes the engine, which helps boost it into the atmosphere. The tip, protected by a shroud, is where the warhead is housed.

North Korea’s capabilities took many nations by shock, but questions have been raised over their reliability.

North Korea missile launch and Guam threat
A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in PyongyangKCNA via Reuters

How does it compare to previous nuclear attacks?

The reliability issues have often come down to whether North Korea can successfully miniaturise a nuclear warhead into an ICBM and launch it.

But with the country claiming to have got over those hurdles, concerns have been raised about the power of their nuclear warheads.

The most recent test is estimated to have been around 120 kilotons (kt).

To put that into scale, the nuclear bombs that were dropped onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki measured in at 15kt and 20kt respectively.

How long has North Korea been developing weapons for?

The military in North Korea has developed their weapons over the past 30 years.

Their very first missile test came in 1984. Since then, dozens of missiles have been launched from North Korea.

The bulk of these have been tested in the past 12 months, showing a sharp escalation in their development programme.

Their nuclear weapons development, which began in 2006, has seen a similar increase in power. When the testing began, their nuclear weapons power reached just 0.5KT, significantly lower than the 120KT that was revealed last week.

How far can their missiles go?

The range of the North Korean military has often been questioned. Early missile tests had a range that was no further than a few hundred miles, barely leaving the Korean peninsula.

But the most recent tests had rapidly expanded their target range.

The H14 has a range of up to 6,200 miles, which would enable it to reach the US mainland, Canada and all of the Australasian continental region.

The H08 has a greater range of 7,200 miles and could in theory reach the east of the United States.

However, the reliability and technical difficulties that have dogged Pyongyang means that the further the missiles can go has an impact on the power that is packed inside it.

What about the rest of their military?

Overall, the full arsenal that North Korea has is unknown. But it is thought many parts of their armed forced have weapons and machinery is from the Soviet era.

These outdated weapons, tanks and missiles are the reason it has taken so long for North Korea to reach its current stage.

The US spends around $600bn every year on the military, compared to the $6bn budget Pyongyang has.

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