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Pyongyang Bang Can we rule out a Tunguska strike in Korea?
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepp's Commentaries
September 12, 2004

Something went "bang" in North Korea the other day.

Well, that's not too unusual. A few months ago, hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed in an explosion when two trains loaded with things that go bang collided in a place called Ryongchon. North Korea is a paranoid and secretive place with lots of weapons and a penchant for running with scissors. Bang happens.

As most people know, North Korea secretly worked on a nuclear weapons program over the past twenty years, lying vociferously to the world that they were doing nothing of the sort. Given the general state of their economy, and their disdain for the educational systems of all other countries, nearly all of which are superior to NK's, this might not have mattered, were it not for the fact that Pakistan started making and selling "Build-ur-own-nukes" kits to any and all interested buyers.

North Korea was an interested buyer, and by dint of starving a few extra hundred thousand of their citizens, were able to buy their very own nuclear program.

For the past few weeks, America and others had fretted openly that North Korea might implement its threat to carry out a test of a nuclear bomb, presumably in conjunction with the anniversary of their "independence," which happened to be September 9th.

So it didn't come as any particular surprise to read an AP article dated September 12th that began:

"SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- A large explosion occurred in the northern part of North Korea, sending a huge mushroom cloud into the air on an important anniversary of the communist regime, a South Korean news agency reported Sunday.

The South Korean government said it was trying to confirm the report.

The Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified diplomatic source in Seoul, said the explosion happened at 11 a.m. local time Thursday in Yanggang province near the border with China. The blast in Kim Hyong Jik county left a crater big enough to be noticed by a satellite, the source said."

That sure sounds like a nuke to me. I'm not an expert on nukes - to my pleased surprise, I've made it well into middle age without seeing a nuclear explosion going off over my head. But I've got some idea of the properties of a nuclear explosion, as compared to a 2,000 pound blockbuster, which is the biggest conventional bomb in the US armory. You can be standing 500 yards from the blockbuster and hope to survive. A nuclear bomb - even a tiny, amateur nuclear bomb - will reduce you to constituent atoms in fairly short order.

The next morning, Colin Powell said that he doubted it was a nuke. Mutters were made about it being a forest fire.

A forest fire.

Now, a good sized forest fire - or even a good sized brush fire - can create something that looks like a mushroom cloud. Having lived in Southern California, I've seen my share of those. And a lot of Korea's terrain is similar to the coastal hills of California. It was lucky coincidence that Paramount Ranch outside of Agoura, where the TV series "M*A*S*H" was filmed, happened to resemble Korea.

But I've never heard of a forest fire that could create a crater visible from orbit. Nor do the mushroom clouds of smoke appear within minutes.

There is, of course, the possibility that the first breathless reports were in error. The media is prone to that, especially when wild things are already going on. Remember the plane crash in the Washington ellipse on 9/11? Yeah. Got reported on several networks. Never happened.

But from other sources in Australia and South Korea, it's obvious that there was a mighty big bang in the northernmost reaches of North Korea, and in fact there might have been two of them.

What's weird is that the US, along with everyone else, is saying that they aren't sure if it was a nuclear explosion, a conventional explosion, a forest fire, or a giant panda farting.

Back in the late 50s, the Soviets would light one off, convinced that out in the most remote reaches of Siberia, nobody would notice a nuke. A few hours later, to Kruschev's chagrin, they would get an annoyed call from the Eisenhower administration, just letting them know that they SAW that. It wasn't magic; nuclear explosions just have a distinctive seismic signature, as anything capable of wiping out entire cities would. The bomb goes pop in Siberia, the needles go jiggle in Berkeley, and in short order, the politicians go "aha!" in Washington. Of course, it's pretty easy to detect the fallout, which eliminates any possibility that what the seismometers noticed was a volcano, or giant pandas farting.

So it's a little hard to believe, three days later, that Washington isn't sure if that was a nuke or not. They say it "probably" wasn't. Just a forest fire. A really, really bodacious forest fire. That made a big crater. Maybe there was a stand of manzanita in there or something.

By now, China and Japan should have noticed the fallout. The Japanese, for some reason, are particularly sensitive about the topic of fallout landing on their islands, and tend to pitch a bitch when it happens, which is rare these days.

All this left me wondering why the hell the US government would be covering for the North Koreans; that doesn't make much sense.

Suppose it WAS a nuclear explosion. If so, it was in a most unfortunate location, only a few miles from the Chinese border. The Chinese, presumably, would be unamused. Contrary to what the local wingnuts imagine, Beijing and Pyongyang aren't real fond of each other, and it's possible that China had previously told North Korea, in effect, "look, if you set off any of your firecrackers in a place where we have to take notice, we are going to turn Pyongyang into a boiling sea of black glass."

Suppose the North Koreans heeded this advice, but the explosion in the northernmost part of the country occured by accident, rather than design. It happened fairly close to the facility where they make their ballistic missiles, which seems counterproductive, at best. Remember, these guys have a bad habit of running with scissors.

Suppose further that both the Chinese and the Americans both know it was a nuclear explosion, and strongly suspect it was an accident, rather than a deliberate provocation against China.

Having a nuke go off by accident on your border would be hard for any country to give a "do over" on, and for the face-conscious Chinese, it would be impossible. China might know it was an accident; but China also threatened to respond in such a way - black seas of boiling glass, something they could do if sufficiently pissed - if this occurred, and now they are looking at initiating the world's first nuclear exchange. They can't exactly say, "OK, we didn't really MEAN it about the boiling glass stuff. Just try to be a little more careful next time, k?"

Even the Republicans in Washington would note that not having a nuclear war - even a one-sided one seven thousand miles away - is better than having a nuclear war. It could even affect the election.

So they, and the Chinese, are pretending that they didn't notice North Korea's little nuclear faux-pas, and are heaving a sigh of relief that only a few hundred agrarian peasants, and maybe a giant panda or two, got crisped.

It could be true. It sounds outlandish, I admit, which in international politics is a point in its favor.

Let's suppose it is true.

North Korea, could you please consider stopping with the running with scissors? The Giant Pandas are going to complain if you don't knock it off.

Posted: September 15, 2004


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