North claims nuclear fusion breakthrough

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North claims nuclear fusion breakthrough

North Korea yesterday claimed it successfully accomplished a nuclear fusion reaction to mark the birthday of late founder Kim Il Sung, and called the achievement “a breakthrough” toward developing new sources of energy. South Korean officials and scientists dismissed the report as “absurd,” but said the North Korean claim may have some political implications.

The Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, reported on the feat yesterday and it was carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“The successful nuclear fusion marks a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology of the DPRK [North Korea],” the report read, adding the North “made a definite breakthrough toward the development of new energy and opened up a new phase in the nation’s development of the latest science and technology.” It said the new energy source was like an “artificial sun.”

No country has managed to produce net amounts of energy for commercial use from fusion reactions, although research has been going on for decades. The explosion of a hydrogen bomb involves both fission and fusion reactions, but North Korea is not believed to have hydrogen bombs.

The newspaper did not specify whether the claimed technology would be used for the country’s nuclear weapons program.

South Korean officials with expertise in energy and civilian scientists were deeply skeptical of the claim. According to experts, nuclear fusion requires sophisticated technologies not yet developed by even the world’s most advanced nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency describes the building of fusion power plants “a great challenge” for the future.

According to the IAEA, nuclear fusion occurs when two hydrogen nuclei collide at high speed and fuse together into a heavier nucleus. They release an enormous amount of energy in the process. The nuclear fusion takes place at about 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees in Fahrenheit).

One Foreign Ministry official with expertise in energy said yesterday the North Korean claim was “in a word, absurd.”

“Nuclear fusion requires a major facility and as far as we know, there isn’t one in North Korea,” the official told reporters in a background briefing. “North Korean scientists probably did some small experiment or studied some related theory, and exaggerated these activities.”

The official pointed out that the members of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a nuclear fusion project, have given themselves about half a century to create a controlled nuclear fusion reaction. The seven members of the ITER are South Korea, the United States, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and China. In 2006, they agreed to fund the building of a nuclear fusion reactor in France, and the South Korean official said the work would cost about 5 billion euros ($6.35 billion).

Lee Choon-geun, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Seoul, said North Korea has been researching nuclear fusion since the beginning of this decade.

“But nuclear fusion is difficult to achieve in a laboratory setting,” Lee said. “Some have claimed that they did it at room temperature but they were later refuted.”

The seemingly bogus claim by North Korea comes as six-party talks on shutting down its nuclear weapon program have been suspended. North Korea wants bilateral negotiations with the United States as a precursor to six-party talks, and Kim Jong-il said last week he would work to create “favorable conditions” for the resumption of the talks.

North Korea may be pressuring the U.S. to engage directly in nuclear discussions by claiming to have fusion technology, according to Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

The United States has said it wants the six-party talks to resume, but only after the completion of the investigation into the sinking of the Navy warship Cheonan in March.

Jang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul, said North Korea often announces similarly outrageous achievements to rally the public. “We can expect similar propaganda in the near future,” Jang said.


By Yoo-Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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