TOKYO — North Korea sharply raised the stakes in its stand-off with the rest of the world Sunday, detonating a powerful nuclear device that it claimed was hydrogen bomb that could be attached to a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States.
Even if the regime led by Kim Jong Un is exaggerating its feats, scientific evidence showed that North Korea had crossed an important threshold and had detonated a nuclear device that was exponentially more powerful than its last — and almost eight times the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Tensions had already been running high, with Kim Jong Un repeatedly defying international condemnation and increasingly blunt warnings by President Trump and continuing to launch ballistic missiles.
But Sunday’s blast — North Korea’s sixth nuclear test but the first since Trump took office — could escalate those tensions to a new level.
China on Sunday said it “resolutely opposes and strongly condemns” the launch, adding to denunciations from South Korea and Japan.
The nuclear device that North Korea tested appeared to be so large that Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called it a “city buster.”
“Now, with even relatively inaccurate intercontinental ballistic missile technology, they can destroy the better part of a city with this yield,” Narang said.
North Korea’s latest nuclear test took place at exactly noon local time at its Punggye-ri testing site and was recorded as a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, according to the United States Geological Survey. It was followed eight minutes later by a 4.1 magnitude earthquake that appeared to be a tunnel collapsing at the site.
Japan immediately sent up sniffer planes to try to measure radiation levels.
North Korean state media said that the test was carried to test “the accuracy and credibility” of its “H-bomb to be placed at the payload of the ICBM.” North Korea tested its intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in July, and its second test later the same month showed the rocket could theoretically reach Denver or Chicago.
Those launches caused Trump to tell reporters that if North Korea continued its nuclear provocations, it would feel “fire and fury.” He later tweeted that the American military was “locked and loaded.”
North Korean television on Sunday broadcast footage of Kim signing the order to detonate. Sunday’s test, part of the regime’s plan for building “a strategic nuclear force,” was a “perfect success,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
Earlier Sunday, KCNA had released photos of Kim inspecting what was described as a hydrogen bomb that could be attached to an ICBM — the same device that appeared to be detonated just hours later.
All the components of the “H-bomb” were “homemade” so North Korea could produce “powerful nuclear weapons as many as it wants,” the state-run agency quoted Kim as saying.
Analysts were poring over the photos and the data Sunday, especially questioning North Korea’s claim to have produced a “two-stage thermonuclear weapon.”
David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, was skeptical of North Korea’s claims and said that the photos were likely “propaganda.”
But there was no doubt that North Korea was making progress. South Korean government officials and independent nuclear scientists estimated the yield — the amount of energy released by the weapon — to be 100 kilotons. That would make it almost eight times as strong as the American atomic bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.
At that level, North Korea’s nuclear device would be “very significant and destabilizing,” Albright said. “It would show that their design, whatever the specific design, has achieved a yield that is capable of destroying substantial parts of large modern cities.”
Still, Albright doubted that North Korea had been able to make such a warhead small enough to fit onto a missile.
After firing increasingly long-range missiles, including the two that can theoretically reach the United States mainland, into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, North Korea last week sent a missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, claiming it was capable of reaching Guam, a U.S. territory.
Analysts said that appeared to be a dummy run for firing an intercontinental ballistic missile on a normal trajectory over Japan and into the Pacific, instead of straight up and straight down as with its first two tests.
Although governments and experts would continue to assess the technical aspects of the latest nuclear test, MIT’s Narang said the danger is significant, regardless of whether this was a lesser boosted fission device or a true hydrogen bomb, or whether North Korea had mastered the technology to deliver this accurately to a target.
“It really doesn’t matter now from a deterrence perspective,” he said. “Mated on the ICBM, you don’t want this thing anywhere near a city near you.”
Sunday’s test caused anger across the region, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in saying he would “never allow North Korea to continue advancing its nuclear and missile technologies,” according to his national security adviser.
South Korean military leaders warned North Korea that they, together with their American allies, were “fully equipped” to punish North Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he “would not tolerate” the nuclear test. Abe had spoken with Trump earlier in the day, and said afterwards that they had agreed to “increase pressure on North Korea and make it change its policies.”
All eyes will nowturn to China to see if it will be angry enough to impose true punishment on North Korea.
China has expressed annoyance at North Korea’s frequent ballistic missile launches, but analysts have said Beijing probably would not take serious action unless there is another nuclear test.
China’s primary concern is stability on its borders, and it has shied away from implementing sanctions that would seriously undermine the regime in Pyongyang, analysts have said. Almost all international sanctions, such as bans on recent bans on coal and seafood exports, rely on Chinese enforcement because about 90 percent of North Korean trade goes through China.
China’s foreign ministry said Sunday that North Korea had conducted the nuclear test “with no regard to the general objections of the international community.”
“The Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this,” the ministry said in a statement.
“China will work together with the international community to comprehensively and completely implement the relevant resolutions of the Security Council of the UN, unswervingly push forward the denuclearization of the peninsula, and unswervingly maintain the peace and stability of the peninsula,” it said.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul, and Emily Rauhala and Shirley Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.