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North Korea’s nukesEarthquake science could have predicted North Korea’s nuclear climbdown

By Stephen Hicks

Published 14 May 2018

Just days after North Korea announced it was suspending its testing program, scientists revealed that the country’s underground nuclear test site had partially collapsed. The collapse may have played a role in North Korea’s change in policy. If correct, and with the hindsight of this research, we might have speculated that the North Koreans would want to make such an offer of peace. This shows how scientific analysis normally reserved for studying natural earthquakes can be a powerful tool in deciphering political decisions and predicting future policy across the globe.

Just days after North Korea announced it was suspending its testing program, scientists revealed that the country’s underground nuclear test site had partially collapsed. This assessment was based on data gathered from smaller earthquakes that followed North Korea’s biggest nuclear test in 2017. A new study published in Science has now confirmed the collapse using satellite radar imaging.

The collapse may have played a role in North Korea’s change in policy. If correct, and with the hindsight of this research, we might have speculated that the North Koreans would want to make such an offer of peace. This shows how scientific analysis normally reserved for studying natural earthquakes can be a powerful tool in deciphering political decisions and predicting future policy across the globe.

In fact, another unusual earthquake in South Korea in 2017 also has the potential to affect geo-politics, this time by changing energy policy. “Seismic shift” may be a cliche often used by journalists and policymakers to describe changing political landscapes, but these recent earthquakes along the Korean Peninsula remind us there can really be authentic links between seismic events and global affairs.

On 3 November 2017, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested a thermo-nuclear hydrogen bomb. Global monitoring networks of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) detected this explosion within minutes of it happening, classifying it as a magnitude 6 seismic event. We knew that this event was caused by an explosion because all the fastest-travelling seismic waves (“P-waves”) detected on seismometer instruments around the world caused the ground to initially move in an upwards motion. The energy released by the test was equivalent to up to 300 kilotons of TNT explosive.