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For every newspaper in the country and around the world this morning, the supersize-font headline is the same: North Korea Admits It Has Nukes!! or a variant thereof. Yet while everyone else is running around like a panicked Chicken Little, the White House remained calm. “This is unfortunate,” Condi sedately pronounced. The most White House spokesman Scott McLellan could rouse himself to say was, “It’s rhetoric we’ve heard before.”

Why the insouciance? Because they think North Korea is bluffing. As Donald Rumsfeld put it when queried at NATO meeting in France, yes, the North Korean announcement was a cause for concern, “if you believe them that they have nuclear weapons.”

North Korea has been trying to jerk the world’s chain for years now over its alleged nukes because nobody would pay any attention to them otherwise. What most drives them crazy is that George Bush won’t pay attention to them. So now they figure to force him to by claiming they have “manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).”

Bush has to go beyond the initial response of calm indifference and there is a debate going on among his advisors as to what that should be. A number are arguing that it should be just two words to Pyongyang: Prove it. Declare that North Korea has to prove its claim of possessing nuclear weapons with a demonstration, and until then its claim will not be taken seriously.

That means a test. A standard underground test that releases no radioactivity into the atmosphere. After the test, IAEA scientists get to drill into the shot cavity to examine the radioactive debris for fission fragments, which they can tell came from a genuine nuclear explosion rather than a fake one of radioactive power plant waste mixed with high explosives because there will be a different spectrum of isotopes.

Take a look at Is North Korea Faking It?, written in March of 2004 and now posted in the Classics side bar. It discusses how North Korean scientists refused to let American scientists get proof that the plutonium they displayed was weapons-grade. The CIA has reported that North Korea has reprocessed some 8,000 spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear plant into plutonium. The question is: is it the right kind?

Plutonium is a synthetic element made by exposing uranium-238 to neutrons. To get the isotope of plutonium that works in a fission bomb – 90% pure plutonium-239 – you can’t expose it too long, or extra neutrons will be added, making plutonium-240 or 242 instead. You need about seven kilos of 90% P-239 formed into a hollow shell the size of an orange – called the “pit” – surrounded by high explosive shaped charges set off in an extremely precise manner to implode the pit and set off the chain reaction. Too much P-240/242 and the reaction will disassemble or “fizzle.”

So will North Korea’s nukes fizzle or bang? There’s only one way to find out. You cannot be sure if you have nukes that work if you have not tested them. Kim Jong-il’s extortion racket depends on the West believing he has them. How much more money would he be able to extort with a test proving he does? That he hasn’t is pretty strong evidence he’s bluffing.

The North Koreans have got to be told: put up or shut up. There is no downside to making this demand. If the nukes are for real and the test works, then they will have to be taken more seriously, which is what they want. If they refuse to conduct the test, then they become the laughingstock of the world, losing so much face that Kim Jong-il will be known as No Face Kim. A guy with a nickname like that doesn’t stay in power in Asia for long.