A Hydrogen Bomb Test in North Korea?

Updated at 1:57 a.m. on January 6

North Korea announced it had successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb on Wednesday morning, signaling a surprising leap in nuclear weaponry for the reclusive totalitarian regime if the claim is verified.

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded a 5.1-magnitude seismic event about 11 miles from the North Korean town of Sunjibaegam in the country’s northwest. Chinese and South Korean officials immediately suspected the earthquake was artificial, according to the BBC.

Similar tremors in that area followed each of the country’s three previous nuclear-weapons tests, all of which occurred underground at the nearby Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. North Korea became the eighth declared nuclear-weapons state after its first test at the site in 2006; additional detonations followed in 2009 and 2013.

Each of the country’s three earlier tests detonated atomic bombs, which rely on nuclear fission to achieve their destructive purpose. Like a dropped water balloon hitting a sidewalk, atomic bombs crack open the dense atomic nuclei of large, unwieldy elements like uranium and plutonium to release tremendous amounts of energy.

Hydrogen bombs, by contrast, use nuclear fission only for their initial detonation, igniting a secondary fusion stage by compressing lighter atoms of deuterium and tritium together until they explode, like filling up a water balloon until it bursts. The chain reaction produces a far more powerful explosion than an atomic bomb.

Pyongyang dropped hints about a possible nuclear test in the weeks preceding Wednesday’s detonation. On Saturday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Sunday that the North could be readying for a nuclear-weapons test. The reclusive communist state also reportedly tested a submarine-based ballistic missile last month.

The first reports that North Korea might have a hydrogen bomb also emerged in the waning days of 2015. KCNA, the state broadcaster of North Korea, quoted Kim Jong-un as describing the country as “a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation” on December 10. Nuclear experts and the White House publicly expressed doubt about Kim’s hydrogen-bomb claim at the time.

From initial data available after Wednesday’s test, some nuclear and regional experts offered skepticism about the veracity of the North’s claim and its broader significance.

South Korean officials quickly condemned the test nonetheless, describing it as a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions and hinting at possible future sanctions. Other regional leaders echoed the sentiment. “North Korea’s latest nuclear test is a grave threat against our security and we absolutely cannot allow it,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, according to Asahi Shinbun. The test’s impact could also be felt in Asian financial markets.

On the other side of the Pacific, the White House struck a cautious tone in its initial response to the reported nuclear test.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Today in History: January 4

A look at various events that took place on this day, January 4, photographed over the past century. Today’s collection includes scenes from World War II, voiceover work for Popeye cartoons, President Franklin Roosevelt’s massive globe, a newly discovered coelacanth, safety airbags designed for passenger aircraft, a rush to buy American candy bars in the USSR, a meeting between Newt Gingrich and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and much more.

Hints: Skip to the next and previous photo by typing j/k or ←/→.

The Aftermath of a Muslim Cleric’s Execution in Saudi Arabia

Updated on January 3 at 4:12 p.m. EST

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran following Iran’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s execution of a respected Shiite Muslim cleric.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday his country is cutting ties with Iran, and has ordered Iranian diplomatic personnel to leave the country within 48 hours and told Saudi officials in Iran to return home.

Saudi Arabia announced Saturday that it had executed 47 men on what the government called terrorism charges. Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death in October 2014 after he was convicted of sedition and other charges. Al-Nimr regularly criticized the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, whose population is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and had led protests in the eastern part of the country.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other government officials on Sunday condemned Saudi Arabia’s mass execution. Demonstrators in Iran, Pakistan, Bahrain, and elsewhere took to the streets to protest the killings, chanting and carrying signs and photos of the cleric.

In Iran, protesters swarmed and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. In Pakistan, Shiite Muslims participated in rallies Sunday in the city of Karachi. In Bahrain, dozens of people, some holding photos of al-Nimr, marched in the capital city of Manama. The cleric had been a critic of Sunni-led monarchy in Bahrain.

In London, protesters gathered outside the Saudi embassy. One woman held a sign that read “Justice for Sheikh Nimr,” wire service photos showed.

A prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, called for Iraq to shut down the Saudi embassy, and urged people in Gulf countries to protest al-Nimr’s execution.

Al-Nimr’s death, which al-Nimr’s brother told the Associated Press came as a surprise to even their own family, was seen by some as a warning to individuals, particularly Shiites, against seeking political reforms. Religious leaders and political figures in Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon warned that al-Nimr’s killing would prompt widespread anger and worsen sectarian tensions in the Middle East, according to The Guardian.

A Massive Hotel Fire in Dubai

Updated on January 1 at 3:05 a.m.

A massive fire engulfed the Address Hotel, a skyscraper in downtown Dubai, on Thursday as the city prepared to ring in the new year. The cause of the blaze, which broke out near the site of planned New Year’s Eve fireworks, was not immediately clear.

Social media reports show flames and smoke billowing from the side of the building facing the Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest building.

Dubai’s police chief told Agence France-Presse that all of the residents from the hotel had been evacuated. On Twitter, local officials reported 14 minor injuries and one heart attack.

The fire began on the 20th floor and worked its way up the structure, fanned by the high winds. Video footage showed small amounts of debris falling from the building onto the streets and crowds below, although no injuries were reported. Occasional explosions caused by fires reaching combustible materials within the structure could also be seen and heard. Officials did not cite terrorism as a possible cause.

In a somewhat surreal move, the city’s midnight firework celebrations went on as planned at the nearby Burj Khalifa tower even as the Address continued to burn.