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North Korea’s possible nuclear warhead looks silly — but it’s still concerning

North Korea's state media has reported its leader as saying the country has miniaturized nuclear warheads to be mounted on ballistic missiles. (Video: Reuters)

North Korea can seem a surreal, even silly place. So perhaps it's fitting that the object it claims is a miniature nuclear warhead looks more than a little comical.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared standing by the purported warhead in images published by North Korean state media on Tuesday. The images coincided with a report from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that quoted Kim as saying that new nuclear warheads have "been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them.”

It was an obvious propaganda move, and it's not hard to see how the sight of Kim, dressed in a fur hat and surrounded by sullen note-takers, next to a shiny silver orb is pretty funny-looking. The object does bear more than a passing resemblance to a giant disco ball, for instance, as a number of Twitter users noticed.

"Do we honestly believe that thing is nothing more than a polished rock?" mocked one other Twitter user, while others commented on the bomb's notably DIY-esque appearance.

More straight-laced analysts also doubted that the supposed warhead shown in pictures could actually work. North Korea previously declared it has miniaturized a nuclear warhead, a statement that has drawn some skepticism.

“One thing is for sure, the bomb seen on the media is a mock-up,” Suh Kune-yull, a nuclear scientist from Seoul National University, told NK News. “If you look at the mirrors attached to the warhead, there are only around 30 to 40 of them. This shows that the warhead is still in a very premature state, and its explosive power would be relatively low by today’s standard.”

Still, even if the device is a mock-up, it gives experts reasons to feel concerned. In a series of tweets, Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, noted that the device appeared to have been designed to fit on the end of a KN-08 missile, which was shown in a North Korean parade last year. South Korean analysts say the KN-08 has a range of 6,200 miles and can be launched from a road-based vehicle, which means it would be hard to track via satellite.

Just as concerning, perhaps, is the timing of the announcement. As The Washington Post's Anna Fifield noted, the supposed warhead was unveiled just as the United States and South Korea conducted huge military exercises that Pyongyang argues are a pretext for invasion. The United Nations recently introduced new sanctions against North Korea, which were followed by unilateral sanctions from Seoul.

“This can be called [a] true nuclear deterrent," KNCA quoted Kim as saying of the new warhead on Tuesday. "Koreans can do anything if they have a will.”

What life looks like inside North Korea

epa05271691 A picture made available on 22 April 2016 shows a young girl performing ballet at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace in Pyongyang suburbs, North Korea, 14 April 2016. The Mangyongdae Children's Palace is a large facility for extracurricular activities. Opened in May 1989, the building has hundreds of rooms for various activities including, mathematics, chemistry, computer science, sports, music and dance practice. EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON (Franck Robichon/EPA)

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