In recent weeks, tensions have escalated between the United States and North Korea, complete with competing addresses to the general assembly of the United Nations by President Donald Trump and North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho. Both of their addresses included some direct threats, with Trump warning that further provocation would result in North Korea being "totally destroyed," and Ri describing a rocket attack on the U.S. as "inevitable." Also, Ri also made mention of what could be a truly catastrophic development: North Korea is reportedly threatening a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean. And the important thing to know about hydrogen bombs is they're much stronger than traditional nukes.
On Friday, the foreign minister for the isolated, repressive state reportedly told the U.N. General Assembly that a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific could be the next answer to ongoing threats and hostile rhetoric between the two nations. And as Time detailed this week, some nuclear experts believe a hydrogen bomb could potentially be 1,000 times as powerful and destructive as a traditional nuclear weapon, of the sort the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II.
The U.S. itself tested a hydrogen bomb back in 1952, and found its destructive power to be staggering. According to USA Today, it had the power of a combined 10 megatons of TNT ― in other words, more than 22 billion pounds worth. In simple terms, as hard as it might sound to imagine, hydrogen bombs are radically more destructive than traditional nuclear weapons. They've never been used for military purposes, however; the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 remains the only use of nuclear weapons in war in human history.
The prospect of a hydrogen bomb test in the ocean could also go wrong in myriad ways, as NBC News notes, whether by the bomb detonating too early, too late, veering off course, or catching a commercial airliner or military vessel in its area of impact, adding another potential instigation to war on top of the test itself.
During in his own U.N. speech, Trump engaged in some personal antagonism towards North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, calling him "rocket man," describing him as being on a "suicide mission," and threatening that the U.S. could be forced to "totally destroy" his country. Trump has been keeping up with the "rocket man" moniker since, reportedly playing the Elton John song of the same name over the sound system at his Friday night rally in Alabama.
Kim, for his part, has paired reports of a possible hydrogen bomb test with some inflammatory rhetoric of his own, referring to Trump as a "deranged U.S. dotard." Over the past several months, Kim has also voiced some familiar threats against the U.S., promising to immerse it in a "sea of fire."
That same "sea of fire" line has been used many times by North Korea in the past, as a threat not just against the U.S., but also regional American allies South Korea and Japan. This is the rare occasion when the U.S. has a president who's entirely willing to echo those aggressive threats with ones of his own, however. In a reportedly improvised remark last month, Trump threatened to bring "fire and fury" upon North Korea if its provocative nuclear tests continue.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Trump's advisers attempted to convince him not to lob any personal attacks at Kim during his U.N. speech, but that advice seemingly was not followed. And now, with the prospect of a hydrogen bomb detonation swirling in the air, the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. appears to be at its most perilous point in decades.