North Korea has been threatening an aboveground nuclear detonation — here's how it could go down

  • North Korea has threatened to detonate a nuclear device aboveground.
  • Such a test could turn China, and the world, against it.
  • The US may even strike to prevent it, but North Korea may do it anyway.

North Korea recently repeated its threat to test a nuclear device aboveground, in what would be its most dangerous and provocative move ever, unleashing a massive explosion and hale of radiation that could turn the world decisively against it.

After President Donald Trump threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea if provoked, Pyongyang responded by saying it may test "an unprecedented scale hydrogen bomb," which experts interpreted as possibly meaning a detonation of a nuclear-armed missile above the Pacific.

But regardless of what Trump says, North Korea has reasons to test aboveground.

RELATED: Kim Jong Un observes North Korea's latest missile test

12 PHOTOS
Kim Jong Un observes North Korea's mid-September missile launch
See Gallery
Kim Jong Un observes North Korea's mid-September missile launch
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
Officials react after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) guided the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated combination photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

For one, North Korea's last test of a massive hydrogen bomb nearly destroyed the mountain they tested under. Earthquakes rumbled from under the mountain weeks after the test, and satellite imagery suggested a giant shift. The tunnels North Koreans use to access the site may have totally collapsed, and no reports indicate renewed efforts to dig into the site.

Doubts also remain about North Korea's ability to field a reentry vehicle, or the part of a missile that carries the warhead to the point of its detonation. In previous tests, the vehicle reportedly failed.

North Korea has tested a thermonuclear device and tested intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles but never demonstrated its ability to combine the two. Launching a nuclear-armed missile and having it detonate above the Pacific would prove its mettle.

But political and nuclear fallout from such a test could range from severe to catastrophic, according to experts.

"If North Korea does do an atmospheric test, it really does change the game," Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute and a managing editor at 38 North, told Business Insider.

In the event that North Korea does an aboveground test within its own borders, and not on a missile, it presents a huge risk of nuclear contamination spreading into China's borders. Beijing would "see that as an attack on China," said Town.

Tong Zhao, a leading expert on North Korea at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program in Beijing, told Business Insider that if North Korea does detonate a nuclear bomb over the Pacific, "the Chinese position to North Korea can be fundamentally changed."

Ultimately Zhao doubts that North Korea would pull such a stunt, given it relies on outside help from countries like China.

RELATED: Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

12 PHOTOS
Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un
See Gallery
Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

1. While Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8 is a national holiday, it is unknown exactly how old the North Korean leader is. It's widely believed he is in his early-mid thirties. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department listed his birth year as 1984 when they placed sanctions on North Korea.

 (KCNA via REUTERS)

2. Kim Jong Un is the world's youngest leader, according to the date listed by the Treasury. 

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Kim Jong Un is very passionate about basketball. He is reportedly a big fan of Michael Jordan and has a friendly relationship with Jordan's former Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman. Rodman has visited the secluded nation multiple times and even sang him "Happy Birthday" before an exhibition game in Jan. 2014. 

(REUTERS/KCNA)

4. Kim Jong Un reportedly has a love for smoking, whiskey and cheese

(KCNA/via Reuters)

5. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in Feb. 2017 by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. The women were arrested following his death. Many believe the hit was directed by North Korea. 

(KCNA; REUTERS)

6. Kim Jong Un has two college degrees. One is in physics from Kim il Sung University and another as an Army officer obtained from the Kim Il Sung Military University.

(KCNA/REUTERS)

7. Kim Jong Un attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is widely disputed how much time he spent at the school. Most reports say he was abroad from 1998-2000. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

8. Kim Jong Un is the only general in the world that does not have any military experience. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

9. He married Ri Sol Ju in 2009. The couple has at least one daughter named Ju Ae. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

10. Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek arrested and executed for treachery in 2013. 

(REUTERS/Kyodo)

11. Kim Jong Un hand selected North Korea's first all-female music group -- Moranbong Band. They made their debut in 2012. 

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

But according to Yun Sun, an expert on Korean and Chinese relations with the Stimson Center, even an aboveground nuclear test wouldn't make China fully turn its back.

"If question is whether China will abandon North Korea or support regime change, I think that's far fetched," Sun told Business Insider.

Time and time again, North Korea has expertly escalated tensions to a point just short of all-out war, but experts remain divided on whether firing a nuclear-armed missile over the Pacific for the first time in history would cross the threshold of kinetic action.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, previously told Business Insider that such a test may elicit a kinetic US response.

"If North Korea has a ballistic missile on a launchpad that we think is armed with a nuclear warhead," then the US would seek to eliminate that one single missile, Glaser said. "But even a strike on a missile on a launchpad could result in retaliation."

US intelligence will continue to watch North Korea's movements closely and determine how to proceed, but North Korea's defiance of international law and determination to continue its dangerous testing brings the world closer to war.

NOW WATCH: Watch The US and South Korea show off their air force jets in a defense exhibition amid tensions with North Korea

RELATED: How to survive a nuclear attack

12 PHOTOS
How to survive a nuclear attack
See Gallery
How to survive a nuclear attack

What should you do in the event of a nearby nuclear attack? Click through to learn more. 

(Photo by Lambert/Getty Images)

Seek shelter immediately, towards the center of a building or -- preferably -- a basement. Aim for the same type of shelter you would utilize in the event of a tornado. 

(Photo via Getty Images)

The next three slides are examples of nuclear shelters that exist around the world. 

(Image via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The entrance of Shelter Co.'s nuclear shelter model room, which is placed in the basement of the company's CEO Seiichiro Nishimoto's house, is pictured in Osaka, Japan April 26, 2017. (Photo via REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
A fallout shelter sign hangs on the Mount Rona Baptist Church, on August 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. In the early 60's Washington was at the center of civil defense preparations in case of a nuclear blast, with over one thousand dedicated public fallout shelters in schools, churches and government buildings. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
A 'shelter' sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on July 6, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. According to the metropolitan government, South Korea's city subway stations serve a dual purpose with over 3,300 designated as shelters in case of aerial bombardment including any threat from North Korea. The U.S. said that it will use military force if needed to stop North Korea's nuclear missile program after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday into Japanese waters. The latest launch have drawn strong criticism from the U.S. as experts believe the ICBM has the range to reach the U.S. states of Alaska and Hawaii and perhaps the U.S. Pacific Northwest. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Dense materials, including dirt or thick walls, provide the best defense to fallout radiation.

(Photo via Getty Images)

If possible, take a warm shower -- but do not use conditioner, as it can bond to nuclear particles. 

(Photo via Getty Images)

Do not seek shelter in a car, as they won't provide adequate protection, and you should not attempt to outrun nuclear fallout. 

(Photo by Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images)

The nuclear fallout zone shrinks quickly after an attack, but the less dangerous "hot zone" still grows. 

(Image via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Once you are sheltered, do not leave. Listen to a radio or other announcements. 

(Photo via Getty Images)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

More from Business Insider:

SEE ALSO: The monster nuclear submarine the US sent to South Korea looks like it may be packed with Navy SEALs

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.