North korean nuclear

How Serious Is The North Korean Nuclear Threat?

North Korean nuclear capabilities, coupled with ballistic missile improvements, have the world on edge.  Here’s what you you need to know about the Hermit Kingdom’s atomic weapons.

North Korean nuclear capabilities have been steadily improving for years despite punishing international sanctions.  Recent improvements include:

In addition, the country has gained the capability of of launching satellites into space, which in North Korea’s case is fueling speculation as to whether the launches may be cover for military ICBM technology tests.

North Korea Is Still Technically at War

While North Korean nuclear ambitions may seem strange to some, it’s worth remembering that the country is still technically at war  more than than 60 years after Korean war hostilities ceased.

Over many decades the country has developed a highly militarized culture that relishes bombastic threats and boasts a standing army of about 1.1 million – the 4th largest in the world.  More about the North Korean army  can be found in our profile about them. [contextly_auto_sidebar id=”tEuUG8RlIMcQNSImOvXelg0Kdx1ebSd5″]

Underlying North Korean nuclear ambitions is an existential belief that their very survival depends on the waepons, or as  Johnathan D. Pollack, writing in a blog for the Brookings Institute, put it:

“The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons.”

And on March 30, 2014, it issued a message to the U.N. stating that it “would not rule out a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence.”

Previously, digging activity at known underground nuclear sites has been follow by test detonations. There have been three so far, gradually growing in yield:

  • 2006. 1 kiloton or less.
  • 2009. Between 2 and 8 kilotons.
  • 2013. Between 6 and 10 kilotons.

For comparison, the bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield (pdf) of about 15 kilotons, in other words, the same amount of energy as a detonation of 15,000 tons of TNT.

While the North’s nukes may seem small in comparison, if a 7 kiloton bomb was dropped on downtown Seoul, it would destroy everything in a mile radius, causing tens of thousands of casualties:


Map courtesy of Carlos Labs’ Ground Zero II map.

What’s known about North Korean nuclear capabilities?

Of course, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a notoriously secretive nation, much of its program is shrouded in mystery.

The numbers above are only estimates, based on seismographic data.

However, according to a report published in the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, North Korea is pursuing a two-track nuclear program, creating both plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) bombs.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation estimates that North Korea already has enough plutonium to create between 5 and 15 nuclear bombs. Others estimate the number to be between a dozen and twenty.

This is likely the type of bomb the country already tested.

Plutonium bombs are big and clunky, however, and difficult to fit on a missile.

HEU bombs, on the other hand, could easily be miniaturized. There are no estimates about how many, if any, North Korea possesses.

But it’s known that it has already completed a 2,000-centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, which can produce the necessary materials if they are reconfigured.

Evidence has surfaced in recent years that North Korea has collaborated with both Iran (pdf) and top Pakistani nuclear scientists in a nukes-for-missiles deal.

How big is the North Korean nuclear threat?

So far, there has been little evidence that North Korea is capable of missile-mounted nuclear weapons.

But a report by an ex-Pentagon analyst suggests otherwise, citing a declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report:

“The DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North [Korea] currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles,” the report states.

And according to the Korea think tank 38 North, it recently tested an engine that could be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The country has a large arsenal of fairly sophisticated missiles, the ranges of which can be seen here:

north korean nuclear

Map courtesy of Jason Davies via Wikipedia.

These findings have not been confirmed, however, and its longer-range missiles have had a spotty history of success.

A missile delivery system would also likely rely on an HEU bomb, which it’s unclear if North Korea has developed.

To deliver the majority of its arsenal, which consists of plutonium bombs, it would rely on its expertise in asymmetric warfare, according to the Nautilus Institute.

For instance, a disguised H-5 bomber, which it possess about 80 of, could potentially make it inside South Korean or Japanese air space.

Similarly, reflagged ships could deliver a plutonium bomb right to the harbor of a populated city. North Korea has already proven its capability (pdf) for using false flags to undermine maritime security, and this is seen as a more likely option.

Of course, unless it wants to lose China’s significant support, a nuclear attack would only occur as a precursor to an all-out war.

As we’ve pointed out before, this would be essentially a suicidal move – in particular because its two main potential targets, South Korea and Japan, are protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.


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Ole Skaar