North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Charlotte Spencer-Smith

Veneration of the Supreme Leader. State-sanctioned haircuts. Dennis Rodman.

We’re used to laughing at the bizarre behaviour of the world’s most eccentric dictatorship. But with the latest missile test last week, the so-called 'hermit kingdom' now has a credible long-range nuclear weapons programme. Could North Korea now strike the United States?

Its all about numbers

North Korea has functioning nuclear warheads and an intercontinental ballistic missile system capable of hitting targets on American territories in the Pacific and the state of Alaska. The number of warheads that North Korea has depends on how much weapons-grade nuclear material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) it has available. In general, North Korea is believed to have enough  for between 30 and 60 warheads. If this sounds like a very wide margin of error, that’s because experts have to extrapolate estimates from limited reliable information about the weapons programme.

When it comes to plutonium, experts estimate a stock of between 30 and 50 kg of separated weapons-grade material, enough for 6 to 8 weapons. Estimates for enriched uranium are much higher - earlier this year, US scientist Siegfried Hecker said that North Korea could be able to enrich as much as 150 kg of uranium a year. For context, a nuclear bomb only requires 15-25 kg of highly enriched uranium. While we know that North Korea has 2,000 centrifuges - technical equipment that enriches uranium - it is not known if North Korea can enrich to weapons-grade. Experts also believe that the country could be operating a secret uranium enrichment facility, making it even harder to pinpoint an exact figure.

Are Western targets within range?

Potentially. The test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile at the end of November reached an altitude of 2,796 miles (for testing purposes, North Korea sends missiles on a much higher trajectory than it would do in a real-life attack, so that the missile can land in the Sea of Japan). Of the 20 missile tests North Korea has performed this year, the latest one has travelled the furthest: US physicist David Wright says that the US would be comfortably in range.

However, the larger the bomb, the heavier the warhead, the shorter the missile flight. Its most recent nuclear test in an underground cavity in September is estimated by the US military to have released energy in the range of 70 to 280 kilotons of TNT. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was equivalent to 16 kilotons. This is likely to be much larger than what North Korea can realistically deliver. It is believed that the missile test in November used a lightweight mock warhead, allowing it to travel further than a more realistically-weighted warhead. To reach the edges of the US mainland, expert Michael Elleman calculates that the warhead would have to weigh less than 350 kg. Although North Korea claims to have mastered the “miniaturised” warhead, this has not been verified, raising doubt about the true range of the nuclear threat.

Will they use them?

First and foremost, North Korea mostly just wants credible nuclear defence. Isolated internationally and surrounded by threats, the regime wants to ensure its survival. Chinese diplomat Shen Dingli puts it this way: “Pyongyang's inclinations are strongly realist, and the country's leadership sees nuclear deterrence as the ultimate guarantee of security”. The regime also needs to flex muscle in front of its own population, to inspire awe and fear.

There’s a second, more practical non-explosive use for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It is a common misconception that the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity”, but in North Korea, this is a well-worn strategy - bringing an international crisis to a head and then negotiating a deal. The 2012 Leap Day Deal secured North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid from the US in exchange for suspending nuclear and missile tests and accepting nuclear inspectors into the country. A possible scenario could be that North Korea offers concessions over its nuclear weapons programme in return for a favour from the West.

A worrying possibility is the regime’s threat to take its nuclear tests overground, presumably over the Pacific Ocean. The last overground test took place in 1980, although many countries had already signed an international ban on atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963 for good reason: massive radioactive fallout. Residents of the Marshall Islands claim that nuclear tests conducted by the US in the Bikini Atoll mid-century were responsible for major damage to the environment and public health. 

Sources and Further Reading

Image: (stephen) @Flickr

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