North Korea's Weapons

First off, does North Korea possess a functioning nuclear weapon?

I know that any answer can only be speculative, but there are usually some strong indicators that a country has nuclear bombs. The strongest and most reliable one being an actual test of such a device. Nowhere has there been any mention of North Korea ever performing such a test. For many decades there have been in place the extremely sensitive seismometers needed to pick up even a low yield nuclear test by North Korea. It is extremely unlikely that North Korea was able to develop an atomic weapon before the advent of this sensing array.

Another way of testing such a device without actually detonating it is through digital simulation. There are many design verification methods that use computers to validate the functionality of a nuclear weapon’s engineering and construction. The odds of North Korea owning such an advanced data processing facility are near zero. In addition, they would also need a large team of highly specialized systems analysts and programmers to reliably run such a computer. To my knowledge, no one sells off-the-shelf thermonuclear device design functionality verification software packages. These sort of applications are among the most closely guarded state secrets of any nation who has one. North Korea would be hard pressed to generate the code for such a package on their own.

A final and equally remote possibility is that North Korea acquired a thermonuclear device from another country with a proven track record of developing reliable weapons. Once again, this is highly unlikely. Given North Korea’s long history of deranged leadership, few other nations would deliver an atomic weapon into their hands. The only potential candidates would be China, the now defunct Soviet Union or (remotely possible) South Africa. It is doubtful that communist China would ever allow a nuclear bomb out of their grasp. Given the ability to accurately trace byproduct isotopes to a certain reactor and extraction facility, no country would want to be held responsible for releasing such a potent weapon into the hands of so unstable a government.

Should the Soviet Union have sold one to North Korea, it could be quite possible that such a warhead would no longer be functional. The compression and lensing explosives have a limited shelf life that would have expired by now. All of this leaves us where we started. Does North Korea really possess the skilled scientific staff and specialized facilities to have manufactured one of these weapons? While North Korea is in the habit of diverting vast portions of their economy towards military projects, even at the cost of starving their own population, the cost of developing atomic weapons remains quite high. Inert gas environment machine shops, extraction and purification equipment, shielded handling facilities plus remote sensing and manipulation all carry huge price tags. There are also a host of highly specialized materials and manufacturing techniques that do not come cheaply either.

All said, owning such a weapon is pretty much decorative unless there is absolutely certainty that your design and assembly procedures are adequate. In the absence of reliable computer modeling, only a live test provides conclusive proof of principle. It is almost doubtless that North Koreas has never performed such a test. Where does this leave us?

North Korea may or may not be in possession of one or two warheads that may or may not work. Hardly the stuff of a superpower confrontation. Worrisome, yes. Worthy of walking on eggshells about? Maybe not.

Another big question concerns North Korea’s supposedly gigantic array of field pieces sighted upon Seoul. While South Korea’s capitol is the exact opposite of a moving target, there remain other considerations. A quick check reveals that modern American munitions may be required to have a twenty year shelf life. It is safe to assume that North Korea’s artillery munitions are less modern and have a shorter shelf life. In a country that is perennially on the brink of starvation, how likely is it that these millions of shells have been routinely replaced or reloaded? The cost of doing so on a regular basis would be quite extreme. North Korea seems to be rather short on the cash needed to do this very often.

For some time now in the United States, there has been in place a doctrine whereby any use of chemical or biological agents will be met with nuclear retaliation. It is difficult to imagine that North Korea’s military and government are unaware of such ramifications. That they would willingly risk total annihilation over the firing of much less effective chemical or biological weapons is highly illogical. If their first volley contains atomic weapons, they are equally as dead. In spite of whatever bravado and bluster they exhibit, the fact remains that North Korea is faced with an all or nothing situation. This balance of power could shift should they gain possession of and successfully test additional nuclear weapons. That this makes some sort of military action imperative is not entirely germane to the topic under discussion. However, the questions remain:

Does North Korea represent a credible nuclear threat in their current status?

Does North Korea stand to gain substantially by using chemical or biological weapons?

Does North Korea possess sufficiently functional conventional military forces to prevail?

I find the answer to all three questions resoundingly negative.

N. Korea can bomb S. Korea, that’s a very real threat.
If we (the USA) go to war with N. Korea, which is a possibility, they could nuke our soldures.
And N. Korea can sell nukes to other countries.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on this issue even though I think that it is a serious one that obviously needs very hands on attention.

My question here though is, these people are China’s next-door neighbors, shouldn’t the Chinese be first in line to deal with this loose cannon.

I mean lets say this was Mexico. We would have the Europeans screaming their heads off at us if Mexico was saying they were going to nuke France (sorry wishful thinking)… it was a joke, smile…

Kim has been over there screaming like a child that no one will pay any attention to when they behave badly. The more he gets ignored the louder and more ridiculous the press releases get from his mouth piece…

This just seems to be a little bit more than our problem. Sorry but I am the first to say lets kick some ass and was all for the action taken post 9/11 as well as taking out Sadam but why cant someone else deal with this nasty little child…

I would think China would be all over this because if there are nukes pulled out of the bullpen they will be just as effected and if they get one off then they put themselves and their neighbors in a no win mass casualty situation.

-FAS report on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program -4/24/03
Of course since this intelligence was the result of talks between the Bush administration and the people’s republic, it needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. There’s been quite a history of miscommunication here, and some of the more cynical observers suspect that the threat may have been hyped in order to push Rummy’s NMD deployment schedule.
That said, it’s common knowledge that:


A possibility is that North Korea has a ‘Nuclear Device’, and has not yet ‘weaponized’ it.

The basic concepts of nuclear weapons are well known, the precise methods and materials used to make the things small enough to fit under a MiG-29 (their most capable aircraft by a mile, judging from FAS) are not. Even trickier would be getting them on a Taep’o-dong-2 (if they have those yet). I would guess that NK could cobble together unwieldy nuclear devices, though I strongly doubt that they have weaponized them. Granted, there is no rule that says a 150kt ‘device’ flattens a city any less than a 150kt ‘weapon’; It’s just that delivery would be more difficult.
As to the quality of NK convential artillery, it must be low. North Korea generally uses copies of Chinese equipment (including artillery). China uses (until very recently), copies of Russian equipment, which although sometimes changed a bit, are generally considered inferior to Russian gear.

Russian artillery had rather dissappointing performance during the fighting in Chechnya. After the supply of modern (late 80’s and later manuf.) shells for their 152mm ran out, they started to issue from the ‘war stocks’, some of the ammo being only 15 years old. The account I read gave no specific numbers, but claimed that the dud rate was an order of magnitude higher than usual.

So I would make an educated guess that Russian artillery (crappy) is better than Chinese artillery (crappier) is better than North Korean Artillery (crappiest). I would expect an obscene amount of duds and misfires from NK artillery. I also would guess that NK follows the Russian practice of ‘store everything!’, and will try to wheel out 50-year old peices if it comes to war. I wouldn’t expect those to be tre’ effective.

Of course, NK arty (and ammo manufacturing) could be of a superior quality. There is precedent for this; Yugoslavia made a copy of the T-72, known as the M-84. A bit of tweaking later, it won the Kuwaiti contract to rearm, beating out several Russian and Western tanks. Fmr.Czechoslovakia had an excellent armament industry.

Of course, it all boils down to: Do we think we can contain the NK threat ‘peacefully’? If not, do we want to bite the bullet now, or wait until they start the party?

To the OP, nobody outside of Kim Jong Il and his nuclear program, probably knows. Judging from past negotiations, Kim Jong Il won’t show his hand until forced, and we certainly don’t want to do that. On one side we submit to “nuclear blackmail”, on the other Seoul now becomes trinitite.

The NK war doctrine probably consists of slaughtering all Americans on the Korean peninsula (especially if we don’t redeploy from the DMZ – there have been some American troop shifts south recetnly) plus a couple hundred thousand South Koreans within an hour or two, then militarizing the whole North for a protracted land war for which America has shown extreme distaste. Although I’m no expert, I think that most military experts agree that they could do this, even with crappy artillery (quantity versus quality) and no nuclear weapons. Nukes would make their job a lot easier. You may give them a negative on this ability, but given a regime like Kim’s, you really don’t want to be on the wrong side of that prediction.

They really want nukes for deterrent for preemptive strikes against the government or nuclear facilities and as a bribe for more foreign aid. Since Bush has refused to negotiate under his Korea “policy” – he has that whole bit against nuclear blackmail – Korea has just stepped up the threats. What I am more worried about is that Bush’s refusal to negotiate with a leader he deems “immoral” and “evil” (according to former Defense Secretary William Perry) is costing us, the South Koreans, and the Chinese lots of long term security while basically paradoxically buttressing the Kim regime. I think he could hang on to power a helluva lot longer with a nuke than without one. Sometimes I think that Bush and Rumsfeld want Kim Jong Il to get a weaponized nuke on a Tae-po-dong, because then we would no other option than to eagerly go after NMD. And then they’ll be the visionaries…