Making Sense of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: The Big Picture
Image Credit: Screengrab via KCNA

Making Sense of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: The Big Picture


On April 15, 2017, North Korea paraded a multitude of weapons and technology at the Day of The Sun parade. Included were a few new missile designs and delivery systems. What, however, does all this say about the progress of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs? Though mastering ICBM technology is challenging, a sphere of plutonium the size of a tennis ball could decimate downtown Seattle in the United States, or even Seoul, South Korea, a city with a population of 25 million. Given the stakes, these questions merit serious consideration.

Many people throw around designations, comparisons, or numbers when talking about nuclear weapons: kilotons, megatons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tsar Bomba. Russia and the United States seemed to be locked in a death spiral that was sure to eventually end in global nuclear war. Now, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons aren’t on the minds of most individuals in the West and the thought of a nuclear war in the 21st century is absolutely unthinkable. However, the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea is on the minds of every U.S. strategist these days.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was comparable to 15,000 tons of TNT, or 15 kilotons, while Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever to be detonated, exploded with the force of 50,000 kilotons, or 50 megatons of TNT. Most modern nuclear weapons in the stockpile of the United States have yields ranging from 150 kilotons to 1.2 megatons. Russian targeting systems are slightly less accurate and so, to compensate, Russian weapons are usually larger in yield. The first nuclear device ever detonated at the Trinity Test, in the desert of New Mexico in 1945, delivered an explosion of 20,000 tons of TNT equivalent, or 20 kilotons. ‘The Gadget’, as it was known, was essentially a huge sphere with duct tape strewn across and wires coming out of every orifice. They hoisted it atop a tower and detonated it right there. The design, blast, and size of this weapon is likely the best comparison to what North Korea can currently field.

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The basic function of a nuclear weapon can seem simple, but many would agree that the internal mechanics are deeply complex. Neutrons are fired into a sphere of plutonium while enormous amounts of pressure are exerted downward. While the overall idea might seem simple, in practice, events on the atomic level must occur nano-seconds apart and in the correct order to achieve an actual nuclear explosion. If not done correctly, a fizzle can occur. This is where the bombs’ conventional explosives fire, but do not properly interact with the fissile sphere leading to a non-nuclear explosion. This is why nuclear weapons programs take such a long time and are extraordinarily expensive. Only eight sovereign nations have ever successfully detonated a nuclear weapon. This clearly outlines the immense commitment and the true scope of resources that North Korea is willing to spend to ensure a successful nuclear weapon.

North Korea is believed to possess around 15 to 20 nuclear weapons today. These weapons, however, are more than likely too big and heavy to be carried on any missile or aircraft the North currently possess. North Korea would have to truck its weapons to the battlefield or place a weapon on a ship and sail it into an enemy port. The North Koreans are fully aware that both of these plans could be easily defeated before any detonation could take place. This is why North Korea is attempting to miniaturize its nuclear warheads — striking enemy territory with a ballistic missile is a much more reliable method of attack. Nuclear miniaturization, however, is much easier said than done. As discussed above, nuclear weapons are extremely sensitive pieces of technology. Attempting to shrink an already sensitive device and retain at least 75 percent of comparable yield is the most difficult aspect of any early stage nuclear weapons program. To miniaturize a nuclear weapon, new techniques must be employed during production using machines that may not be easy for North Korea to acquire or build itself. However, if it does successfully test a miniaturized nuclear weapon, it would become a very real and serious threat to their enemies.

If North Korea can successfully build a weapon that is much smaller and lighter, it might be possible for it to directly threaten a nuclear missile strike on targets in South Korea, Japan, and possibly even the United States. This scenario not only depends on a successful miniaturized weapon, but of a capable delivery system. On this subject, North Korea has made leaps and bounds to improve its missile force. Pyongyang tests constantly, improving each missile every single time it is tested.

To hit the United States however, it would need a working Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which could carry a nuclear weapon capable of surviving the heat of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and deliver the warhead onto a specific target across the entirety of the Pacific Ocean. It is yet to test such a missile or provide any real evidence of a miniaturized weapon and reentry vehicle, but all the signs are pointing to the same fact; North Korea could be closer than the west may believe from achieve its goal. The North has already shown what looks to be mock ups of similar systems in the past.

So is it a real possibility that we will see nuclear fire raining down on Seattle or Seoul anytime soon? Probably not. North Korea still must master the miniaturization of its nuclear weapon and build a platform on which to successfully deliver it. However, the rate at which North Korea is improving on its missiles could be indicative of a more successful nuclear weapons program than the west would like to believe. Nevertheless, the west must take the threat from North Korea seriously now before it is too late. A rapidly progressing nuclear weapons program in the hands of Kim Jong-un is a recipe for catastrophe.

Ryan Barenklau is the CEO of Strategic Sentinel.

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