Days after releasing pictures of its alleged compact nuclear device, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered testing of the country’s nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. The order comes as the United States and South Korea carry on with their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises. North Korea may additionally be escalating its destabilizing behavior following the implementation of unusually harsh sanctions against it under United Nations Security Council 2270.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said “Kim Jong Un … gave orders of conducting a test for estimating the heat stability of rocket warhead tip, designed and manufactured with domestic efforts and technology, and the erosion of heat-resistant coating material.”
“Declaring that a nuclear warhead explosion test and a test-fire of several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads will be conducted in a short time to further enhance the reliance of nuclear attack capability, he instructed the relevant section to make prearrangement for them to the last detail,” the KCNA report added. The language in the report suggests that the ballistic missile and nuclear tests will be separate. North Korea has to date never tested its liquid-fueled KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which are believed to be capable of striking the western coast of the United States.
If North Korea demonstrates the ability to build a reliable and accurate reentry vehicle for its ICBM warheads, it will have accomplished a major milestone in its nuclear weapons program, making its threat to strike the United States and other long-distance targets with nuclear weapons considerably more credible. ICBMs reenter the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound and need to be capable of withstanding high temperatures. While North Korea’s four satellite launches have used ballistic missile technology, they have just sent satellites up into geostationary orbit. Reentry has not been part of these launches.
Yesterday, reports from North Korea claimed that its ICBMs could carry its alleged hydrogen bomb to strike New York City. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes,” a report in DPRK Today, another state-run outlet, noted, citing North Korea nuclear scientist Cho Hyong-il.
These latest threats from North Korea come at an unusually busy time for the Hermit Kingdom in terms of provocative behavior. Pyongyang kicked the year off by testing a nuclear weapon underground at Punggye-ri, on the occasion of Kim Jong-un’s birthday. It claimed that the device was a hydrogen bomb, but most experts disagreed that the device was a fully staged device; North Korea likely tested a boosted fission device. Just over a month later, in early February, North Korea launched its fourth satellite launch vehicle, the Kwangmyongsong-4. In addition to these events, Pyongyang tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a new multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) in December and March respectively.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, notes that North Korea’s two most recent provocative shows – its fourth nuclear test and fourth satellite launch – have coincided with Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays. This pattern suggests that if North Korea is planning to test its warheads or its KN-08 ballistic missiles, it may chose to continue the pattern and do so on April 15, which marks Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Other dates to watch include the end dates of Key Resolve, which will conclude on March 18, and Foal Eagle, which will continue through the end of April. Additionally, in May, North Korea’s Korean Workers’ Party will hold its first top-level party congress in 35 years.