Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal: Guide for the Perplexed

So, has North Korea’s Sputnik moment arrived at last?

After Pyongyang’s first successful space launch in December, its third nuclear test in February, and a barrage of threats — including the recent matter of a map purporting to show targets in the United States — at least some Americans do seem to be getting the intended message, or some sort of message. The Pew Research Center’s recent poll of U.S. adults “finds that 56% say the government should take North Korea’s threats to use nuclear missiles against the U.S. very seriously.”

Pew polled the public before Rep. Doug Lamborn took advantage of an apparent error in classification to reveal the Defense Intelligence Agency’s bottom line on North Korean nuclear-armed missiles (“D.I.A. assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low”).  The poll also predates efforts clarify the situation by the Pentagon (“it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage”) and Director of National Intelligence (“North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile“).

All clear? Pretty much. But actions speak louder than carefully hedged words. Judging by the U.S. government’s response to North Korea’s ICBM development program – to double down on its star-crossed Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program — it’s clear that DoD wishes to be seen as taking no chances. (General Dempsey made this very clear, telling Congress that the the third stage of the Unha “was kind of the breakthrough for the North Koreans. … now that they have that third-stage technology apparently under control, it could very well migrate to the KN-08.”)

It’s quite understandable that people are spooked. The only mystery is why it’s taken so long.

So, after taking all this in, what does it amount to? Where should we turn for a little clarity? Let’s try a little common sense and a little context.

Keep your decomposure

As a first step, we might try breaking the issue down into constituent parts to establish what we know and don’t know. A few questions come immediately to mind.

First, what sort of nuclear weapons do the North Koreans have? Can they put them on missiles?

Second, what sort of missiles do the North Koreans have? Can they reach the United States?

Third, why are the North Koreans making threats to use nuclear weapons, and should we take those threats seriously?

I could answer all of these questions by saying, “I don’t know for sure.” The ex-White House WMD Czar (can a czar resign or must he abdicate?) told the New York Times about as much concerning question #1:

“The situation is that there is so little direct evidence that I don’t think it’s possible to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not they currently have a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by missile,” said Gary Samore, who until early this year served as President Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, “or how far away they are from getting there.”

None of which explains why the U.S. government is slapping down a cool billion for some new toys in Alaska. Perhaps they’re erring on the side of caution. That’s what defense planners are supposed to do, after all. (One might wish for more effective forms of caution.)

Still, we can probably do slightly better than “I don’t know.” Shall we try it? Let’s begin.

Not rocket science

First, what sort of nuclear weapons do the North Koreans have? Can they put them on missiles?

I don’t know for sure… but they’ve tested three nuclear devices so far. Even in the 1940s, it was possible to build working, air-deliverable nuclear weapons based on less experience than that. Missile-deliverable weapons don’t necessarily take much more. In the 1960s, China conducted its fourth nuclear test by putting it on a missile and shooting it at the test site. And it’s no longer the 1960s.

That’s the short version. For the long version, try here.

Second, what sort of missiles do the North Koreans have? Can they reach the United States?

I don’t know for sure… but last December, they put an object into low-earth orbit. If you think North Korea lacks the basic capabilities to build long-range missiles, guess again. A space launcher is not exactly the same thing, but it’s most of the way there.

That doesn’t tell us exactly where the KN-08 mobile ICBM program stands; the KN-08 hasn’t been flight-tested. Neither has the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, although that might change at any time.

It is helpful to note what ADM James Winnefield said last month: “we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States… our assessment of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified.”

While we’re on the subject, it would be even more helpful if DoD would share a little more information than that.

Third, why are the North Koreans making threats to use nuclear weapons, and should we take those threats seriously?

I don’t know for sure… but it might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. and South Korea have a very serious conventional advantage.  And then there is the persistent belief that the U.S. has a habit of invading small countries it considers enemies.  Don’t ask me – ask them.

So, no, North Korea is not Imperial Japan. And no, they are not simply “following one threatening move with another,” unless you count U.S.-South Korean joint exercises and bomber overflights as “threatening moves,” which, you know, you probably should.

That’s not to say that Kim Jong-un is a poor, misunderstood, defensively minded soul worthy of anyone’s sympathy. The North Koreans aren’t content with simple deterrence, and take nuclear weapons as a license to try to bully the South Koreans. Who in turn have decided to push back hard with threats of their own. Do we really need to find out how this story ends?

Secretary of State John Kerry said it well enough the other day in Seoul:

The greatest danger here, we all agree, is for a mistake. The greatest danger is that something happens and there’s a response to that something, and then things somehow inadvertently were to get out of control.

What is to be done?

A few conclusions flow from these observations. Tentative ones, if you insist, but I feel fairly sure of them.

First, don’t panic and call for bombing raids. It’s only cause for shame and regret later.

Second, don’t make the opposite mistake and insist that the public is ignorant, there’s no threat, and so forth. Time marches on. What may not be ready today will be ready tomorrow.

Third, it would help if the U.S. government would get its message on the North Korea threat straight. Ignorance can breed unreasoning fear, so divulging more information might not be a bad idea. Instead of waiting for Sputnik, try setting public expectations a little.  Gates did this with the KN-08 and it worked pretty well.

Fourth, it’s past time to look for ways to de-escalate the situation on the Peninsula.

I could go on. And I probably will. After the next missile or nuclear test, maybe.


  1. John Schilling (History)

    Excellent summary, as usual.

    I’d only add that a general description of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal needs to at least mention the Scud and Nodong missiles that the DPRK has long since deployed and tested to a fairly high standard of reliability. We tend to forget about these because A: they are yesterday’s news and B: they can’t hit the United States.

    But if the North Koreans have nuclear warheads that work, even a little bit, they can almost certainly deliver some of them to targets across South Korea and much of Japan.

    • Magpie (History)

      Mmm, as a non-American that’s high in my mind, too. Surely a President who authorised some precipitous action, which in turn resulted in the loss of, for example, Tokyo, would not be a popular President…?

      Their threat of escalation doesn’t require a direct threat against the US… or does it? They’ve got millions of allied hostages in play – not to mention potentially vast economic and political damage. It’s not at the same level as nuking a US city, true, but it’s still way more than anyone would be willing to risk.

      Deterrence doesn’t need to be at a maximum, it just has to be *enough*.

    • JFC Fuller (History)

      And there are two awfully large targets for them to point nukes at, Seoul and Tokyo, the combined effect of which would probably be a major global economic depression as well as two incinerated and radiated cities. Frankly, this is quite a scary prospect.

    • Magpie (History)

      Yeah, as always with nuclear weapons, the potential for catastrophic screw up is high.

      I very much doubt The Latest Kim would use them on purpose, though. As I said earlier:

      1. He won’t use nukes unless we come after him personally.

      2. We’re not going to do that, because he has nukes.

      3. So he’s not going to use nukes.

      In other words, it’s already (even wihout ICBMs) a sufficient deterrent to keep Kim and Friends alive for the mid-term at least, and that’s going to be their primary objective for as long as it’s possible.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “Deterrence doesn’t need to be at a maximum, it just has to be *enough*.” I agree with this point, but is this enough to satisfy Kim? Even without nukes, Kim has enough conventional force to deter invasion, so long as he does not undertake needless provocations, such as killing South Koreans for no good reason.

      Or does Kim actually want more? Yes, threatening Seoul or Tokyo is more than enough for “deterrence” — but only if he chooses not to threaten his neighbors. Suppose he or his military prefers provocation and blackmail, then he must also be able to threaten the United States, or so he may reason. If he can threaten the U.S., the credibility of the U.S. nuclear “umbrella” will be called into question. South Korea and Japan will demand tactical nukes and/or build nukes or their own.

      The U.S. nuclear umbrella protects South Korea and Japan from precipitous nuclear acts by Kim, but maybe not if Kim can also threaten U.S. cities, or so South Korea and Japan may reason. If the grandson chooses the provocative and risk taking life of his father and grandfather, he may come to believe (incorrectly) that he can nuke South Korea without a response from the U.S. That does not mean (necessarily) that Kim is irrational or suicidal, merely stupid or misinformed.

    • Denis (History)

      @JFC: “And there are two awfully large targets for them to point nukes at, Seoul and Tokyo, the combined effect of which would probably be a major global economic depression as well as two incinerated and radiated cities.”

      Three: Pyongyang.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Dennis writes:
      Three: Pyongyang.

      That’s … true, but an odd observation.

      Yes, we morally care about the NK citizens as human beings, so holding them hostage in that manner is a valid extortion tactic in a sense. But it’s indirect enough to the political goals they might be seeking that it does not seem particularly useful.

      For at least two reasons:

      One, they would have to know there’s a significant risk we just call it a bluff and tell them to nuke themselves. If they fail to do so, they are exposed as without balls. If they do so, they not only have wrecked themselves, but having fired a nuke off (even at themselves) will expose them to both nuclear and conventional regime-change operations, which the US will doggedly pursue no matter which set of civilians they’ve nuked (unless the Chinese could be convinced to veto that, if they were somehow to decide they had to).

      Two, even making the threat is at least into the grey area which might well trigger the US / allied nuclear and conventional regime-change, on the grounds that the only people mad enough to make such threats are ones who are Just Too Insane To Allow Nukes Or Independent Countries, no matter what they may do as they go down fighting.

      It’s less likely to trigger that response than an overt threat against Seoul or Tokyo (or Seattle, or DC) but I can’t imagine a US president being categorically unwilling to decapitate them or defeat them entirely if necessary after such a threat. It would clearly put it on the table… And for much less effective chance of extorting something of value.

      It’s an intermediate scenario which they might find value in, but which seems to run most of the high-end risk for less evident reward.

      That’s not to say it’s not interesting and slightly scary to consider, but I don’t know that it’s actually something they’d put on a gameplan.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I did not take Denis’s comment to suggest that the DPRK would directly destroy Pyongyang with its own nuclear weapons, but with ours. North Korea can threaten to escalate any conflict to the point where the United States would face few real choices beyond destroying Pyongyang or accepting defeat. If we are deterred by the prospect of a million dead North Korean civilians, their blood on our hands, then North Korea can use this to try and negotiate for a settlement on favorable terms.

      Such a view would ignore both America’s formidable conventional warfighting ability, and America’s willingness to imagine itself victorious after ultimately inconclusive military operations, but it is quite plausible that North Korea would believe this path to be effective.

      So, yes, they can in various fashions threaten Seoul, Tokyo, or Pyongyang. And they can use this threat for negotiating purposes. And they can possibly botch the negotiations.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Yes, I also took Denis’ comment to mean U.S. would bomb Pyongyang rather than Kim would bomb Pyongyang. I am not so sure the U.S. would not bomb Pyongyang if Kim bombed Seoul or Tokyo. It may be “immoral” but the U.S. did bomb two Japanese cities, and planned to bomb a hundred Soviet cities if the Soviets got out of hand. I don’t see many Americans being contrite about either deed or planned deed, and most still see “deterrence” (based on retaliation) as a necessary function for nuclear weapons.

      The best scenario for Kim if he started nuclear bombing is he might escape safely to China, on condition that he never return to North Korea. I am not saying this scenario would actually develop (he might simply be killed or put on trial instead), only that it is the best scenario he could hope for if he started a nuclear war. Even the best post-nuclear scenario is worse for Kim than being alive and in power.

  2. j_kies (History)

    Nicely put, perhaps profound, let me attempt your questions:

    First; regarding bombing/ preemption, we should not have the arrogance to suggest that attack/preemption should be a unilateral US decision; South Korea has far more to lose and should sensibly make the decision on how to respond to provocation. If South Korea responds to NK events and decides to accept the risks of shooting back then the US should be ready to address our measured and appropriate target list with enough weapons to ‘break a lot of toys’ and render the NK development programs less capable for 3-5 years. After such a measured and limited response to the current threats (especially since NK recently disavowed the Armistice), stop, we aren’t in the invasion business.

    Second; this is serious stuff, the mere fact that we make fun of ‘backwards’ 1960s types of technologies does not mean that 1960’s stuff did not work. The Soviets and the US threatened each other and most of the rest of the world quite effectively in the 1960s. Application of 1990s to 2010 types of electronics and such merely reduce the masses of avionics and make current implementations slightly more efficient with the same structure margins.

    Third; I disagree with stated desires for the US to ‘get its story straight’; we do not require any speculation (masquerading as official intelligence leaks) to assess that the NK clearly has demonstrated a missile with significant throw weight and nuclear explosives. The remaining items on any check list for operational ICBM’s do not require any ‘public’ test activities that could further inform your decisions. As regards a retired public servant and historian; I doubt he understood the underpinning issues and risks that kept the US and the Soviets (recall the fate of Marshal Nedelin) from doing such an absurd system design.

    Forth; ‘strategic patience’ with a bunch of PGMs ready to launch on confirmation of SK actions to smash up their toys (one way you might read the US language) sounds like a pretty reasonable approach. Any time NK wants to calm down is fine, we can be patient.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      j_kies writes in part:
      The remaining items on any check list for operational ICBM’s do not require any ‘public’ test activities that could further inform your decisions.

      The Unha vehicle is not a particularly good ICBM, though it is more credibly enough throw weight / range for a CONUS strike than the KN-08 missile.

      It’s the only “tested” long range missile they have.

      The KN-08 is not yet tested and debugged in flight, which gives it exceptionally low predicted reliability by any estimate (their historical program, anyone else’s, etc).

      Those tests will unavoidably be visible because, even if fired straight up and straight back down again, they’ll peak at very very high altitudes.

      Stage separation and total combined flight profile matter. Half-integrated tests won’t be enough. They need to fly the whole vehicle. And have nowhere to do that which doesn’t overfly people with radars.

  3. Gridlock (History)
    • z (History)

      How can that article be true when the December launch was successful ?
      the 3rd stage went into space and the “front section ” split into 2 parts and went into orbit with the satellite , according to NASA .
      so unless they are talking about the failed April launch then this article is nonsense .

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think they mean the fairing, not the third-stage. But there are many things I don’t understand about that article.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      That article has confused a lot of us. Still.

    • John Schilling (History)

      To clarify:

      The most literal “front section” of the vehicle would be the payload fairing. This splits into two sections and drops away about the time the first stage has burned out; the vehicle is at that point far from orbit but well clear of the atmosphere and so no longer needs the (rather heavy) fairing. In principle, the payload fairing segments could be tracked on the way down and recovered from the ocean floor.

      But as the payload fairing is basically a hollow shell, having the parts doesn’t tell you much you wouldn’t have already known from a picture of the Unha on the launch pad.

      “Front section” could be interpreted as “upper stage”, and that would be a genuinely useful thing to have. I’d certainly like to take a look at it. But it should still be safely tucked away in orbit.

      It will fall back to Earth on its own, possibly later this year, possibly even remaining in one (mangled) piece, but it would have required grossly anomalous drag behavior to have brought it down by now. The USAF’s only available space-retrieval vehicle had been launched into a very different orbit the day before the successful Unha-3 launch, and there have been no subsequent launches that could plausibly support a covert retrieval effort.

      So, the Pentagon wants us to know that the Unha launch demonstrated the ability to make ICBMs, but doesn’t want us to know how they know that. And they have reporters they can trust to pass on that message, encapsulated in an implausible cover story and without any troublesomely useful detail.

      My guess would be that they did recover the fairing, then packaged everything they want to release about the Unha from every source and said, “we recovered the ‘front part’ of the rocket, and now we know all this stuff”. Which would be technically not a lie.

  4. OT (History)

    Only proven capability is capability, especially when you consider cargo-cult like North Korea. If they have it, they’ll show it, you can count on that. What you can’t see doesn’t exist, and half of what you do see doesn’t either.

    Just look at their Ryugyong-Hotel, or their parades of never tested “road mobile ballistic missiles”, or their habits of staging dubious occurrences and scenes for tourists – they have obsession to show shiny facade, to the point of being ridiculous to any sane observer.

    I argue that their nuclear bombs and missiles follow the same course: what you see really is all there is, otherwise you would see more. If they could fire missiles consistently and accurately, they would. If they could miniaturize nuclear warhead, they would be doing re-entry tests. Now they have tested one bomb successfully, which probably was made with more than enough performance margins to compensate for lousy quality materials and components – and with expense that still aches young dictator, behind his calm face. After all, it’s got to be expensive hobby, being dictator, with no oil.

    Their warheads and missiles are either non existent, or come with such amount of operational limitations that they are only good for test shots, which take lots of special preparation to work, and would never succeed at field conditions, at hands of average field personnel.

    But do they care? As their goal is not nuclear/missile capability, but impression of such, all the expense of testing is just wasted money, after couple of show-shots and a parade. Yes, difficult idea to digest for a hard-core missile/nuke wonk, I believe, and hence often neglected at this site. But they don’t do it for art’s sake, but for utility, or for what is their conception of it.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The last time we treated a nation of Asiatic communists as a bunch of ignorant peons who can’t understand sophisticated machines like some of our boys can, they kind of took it as a challenge. Which they met by putting a live nuclear warhead on a real ballistic missile and firing it at Lop Nor.

      I think it would be wise to retire the Buck Turgidson school of strategic threat assessment. If someone actually shows that they can set off A-bombs that work and launch long-range rockets that work, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they can put the two together and make nuclear missiles that work. Insisting on a live-fire demonstration before taking them seriously, is not a good plan.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I keep saying this over and over.

      “The last time we treated a nation of Asiatic communists as a bunch of ignorant peons who can’t understand sophisticated machines like some of our boys can, they kind of took it as a challenge. Which they met by putting a live nuclear warhead on a real ballistic missile and firing it at Lop Nor.”

      I hate, hate, hate the “North Korea can’t build an RV” argument for this very reason. STOP DARING THEM!

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      China (Lop Nor demonstration) has 1.3 billion people. North Korea has 24 million people. That is a ratio of about 50 to 1, maybe 25 to 1 if we compare North Korea today with China in 1960s. Even if we assume equal levels of brilliance by North Korean and Chinese engineers, and equal per-capita economies, China clearly had more top-notch engineers and more total resources. It is not entirely clear that whatever China did, North Korea can also do. I don’t have an answer as to what North Korea can or cannot do, but the question is definitely worth careful analysis.

    • Magpie (History)

      …it takes a handful of really smart and dedicated folk to do this sort of thing. Population doesn’t really come into it.

      NK could have used HEU for a completely reliable “fake bomb” with an impressively high yield if they were just posing. They didn’t. They went straight for miniaturised warheads. There is every indication that they’ve succeeded.

      Their rocketry program has been aiming for big dumb boosters for as long as they’ve been at it – not precision munitions, but the kind of thing that is best at delivering CBN payloads. They’ve had a lot of time and a lot of practice. They’ve probably had help from the Iranians.

      I think it’s reasonable to assume, at this point, that they can nuke Tokyo and Seoul – with their opponents’ ABM systems providing the bulk of the uncertainty. That might be over-estimating it, but if they can lob four 50%-reliable rockets carrying 50%-reliable warheads, that’s enough for a real threat.

      IMO, they’re only aiming for a long-term ICBM capability to be seen by the Chinese people as a more valuable ally, and to prepare for some day in the future when the US stops caring so much about SK and Japan. They’re in this for the long-game.

      On the other hand: *they’re in this for the long game*. They could commit spectacular suicide any day, and could have for a long time. They haven’t. Reasonable to expect (though perhaps not to assume) that they won’t.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I have two answers for what North Korea can do. They can make roughly Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions, and they can launch roughly Atlas-sized rockets into Earth orbit.

      What more, short of their actually dropping a nuclear warhead on your home town, would be required to convince you that they probably really can drop a nuclear warhead on your home town if they want to badly enough?

      I’m not asking why you think they can’t do this. I’m asking what they would have to do to convince you that they can.

    • Hippo1 (History)

      This is not an issue of arguing that the DPRK cannot build a working RV, but that the evidence that they have already done so does not exist. This appears to be less of a Sputnik moment (or a Lop Nor moment) where the Soviets proved they could launch a satellite, but a missile gap moment where a lack of data was taken as proof that the Soviets were out building us. I wish a could remember the source (Prados maybe?) and the culprit, but during that period one congressmen actually argued that the fact that we couldn’t find any Soviet missiles was proof that they must be hiding large numbers of them. A similar dynamic sometime seems to be at work here. The fact that the yield appear to be small is presented as evidence that the DPRK are working on advance designs, rather than that they might be having problems with their existing designs. Untested missiles are claimed to be evidence that the DPRK is confident in their capability and that they must have operational warheads. A lack of detected radioactive gasses from the last two tests is taken as both a sign of success, even though the IC has been careful to identify them has probable and not proven tests, and that the DPRK is working on advanced designs.

      The fact remains, that our intelligence on the DPRK remains poor and subject to a wide range of interpretations. The speed with which the (probably politically motivated)leaked claim about the DPRK’s warhead was both debunked and disowned is evidence of that.

      One should not discount the the very powerful motivation that the DPRK has to convince us that their capability is greater than it actually is. As as been pointed out so eloquently in the above posts, they are not stupid. The know how weak and fragile both their society and military are and that if push came to shove our military would crush them and probably do so rapidly. (That is not to say that the aftermath of such a conflict would not be long and bloody or that their CW arsenal could not cause significant casualties.) We should not underestimate their potential fear of our capabilities. They are aware that their CW arsenal is a viable deterrent and that a nuclear arsenal provides an even stronger disincentive against potential efforts (real or perceived)at regime change. In regards to nuclear weapons they have repeatedly referred to their deterrent value. Assuming these assumptions are right, one would expect the DPRK to make every effort to prove to us their actual capabilities or to convince us that they have greater capabilities than they actually do. If their untested missile are actually operational and effective why not test them? The DPRK is certainly not shy about taking actions that we find extremely provocative. On the other hand, parading, but not testing, either real missiles of dubious quality or fake missiles has the benefit of sowing doubt and projecting an image of power (both internally and abroad) without risking failures that show weakness. After all, when the Russian flew their handful early strategic bombers in circles over one of its military parades they managed to convince our IC that they had a large bomber force and sparked claims of a “bomber gap.”

      Given time the DPRK undoubtedly can eventually field a miniaturized warhead atop a militarily effective ICBM. The evidence that they might have one now is largely a pastiche of dubious stories and rumors, speculation (both informed and otherwise), and a small amount of demonstrated fact.

    • j_kies (History)

      You appear to desire a more measured engineering assessment of threat realities. The current ‘power point’ generation of analysts lacks the harsh reality check of building stuff and blowing it up on the pad because they goofed somewhere. This lack of experience creates a ‘conservative bias’ to assume that if physics doesn’t prohibit something then foreign claims and bad parade mockups have to be respected. I suggest that it would be wise to check with the 80 to 90 year olds that blew up a lot of test ICBMs as to certain realities.

      Having one of those 80 year olds on ‘speed dial’, I did check with such experience. A couple of answers: 1) No, you don’t require flight tests to demonstrate a viable RV design if you don’t try to shave margins. 2) No, you dont do road mobile liquid ICBMs and 3) Yes, the Unha looks smells and acts like an ICBM design flown like a poorly optimized SLV.

      Do please check with additional people with direct experience, this sort of thing is too important to depend on singular engineering opinion.

    • Magpie (History)

      I don’t think Hippo and j_kies are really disagreeing, if I can be so bold. It’s a tree-falling-in-the-woods thing.

      NK has a credible threat. Where that threat may be is uncertain. It’s is extremely likely that they agree with us: their threat is real, but unreliable.

      But for the moment it is reliable *enough*. It is credible *enough*. A position can be taken almost anywhere inside that boundary, but for now it doesn’t really matter precisely where the facts lay.

      No-one can afford for those facts to matter. Not yet.

      That’s the point for now. They don’t need a high-reliability RV and miniaturised warheads just yet. And they don’t need to be able to hit the US just yet. They’ve got enough of a percent-chance to wipe out Seoul and/or Tokyo to maintain the deterrent they need. Done. Finished. Any other uncertainty they can add is pure bonus.

      Whatever they have now doesn’t really matter so much – they have as much as they need. Whatever they don’t have now, they will have when it matters. They’ll have it when they need it (or they hope so, anyway).

      In future there’s a good chance they’ll need a threat against the US (attitudes change, and someday a threat against allies might not be sufficient). They may not (probably don’t) have it yet, but they will. They’re laying the groundwork for future attitudes right now. Some people in the US think they can be struck right now. Whether it’s true right now isn’t really relevant – however much contempt the US population has for North Korea, the seeds of doubt are planted. They’ve succeeded in a limited aim, with something to build on later.

      Well done them.

      In the future they need to look like a powerful enough ally for China to continue supporting them – the loss of Russia was an almost fatal blow, and the loss of China would mean the end of them. Their current posturing is laying the groundwork for that. Ask some Chinese friends, if you got ‘em. This stuff is playing a lot better to them than it is to folk in the US or even South Korea. Remember: it’ll be the US that China ends up facing off across the Pacific, and Taiwan has (very sadly) stopped declining as an issue and (IMO) is starting to come back. So who in the world has the balls to stand up to the US and its allies in the Pacific? One that China can use as an ally, or even a proxy? It doesn’t matter today, but there may come a day when it does matter, and this whole escalation is buying a good bit of brand-recognition.

      Well done them.

      They don’t need to test, even if they think they’ve got a reliable system, because they’ve got *enough* credibility now. Any “test” in the near future will be provocation first, testing and demonstration second.

    • Magpie (History)

      Err, sorry for babbling on: wanted to post a quick example of how this stuff is seen in China, and how ominous they consider US expansion.

      Dunno how many links I can post, but see here for examples:

      There are all from the past few days.

      US ‘pivot’ policy destabilizing Asia-Pacific region
      –The US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, including the country’s expanding military presence and consolidation of military alliances, has destabilized the region, according to a Ministry of National Defense report issued on Tuesday.

      What’s behind John Kerry’s East Asian Tour?
      –…Kerry appearing on the Korean Peninsula itself may provoke North Korea.

      Asia to pull through the high-risk period
      –In East China Sea, Japan continuously makes provocations on the Diaoyu Islands Issue encroaching China’s sovereignty. In South China Sea, the U.S. and the Philippines conducted a joint military drill in early April.

      China open to “constructive” role from U.S.
      (note the scare quotes, and the apparently contrasting views):
      –In his speech, Kerry elaborated on the U.S. strategy of “rebalancing” its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, calling it the U.S. “dream for the Pacific region.”
      In response, Hua said China holds an open, inclusive and all-win perspective on the Asia-Pacific region.

      China urges Japan to stop encroaching its sovereignty
      –Japan must stop infringing upon Chinese territorial sovereignty, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense said on Tuesday.

    • j_kies (History)

      Most Honorable Kim Mag Pi
      Since you are impressed that NK takes advantage of US/SK reticence to ‘beat them like a rented mule’ and you emphatically state “1. He won’t use nukes unless we come after him personally.”.

      Consider the strictly limited application of appropriate forces (PGM’s etc) to negate the specific missiles and WMD programs that are the subject of DPRK direct threats.

      Please assume the role of the Secretary for Peace (Mr Kerry) who would like tools to convince people to go along with the US when we are being reasonable.

      Also assume the role of the Secretary for War (Mr Hagel) who would love to avoid wasteful expenditures and adventurism while trying to get a leash on contractors and generals.

      How does this play out if NK creates a provocation and SK shoots back?

    • Magpie (History)

      Kim Mag Pi demands plumpynut! Plumpynut, and respect. And babes. Plumpynut, respect, and babes. And a comfy chair. Plumpynut, respect… etc. etc.

      The US is doing everything right at the moment, I reckon. Ignore ‘em as much as you can while keeping your allies feeling relatively safe. Don’t shoot them!

      NK looks very much like they’ll keep begging for someone to shoot them, without actually shooting first. They badly want to receive the first shot, it looks like. A Musudan test (if it happens) will not be intended to hit anything but ocean. Another set-up of an Unha (if they have any more) might be the next step after that (even if it’s just a shell, in the hopes of getting shot at) – but again, they want to get hit. Desperately want that.

      Just don’t shoot them, and don’t give them any serious excuse, and hope there are no accidents. They’ve got to back down- errr, “normalise” – eventually or end up looking ridiculous. Well, MORE ridiculous.

      The way things are going, with the US doing a brilliant dad-disappointed-with-a-naughty-child act, no-one is going to shoot on purpose. That’s great – mad props to State and /or the Pres. So I think the only serious risk now is for NK to engineer something.

      Kim Mag Pi would, after poking about for a foolish first strike and failing, burn some human assets in the south to get something, anything, to take a shot. False orders, infiltrated battery, bribery, blackmail, something, anything. While tensions are high, just push someone to shoot. One gun will do. Respond with a counter-barrage at the upper bounds of “proportionate” (but keeping well away from Seoul), then immediately and very publically demand a ceasefire (while pointing to our great restraint in not nuking anyone – hint hint).

      Important bit: Hey, we already shut down direct communications, didn’t we? So the South can’t tell us (in time) that any small attack is NOT the opening shots in an all-out war. No matter how you try to tell us, we can deny we heard. However, we’ve still got access to world-wide communications, so when we tell YOU to stop and act noble and life-respecting and explain OMG we’ve already unilaterally ceased fire, *you’ve got no way to deny you heard us*. You’ll need to stop.

      See? That’s Kim Mag Pi’s trump card here. Wiley, ‘aint I?

      NK can “win” a two-hour war, but only if someone else shoots first. They *want* some precision strike to be made against them, just so they can respond with greater force, while being able to close the whole thing down asap. If they shoot first, they won’t be in a position to call a ceasefire fast enough without looking like losers. They can’t afford to shoot first without a really good reason. But if they can engineer someone to hit first? They’ve managed to put themselves into position to WIN a (teeny tiny) war against the US.

      Kim Mag Pi’s Little-TEL just went into firing position.

      That’s my reading of it, anyway.

      If that’s the scenario, short of secretly disarming the whole South side of the border (yeah, that’s a joke) there’s nothing anyone can do from here but hold tight and hope NK’s intelligence services suck. There is a chance, if well judged, that south-side’s standing orders could be adjusted to be ready for something like this, and you could potentially get counter-counter barrages out fast and hard enough to at least deny the North any claim of having “won” (they’ll be relying on confusion to buy some shelling time) – but just surviving an exchange is still going to be a bit of a win for them, I think.

      Note well though: in winning this war they won’t need missiles or nukes, except as bait and deterrence.

  5. OT (History)

    Bomber gap and Myasischevs flying rounds around Moscow were indeed in my mind when I expressed my scepticism about NK:s capabilities. Same systemic phenomenon seem to appear here, that press analysis towards inflated capability.

    When comparing China and DPRK, remember that at Lop Nor time China had domestic, soviet aid started industry producing missiles and jet fighters in numbers. Today’s DPRK is deteriorating backward country living off it’s old soviet-era stocks, desperate for basic raw materials like oil, rice and fertilizers. Corruption and corrosion have likely eaten away any benefits they could have from anything more than a decade old test, and more recent tests are scarce.

    North Korean elite doesn’t sleep well, as they know how little means they have to prevent foreing countries turning their system upside down. They feel pressed to give strong impression, overshoot it often, and are not shy about using smoke and mirrors where applicable. Successful show-shots are also needed for domestic consumption. But any real R&D work need things they don’t have: money, special materials and products, industrial capacity, open communication between people, and availability of truthful information. You can do without one or two, but then you need really really lots of other to compensate. PRC and USSR did, DPRK doesn’t.

    I admit I would be hard to convince that DPRK can shoot nuclear ICBM at will. Their current marketing material doesn’t do that. Nothing short of incremental and consistent test program would. I could be wrong, of course… but I’m not. Shortcomings of their system are just too plain observable.

    And I have not even touched yet the question to whom dictator Kim would trust his nuclear football, if he ever had one. Miniaturized warhead would indeed be a problem, big test item that is assembled in place at old mine is much safer for everyone, when you don’t have luxury of PAL:s and trustworthy organization.

    • kevin (History)

      If I may share some Korean History about rocket/missile tech, Koreans were the 1st if not among the 1st nation in the world to field rocket/missile in warfare. As early as 13th century, Korean has been fielding rockets in battles against larger enemies. Today, Koreans are told that Korea was fielding rockets some 300 years before any Europeans knew of such weapons existence. Young Koreans are also told that it is embarrassing fact that South Koreans have fallen behind. For South Koreans, Koreans(North or South) trying to become the advanced Rocket/Missile tech nation in the world is rightful goal. Many South Koreans would argue that North Korea is doing what South Korea should have done long ago in terms of rocket/missile technology. South Korea should be ahead of North Korea in term of rocket/missile technology considering larger population and larger economy. From this historical perspective, rocket/missile tech is not just a strategic goal, but also how Koreans view themselves in terms of status in the world theatre, atleast in rocket/missile technology.

    • Magpie (History)

      “Today’s DPRK is deteriorating backward country living off it’s old soviet-era stocks… But any real R&D work need things they don’t have: money, special materials and products, industrial capacity, open communication between people, and availability of truthful information.”

      You know they’ve recently detonated a nuclear device and gotten an object into polar orbit, right?

      The South Koreans took two failed launches to get their space-launch vehicle to work, too, even with the direct assistance of Russia. North Korea did it largely on their own (with possible assistance from Iran).

      They’ve got HEU. My grandmother could make a viable nuke out of HEU. If they wanted an impressive test to fool the foreigners they could do it any time, at almost any yield they liked. That they went for a riskier test program (given the first was probably a fizzle) would indicate they’re more serious, not less.

      I don’t think there’s much use in underestimating them. They’re not idjits.

      Not that they could hit the US (IMO) – even if they adapted their Unha or whatever, they still need to fuel the thing on-pad. The KN-08 doesn’t exist yet (IMO). But they’re moving ahead, and I think they’re right to be confident that they’ll keep their threat in deterrence range for the forseeable future. Right now they don’t *need* to hit the US, but they’re aiming to be able to do that by the time it becomes a real issue.

  6. markob (History)

    One could take a wild guess and also say; The North has hitherto tried to use its weapons programmes as leverage to improve relations with the United States. Somewhere somehow the North has decided that won’t work; the US doesn’t want to engage in meaningful bilateral diplomacy, and Obama hasn’t been much different to Bush. So they are going ahead with their strategic programmes come hell or high water, and are using a “threat that leaves something to chance” strategy as a shield behind which they are pursuing that policy. At the outer outer edge of speculation the North might do a Waco or an Aum. Some argue that the society of the North takes on many features of a cult; when guru led cults face a combination of external and internal pressure a final apocalyptic denouement, such as at Waco and Tokyo, eventuates. If the North is a super cult like state then that’s a, admittedly remote, possibility.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Rather, one might say, when the weapons didn’t exist, Pyongyang could bargain them away on the grounds that, if it didn’t work out, they could just resume the program, in secret even. Bargaining reduced the pressure and paid real dividends. But when it didn’t work out, well here we are.

      No change of heart needed. Same guys, different hand of cards.