What Is North Korea Actually Realistically Capable Of?

Four ballistic North Korean missiles, reportedly ready to launch. This picture was sourced from the country's state-run news agency, so it's impossible to verify. AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS

As you’re all abundantly aware, North Korea is back in the news, and so is the President of the United States. It’s a nuclear face-off that no one anywhere wants because there’s a real possibility that thousands of lives, perhaps millions, hang in the balance.

Contrary to what you may think, North Korea’s nuclear threat isn’t what most people should be worried about. It’s actually its artillery and conventional missiles, scattered all around the Korean Peninsula, that are the real threat. Even the sneakiest pre-emptive strike from the US-South Korean military forces couldn’t take all of these out in time for Seoul and parts of Japan to suffer from retaliatory strikes by the DPRK.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are – quite rightly – on the minds of many. Although the threat to the American mainland is still slim, it is fair to say that it's growing by the day – so let’s take a look and see just how much of a danger North Korea’s nuclear capabilities currently are.

A Timeline of Nukes

No one wants this – at least, we hope no one wants this. Leo_Traveling/Shutterstock

Before we look at their rocket technology, it’s good to be reminded of how far their nuclear weapons program has come along.

So far, the secretive state has detonated at least five nuclear warheads, all underground. Its most recent – which took place on September 9, 2016 – registered as a 5.3-5.6M seismic event on seismographs around the world.

In fact, aside from satellite observations that track military movements in North Korea, seismic waves are arguably the best way to determine whether or not a subterranean nuclear test has taken place.

The wave patterns generated by nuclear weapons are distinct from that of normal earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Using these waves, scientists can actually work out roughly how powerful the nuclear weapon was, and even what type of warhead was used.

So far, despite the country’s ambitions to develop a more powerful hydrogen bomb, it looks like they’re still using plutonium to create an implosion-style nuclear weapon. The seismic shock waves of a hydrogen bomb would show up as a 7.0M quake, but so far, the country hasn’t produced a weapon that breaches 6.0M.

The explosive yield of the latest device was around 10 kilotonnes of TNT. Fat Man, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, had a yield just over twice that, just as a point of comparison.

The suspected range of North Korea's missiles, based on their ICBM tests. Chris Jones/IFLScience

Apart from these five confirmed tests, there have been rumors of a possible sixth and seventh, both supposedly tested back in 2010, but the jury remains undecided on those ones. It’s more likely than not that these two closely-spaced detonations were, in reality, a series of natural earthquakes.

In any case, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, but they’re relatively weak at the moment – relatively being the key word here.

Honey, I Shrunk The Bomb

The latest development in this sense came about just a few days ago when the Washington Post – citing anonymous US intelligence officers – published a report claiming that North Korea is now able to “miniaturize” their weapons and mount them on warheads.

If accurate, this is a major step-up. Nukes are almost useless as weapons in the modern age if they can’t be launched on a missile. Now, it appears the country has manufactured 20 to 60 small nuclear warheads, an unknown handful of which can be attached to long-range missiles.

So now the key question is: What are North Korean missiles like?

That’s a complicated question. North Korea has inarguably made huge progress on missile technology since it first started giving it a go a few decades back, but it fails as often as it succeeds. When it test fires a new rocket, it either explodes on the launch pad or, as planned, lands in the Sea of Japan – a provocative act to one of its oldest foes.

At present, it has fired at least two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the second of which traveled 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), reached a height of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), and then splashed again into the Sea of Japan.

The mushroom cloud of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 – a scene that hopefully will never be replicated. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Experts have suggested that, if aimed at a certain angle, the missile could have a maximum range of 10,400 kilometers (6,462 miles). When the rotation of the Earth is taken into account, this range is only extended.

Technically then, these missiles could reach both the western and eastern seaboard of the United States. Hawaii is easily in range, as is Guam, an American territory in Micronesia with 163,000 people living on it – and one that’s been threatened by a North Korean missile strike.

Apocalypse Soon

So should we all be quaking in our boots? Well, not yet, because North Korea has a major technical problem they have not yet overcome: atmospheric re-entry. When an ICBM launches, it often breaches through several layers of the atmosphere before angling down again to reach its intended target.

However, analysists observing the latest launches pointed out that the extreme heat that builds up during the re-entry process clearly shows that the North Korean ICBMs are disintegrating mid-flight. Right now, the communist regime has the range, but not the appropriate shielding.

Nevertheless, it’s true that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and it looks likely they could place them atop short-range missiles and do untold damage to nearby countries.

Both South Korea and Japan – enemies second only to the United States – are protected quite substantially by surface-mounted and ship-mounted missile interceptors, which can accurately and quickly shoot down incoming missiles from North Korea. Still, the fact that the threat of a nuclear exchange exists is enough to worry anyone.

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