North Korea is a hot topic right now so I thought it would be worthwhile to give some background into their nuclear program.
In 2006, 2009 and 2013, North Korea tested atomic weapons and in 2016 tested another, larger weapon with a yield of 10-30 kilotonnes[i]. It’s worth noting that the atomic bombs dropped in World War II were in the 12-15 kilotonne range, which means this latest test could be double the yield of those first atomic bombs, and the devastation of those early bombs is well known. This latest 2016 test is causing concern due to North Korean claims that it was a hydrogen bomb, a technology capable of creating much larger detonations. While some experts dismiss the claim that North Korea has developed hydrogen weapon capabilities due to the relatively smaller size of the 2016 detonation when compared to verified hydrogen tests by other nations[ii], it does raise the specter of North Korea advancing their program to a much more dangerous level. Should North Korea succeed in its efforts to miniaturize these weapons to a size whereby they can be mounted on the tip of a missile, the danger grows exponentially as the reach of their weapons would threaten numerous nations, thus the international angst. In a May 2017 interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Siegfried Hecker, a professor Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and one of the few Americans to have visited North Korean nuclear sites, stated his belief in the likelihood that the North has, in fact, succeeded in miniaturizing weapons for mounting on missiles and that those nuclear capable missiles could threaten South Korea and Japan[iii]. Professor Hecker went on to detail the most recent test; the missile represented a significant improvement over previous tests in that it reached an altitude of 1243 miles, flew 497 miles and splashed into the Sea of Japan, and could, if launched on a more traditional trajectory, extend its range to approximately 2486 miles which would qualify it as an intermediate ballistic missile[iv].
Satellite images of ground scarring from missile launches seem to confirm Hecker’s assessment. These photos indicate the missile being tested could be the Hwasong-12 which, according to North Korea, has a range of 2500 miles and therefore puts much of Asia, much of Russia, Guam, parts of Alaska and Hawaii in range [v]. To add to the concern, this generation of missile is able to be launched from mobile platforms making then much harder to detect and locate[vi].
Another issue of concern is whether North Korea has achieved the ability to process uranium as opposed to plutonium. North Korea has a limited supply of Plutonium, and this material has to be processed in very conspicuous facilities; not so with Uranium which North Korea has in abundance and which can be processed in facilities much easier to conceal[vii].
Beyond the military threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, Hecker noted the possibility of a nuclear accident in the North and questioned who would control the estimated 20-25 nuclear weapons should the regime collapse into chaos and whether they might find their way into the hands of non-state actors[viii]?
For a map of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, see the following provided at http://www.nti.org/gmap/nuclear_north_korea.html?/