Underestimating the North Korean nuclear threat
Underestimating the North Korean nuclear threat
The mainstream media, by ignorance or design, consistently and grossly underestimate the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.  Most press and TV reporting gives the impression that North Korea has only a tiny and primitive nuclear arsenal (6-10 weapons is an oft reported number), missiles so unreliable that they are not a credible threat, and no capability to strike the U.S. mainland.

There are many and profound unknowns about North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.  Precisely for this reason, the North Korean nuclear threat should be described as including a range of credible possibilities, and not as a single point on that range of possibilities--and certainly not as the lowest, least threatening, estimate.

Reporters and their "experts" who prefer to low-ball the North Korean nuclear threat, pleading analytical conservatism, are in reality incautious and irresponsible.  The public and their policymakers--who may hope for the best but should plan for the worst--are poorly served by the  gross underestimation of the North Korean nuclear threat prevailing in the mainstream media.

The adage "better safe than sorry" should guide estimates of and policy toward nuclear North Korea.  But the White House, that does not want a North Korea armed with nuclear missiles that can strike the United States to be part of President Obama's legacy, has done everything possible to deny and "spin" this reality toward the least threatening estimates.

In fact:

-- North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program is largely clandestine and has been building nuclear weapons since 1995, for a virtual certainty has far more than 6-10 nuclear weapons--very possibly over 100 weapons today. 

--White House originated claims that North Korea does not have nuclear-armed missiles--because they supposedly have not yet mastered warhead "miniaturization"--are false, not technologically credible, and are not even supported by Obama's usually docile intelligence community.

--Defense Department warnings that North Korea has already fielded mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can strike the U.S. mainland, and has probably tested at least components of a hydrogen bomb, have gone largely unreported by big media.

--Warnings by the Congressional EMP Commission that North Korea probably has specialized nuclear weapons for making an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, that could inflict a protracted blackout on North America and kill millions--and that North Korean satellites presently orbiting over the U.S. may contain EMP warheads--have gone largely unreported by the mainstream.

--Contrary to the mainstream media, North Korea's nuclear missile programs are evolving at breakneck speed, surpassing the predictions and expectations of most analysts, because Russia and China are helping North Korea.

--Bipartisan hopes that "the China card" can be played to arrest the fast developing North Korean nuclear threat are mistaken, because Russia and China are building "the North Korea card" to play against the United States.                               

The Musudan IRBM

Press reporting on North Korea's Musudan, a mobile Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), is illustrative of grossly underestimating the threat, and the danger of doing so.  The Musudan, with an estimated range of 2,500-4,000 kilometers, is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead against U.S. military bases and fleets in the western Pacific, perhaps further than Guam.    

The Musudan, with an estimated range of 2,500-4,000 kilometers, is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead against U.S. military bases and fleets in the western Pacific...North Korea and China are the only nations on Earth with mobile IRBMs.   
When the Musudan was first deployed in 2007, press reporting focused on the view of some analysts that the missiles are not real missiles, but allegedly mock-ups, fake missiles.  Typical press coverage of the Musudan is Eric Talmadge's article in The Independent (April 26, 2012) headlined "Analysts Say North Korea's New Missiles Are Fakes."

Disbelief in the reality of the Musudan may stem in part from shock among some analysts that North Korea could suddenly and unexpectedly graduate from short- and medium-range missiles to the much longer range and much more sophisticated Musudan, and field the missile without testing.  Not even the U.S. and Russia have mobile IRBMs like the Musudan, having dismantled their IRBMs under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty concluded during the Cold War.

North Korea and China are the only nations on Earth with mobile IRBMs. 

The notion that the Musudan is a "fake" missile persisted in the press from 2007 until its recent testing in 2016, apparently ordered by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un to celebrate convening of the North's Communist Party Congress. 

Now the press--instead of pondering the dangers of reporting as "fake" nuclear-armed mobile IRBMs that are, in fact, real--is focusing on the several failed attempts to launch the Musudan, the implication being that the missile is too unreliable to be worrisome. 

Musudans exploded shortly after launching in the first 4 of 6 flight tests since April--the only flight tests of Musudan ever performed.  The last two launches, both on June 22, did not explode, completed ballistic trajectories, but traveled only a short distance, no more than 400 kilometers into the Sea of Japan. 

Initially, the press was quick to declare all 6 flight tests failures.

However, subsequent analysis found at least the last Musudan flight on June 22 was successful.   According to Jack Kim in Reuters (June 23, 2016), "Experts said it appeared the North had deliberately raised the angle of the launch to avoid hitting any territory belonging to Japan."  An Associated Press report by Foster Klug and Hyung-Jin Kim (June 22, 2016) quotes Lee Choon Geun of South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute, "We have to see it as a success.  No other missiles fired by North Korea have ever flown that high."  The same AP report notes, "The U.S. Strategic Command in Hawaii said Wednesday its systems detected and tracked two suspected North Korean Musudan missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan."      

The first of two Musudan flight tests on June 22, that apparently traveled a shorter range than the second test that day, was probably to ascertain that this tricky maneuver--firing the missile straight up on a high-energy trajectory, to avoid over-flying Japan--would work.  The second Musudan launch on June 22 flew up to an altitude of nearly 1,500 kilometers (620-880 miles).

If the Musudan is launched at a 45 degree angle, for range instead of altitude, analysts calculate the missile can reach an estimated 2,500-4,000 kilometers--a true IRBM. 

Less than a week after the last Musudan launch, on June 28, "South Korea, Japan, and the United States held an unprecedented trilateral missile defense exercise on Tuesday, aimed at countering the growing threat from nuclear-armed North Korea," according to an AFP report ("US, S. Korea, Japan Hold First Anti-N. Korea Missile Drill" June 29, 2016).

The anti-missile drill was held "in waters off Hawaii."

Contrary to the press, North Korea has also demonstrated that the Musudan is fairly reliable.  Indeed, it is a remarkable feat, after the Musudan has been roaming the forests and mountains of North Korea for 9 years--in a matter of weeks and after only 5-6 tries--to be so quickly flight tested successfully.  Now that adjustments have been made, the Musudan may be comparable to North Korea's Nodong medium-range missile in reliability, 75-90 percent.

Why would North Korea deploy the Musudan without flight testing in the first place? 

The Musudan is based on Russia's SS-N-6 Serb, a 1960s era missile, that was already extensively tested by the USSR during the Cold War.  It is possible that the initial Musudan launch failures  were due not to any design flaw in the missile, but to inexperienced flight crews and because the SS-N-6 was originally designed for submarines, not as a road mobile missile. That the "kinks" with Musudan launches could be so quickly corrected suggests that the problem may have had more to do with operational procedures than with missile design.

Most worrisome about the Musudan is that it indicates North Korea's political-military leaders have a crisis mentality, a dangerous  threat perspective that they are on the verge of nuclear war with the United States.  North Korea is driving missiles out of factories and into the field as quickly as possible, much as the USSR was driving T-34 tanks, unpainted and with loose bolts, straight out of factories to the front lines, during World War II.

Apparently the Obama Administration, and their echo chamber in the press, would prefer that the public and policymakers think for 9 years that the Musudan is a fake missile, rather than face reality.

Now we know for sure that the Musudan is a real missile, and there are 30-50 of them operational, ready to launch Kim Jong-Un's repeatedly threatened preemptive nuclear strike.

As Kim said on June 22, North Korea now has the "clear ability" to "totally and realistically attack American bastards" in the "operational zone of the Pacific Ocean."   
As Kim said on June 22, North Korea now has the "clear ability" to "totally and realistically attack American bastards" in the "operational zone of the Pacific Ocean."    

North Korean ICBMs

Most mainstream press reporting gives the impression that North Korea does not yet have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), that long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States are a North Korean aspiration--not an accomplished reality.  For example, the June 29AFP report cited above notes, "The recent test of a Musudan medium-range missile was seen by some weapons experts as a significant step towards an operational ICBM by 2020."

Yet the Defense Department in a 2015 unclassified report to Congress (Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea) warns that North Korea already has 6 road-mobile ICBMs called the KN-08, probably armed with nuclear warheads.  Range of the KN-08 is uncertain because it has never been flight tested, but is estimated capable of reaching the western United States, perhaps as far as Chicago.

On October 10, 2015, North Korea rolled out a new ICBM, the road-mobile KN-14, estimated to have longer range than the KN-08, perhaps capable of delivering on Kim Jong-Un's threat to make a nuclear strike on Washington, DC.  The KN-14 has not been flight tested, but is already deployed in small numbers.

North Korea may judge that flight testing the KN-08 and KN-14, as with the Musudan, is less urgent than rapidly fielding a force of road-mobile, survivable, ICBMs that can threaten the U.S. mainland, because of their perception that the sides are on the verge of nuclear war.  Static testing of engines and other components has been done and is obviously deemed sufficient for now.

Moreover, the KN-08 and KN-14, like the Musudan, are probably variants of the Russian SS-N-6, an already proven missile.  John Schilling and Henry Kan in their excellent report The Future of North Korean Nuclear Delivery Systems (U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, April 2015), note: "150 SS-N-6 missiles remain unaccounted for from the old Soviet inventory and Russian engineers who designed the weapon are known to have worked in North Korea."

North Korea has successfully flight-tested its Taepodong-II ICBM, using it as the Unha space launch vehicle to orbit satellites over the United States in December 2012 and February 2016. 

But press reporting on the Taepodong-II is overwhelmingly about its several past flight failures, not about the last two successful launches.  Nor does the mainstream press ever mention that the Taepodong-II is the basis for Iran's space launch vehicle and has been used to orbit several satellites, so far without any failures. 

Historically, the capability to test nuclear weapons and to orbit a satellite over the United States, as did the USSR with Sputnik in 1957, has been treated as proof positive of an ICBM threat.North Korea has done both, testing nuclear weapons and orbiting two satellites--its KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites remain in orbit passing regularly over North America.

Yet one might never know that North Korean satellites presently orbit over the United States from reading or watching the mainstream media.  

1,000 Ballistic Missiles

Schilling and Kan in The Future of North Korean Nuclear Delivery Systems estimate North Korea has "about 1,000 ballistic missiles" capable of delivering nuclear warheads, though almost all of these carry high-explosives and probably some chemical and biological weapons.  North Korea's potential nuclear delivery systems include:

--Hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), mostly Scud-Bs and Cs, range 300-500 kilometers.

--300-450 Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), range about 1,500 kilometers.

--30-50 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), range 2,500-4,000 kilometers.

--6 KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

--A small number of KN-14 ICBMs, range 8,000-10,000 kilometers.

--A small number of Taepodong-II ICBMs, serving as Unha space launch vehicles subordinated to the military's Strategic Rocket Forces.

--60 IL-28 light bombers.

North Korea is developing a fleet of ballistic missile submarines based on Russia's old Golf-class submarines and its SS-N-6 missile, sold to the North by Moscow, supposedly for scrap. 

Schilling and Kan warn: "Commercial satellite imagery, ROK official statements and other press reports indicate Pyongyang may be developing a capability to launch ballistic or cruise missiles from surface cargo ships...In the near term, Pyongyang might be able to develop the ability to launch existing short-range cruise or ballistic missiles from sea-based platforms."

North Korea by developing a vast inventory of ballistic missiles--including ICBMs--has accomplished the hardest part of becoming a nuclear missile state.  Peter Pae and W.J. Herrigan in the Los Angeles Times (June 28, 2016) correctly note, "The enormous task of overseeing the development of the ICBM" was "a feat Eisenhower considered more complex than building the atomic bomb."         


How Many Nuclear Warheads?

None, according to President Obama.

Obama told the New York Times on April 16, 2013, that North Korea could not "miniaturize" a nuclear warhead, make it small and light enough for missile delivery, so Kim Jong-Un could not execute his threats to make nuclear missile strikes on South Korea, Japan, and the United States. 

Unreported by the press, on that very day, North Korea's KMS-3 satellite passed over Washington, DC.

Obama's false assurances came amidst what was then the worst ever nuclear crisis with North Korea.  White House dismissal of the North Korean nuclear missile threat by the miniaturization argument became widespread in the press and persists today--despite being thoroughly debunked.

"The Miniaturization Myth" by former Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey, Washington Times (April 24, 2016) warns:

"The public is being misled by the White House, some so-called 'experts' and mainstream media...They claim North Korea has not demonstrated sufficient 'miniaturization' of a nuclear weapon to be delivered by a missile.  However, defense and intelligence community officials warn North Korea probably already has nuclear armed missiles....Technologically, 'miniaturizing' a nuclear warhead is much easier than developing an atomic bomb or a multi-stage missile for orbiting satellites — as North Korea has already done. Ever since the USSR orbited Sputnik in 1957, analysts have rightly credited any nation that has tested nuclear weapons and orbited satellites with the capability to make a nuclear missile warhead."

The Defense Department and Intelligence Community have for years assessed that North Korea has nuclear armed missiles (see "North Korea's Nuclear Missile Threat," Gatestone Institute, February 29, 2016).  Indeed, North Korea has been building nuclear weapons since 1995. 

Press estimates of the number of North Korea's nuclear weapons are usually 6-10 or 10-20, always citing experts who assume Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program is overt, located at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, where satellites can monitor most everything.  These numbers assume that North Korea's nuclear weapons are limited to the amount of plutonium produced at the Yongbyon reactor, and assume conservative bomb design using 5-8 kilograms of plutonium in each weapon.

Based on such assumptions, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing that produced the headline "North Korea Can Produce As Many As 21 Nuclear Weapons" and estimated North Korea's arsenal of nuclear weapons "at 13-21 nuclear bombs" (Elizabeth Shim, UPI July 14, 2016).

It is implausible that North Korea has only 6-21 nuclear weapons when it has conducted 4 known nuclear tests, which would consume two-thirds to nearly one-quarter of their supposedly scarce inventory.

A good bomb designer can make a nuclear weapon with 1-2 kilograms of plutonium, which alone would increase the number of estimated North Korean plutonium weapons from 21 to over 100.

Academic and press estimates of the critical mass needed for an atomic bomb often rely on the dubious expertise of the IAEA and on the design of the first implosion atomic bomb, the Fat Man, that destroyed Nagasaki.  Alex Wellerstein in "Kilotons Per Kilogram" (Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, December 23, 2013) notes this early, inefficient, bomb design did use 6.2 kilograms of plutonium, but only fissioned 1 kilogram of plutonium to produce an explosive yield of about 20 kilotons (21 kilotons according to a 1987 estimate).  The even less efficient Hiroshima bomb fissioned less than 1 kilogram of uranium to produce a yield of 15 kilotons.  Wellerstein correctly observes, "So right off the bat, one could intuit that this is something that could be improved upon" (see also Theodore Taylor, "Third Generation Nuclear Weapons," Scientific American April 1987).

According to the Federation of American Scientists in "Nuclear Weapon Design" (October 21, 1998): "The critical mass of compressed fissile material decreases as the inverse square of the density achieved.  Since critical mass decreases rapidly as density increases, the implosion technique can make do with substantially less nuclear material than the gun-assembled methods....Some U.S. scientists believe that 1 kilogram of plutonium will suffice."

Ara Barasamian in "Compressibility Of Uranium And The Minimum Quantity For A Fission Weapon" (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Institute: Morris Plains, NJ) warns, "It is critical that we do not rely on exaggerated IAEA 'SQ' [critical mass] numbers to be lolled into a false sense of security, and should not underestimate the capabilities of scientists and engineers in proliferant countries, such as Iran and North Korea" because:

"For bare HEU Uranium metal (or conversely Plutonium), achieving an isentropic compression by a factor of approximately 3 reduces the amount of fissile material needed by a fission bomb by roughly a factor of 9.  Of course, one can 'finesse' additional reductions in fissile material mass through the use of Beryllium reflectors, boosting, and external initiation."

Barasamian thinks Iran and North Korea could have the indigenous scientific sophistication to make atomic weapons using 2 kilograms of plutonium.

And what if North Korea is getting help in its nuclear weapon designs from Russia, China, and Pakistan, as the Congressional EMP Commission was warned by highly credible Russian sources?  According to CIA's unclassified Chinese Policy and Practice Regarding Sensitive Nuclear Transfers: Special National Intelligence Estimate (January 20, 1983), "China transferred a complete nuclear weapon design, according to some reports" to Pakistan (see also Congressional Research Service, Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons June 14, 2016, footnote 13). 

If China helped Pakistan design nuclear weapons, it is even more likely China would help its closest ally, North Korea.         

Estimating the number of North Korean nuclear weapons, far more important than weapon design, almost certainly the largest part of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is clandestine and invisible to us.  They probably have hidden centrifuges for enriching uranium and could have one or more nuclear reactors hidden underground for clandestinely breeding plutonium, as their mentors in Moscow did at Krasnoyarsk-26.

Siegfried Hecker, former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, was invited by Pyongyang to see part of their uranium enrichment program, and was amazed at the scale and sophistication.
When I served on the Congressional North Korea Advisory Group in the 1990s, North Korea was known to have a clandestine program for making uranium nuclear weapons that is never reflected in the press estimates.  Siegfried Hecker, former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, was invited by Pyongyang to see part of their uranium enrichment program, and was amazed at the scale and sophistication: "I was stunned by the sight of 2,000 centrifuges in two cascade halls and an ultra-modern control room....Although I and other nonproliferation experts had long believed that North Korea possessed a parallel uranium-enrichment program--and there was ample evidence for such a belief--I was amazed by its scale and sophistication..." ("What I Found In North Korea: Pyongyang's Plutonium Is No Longer The Only Problem," Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2010).

North Korea probably has at least 40-60 nuclear warheads for its IRBMs and ICBMs, which otherwise would be useless because of their inaccuracy.  It would be surprising if North Korea did not also have at least some nuclear warheads for their MRBMs, SRBMs, and bombers for theater and battlefield use.  100 nuclear weapons overall would be a conservative number from an operational perspective. 

The North Korea Card

Sig Hecker's encounter with North Korea's surprisingly large and sophisticated nuclear program convinced him that the paradigm for nonproliferation must change: "How North Korea managed to obtain all these materials is a troubling question for the global nonproliferation regime."

Evidence is overwhelming that Russia and China are helping North Korea:

--As noted earlier, Russia sold to North Korea a dozen Golf-class missile submarines and at least one nuclear capable SS-N-6 missile. 

--Russian generals told the Congressional Commission on Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack in 2004 that the design for Russia's Super-EMP weapon "accidentally" leaked to North Korea, that there had been "brain drain" of Russian scientists to North Korea, and that the North could probably test a Super-EMP warhead "in a few years," a prediction that apparently came true in 2006. A single Super-EMP warhead could blackout North America for months or years and kill millions.

--North Korea's two satellites orbit on a trajectory identical to that planned for a Soviet-era secret weapon called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). North Korea's KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites, like the Russian FOBS, orbit on the optimum trajectory to make a surprise attack, and at the optimum altitude to generate an EMP field over the 48 contiguous United States.

--Reportedly, according to U.S. Strategic Command, North Korea's Unha-3 (the Taepodong-II ICBM)  is much more sophisticated than expected: "First stage debris fished out of the Yellow Sea after the December 2012 launch came with a surprise as it showed that the Unha vehicle was more advanced than previously believed, employing modern aluminum alloys and showing much thinner tank walls than expected. Also, the first stage was outfitted with four...vernier engines with a...gimbal, contrary to previous reports that showed the first stage to be stabilized through the use of simpler jet vanes."

--According to the Defense Department, North Korea's mobile launcher for its KN-08 ICBM is from China. The only nations in the world with mobile ICBMs are Russia, China, and North Korea.  Not even the U.S. has a mobile ICBM, but backward North Korea does.

--China could stop cold North Korea's nuclear program by halting the flow of food and energy.  But Beijing does little more than pay lip service to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, while cheating on international sanctions imposed on the North, complacent with Pyongyang's growing nuclear capabilities and escalating threats against the U.S.   

--Like Russia and China, North Korea is surprisingly adept at sealing nuclear test tunnels to contain gases and conceal information about the design and sophistication of its nuclear weapons.  Harold Agnew, former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Manhattan Project scientist, who presided over numerous underground nuclear tests, was impressed with North Korea's capabilities, remarking--"It's a real art" (George Brumfiel, "North Korea's Ignoble Blast," Nature, June 16, 2009).  

--The mainstream doesn't like to talk about the fact that no plutonium or uranium (A-Bomb fuels) have been detected from North Korean tests, but traces of tritium (H-Bomb fuel) have been found.

--The mainstream underestimated the nuclear sophistication of North Korea as recently as January 6, when with few exceptions experts claimed North Korea could not have tested an H-Bomb. Only a few reported on January 28 that the Defense Department changed its mind, that new evidence indicated, as headlined by CNN "North Korea Might Have Tested Components Of A Hydrogen Bomb."

Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, the West has been in denial, grossly underestimating the threat.  Then the New York Times (October 9, 2006) reported the North's very real nuclear test could be fake: "Some experts cautioned it [North Korea] could try to fake an explosion, setting off conventional explosives..."

The big question is: When and how will China and Russia play their nuclear North Korea card?

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum and in the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.  He is author of Blackout Wars and of The Long Sunday--Nuclear EMP Attack Scenarios available from Amazon.com