With the recent events in North Korea, I feel that a blog post is in order. I realize that North Korea has little to do with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but recent events have caused many to be concerned with the North’s military and nuclear capabilities.
So what exactly is North Korea capable of anyway? This is where it gets confusing. North Korea maintains one of the largest armies in the world and is equipped largely with former Soviet equipment. While some of this equipment may be antiquated, one cannot discount the capabilities of the North to wage a ground war. Technologically inferior armies have been defeating superior militaries for years. One only needs to examine the case of the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terror for a graphic illustration of the effects of a technologically inferior army against a technologically and numerically superior one. Cold War-era Soviet Bloc weapons such as RPGs, the SA-7 shoulder launched surface to air missile, and T-72 tanks may seem laughable and antiquated by American standards, but one must remember that a $3000 RPG can be just as effective as destroying a tank as a multi-million dollar guided anti-tank missile. In addition, North Korea maintains permanent artillery and mortar positions near the Demilitarized Zone, many of which have the ability to reach Seoul. The North may not be capable of turning the South into a “sea of fire,” but severe damage to the capitol city would still occur (See link in citation for an extensive map of North Korean artillery positions). Recent tests of a 300mm multiple rocket launcher (MRL) have illustrated that even without nuclear weapons, the North Korean ground forces remain a formidable opponent.
So what about the nuclear capabilities? Multiple intelligence sources have independently confirmed that the North does indeed posses nuclear weapons. In early 2015, North Korea claimed that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb, however the measured seismic activity was far too small to be a hydrogen bomb. North Korean possession of nuclear weapons is certainly worrysome, but having a bomb is not enough. There needs to be a way to deliver the bomb to its target. This is normally done with two ways: by airplane, such as a bomber or a fighter jet, or by missile, either launched from a silo, truck or submarine. All of these methods require that the warhead itself be small enough to fit onto the delivery vehicle. For intercontinental ballistic missiles, the warhead must be protected by a heat shield so that it does not burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
In the case of North Korea, an air dropped bomb would be impractical due to the extensive air defense network in South Korea and the presence of American air patrols. A bomber or fighter would be detected on South Korean radar long before it was able to launch an attack. This leaves missiles. North Korea is certainly not lacking in this regard. Since the early 1990s, the North has attempted to develop several long and short range missiles. The most recent of these, the KN-08, has an estimated range of approximately 1800-3000 miles. Controversy surrounding it erupted in October 2015, during which KN-08 missiles were paraded through the streets on the 70th Anniversary of the North Korean Worker’s Party. However, it soon became apparent that the missiles were mock ups. Many still doubt the durability of the launchers, as it is unclear if the launch platform would be able to withstand the shock of the launch itself. Furthermore, due to the inaccuracy of the missile, it is doubtful that it would be able to target large cities, and would take approximately one to two hours to fuel.
As discussed above, the primary issue of an intercontinental ballistic missile is the protection of the warhead upon re-entry. Additionally, the warhead itself must be small enough to fit on the top of the missile. In March 2016, North Korea claimed that they had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, however many have doubted these claims, as it took the United States and the Soviet Union several years to master this technology. Regarding submarine launched ballistic missiles, North Korea has attempted to test these missiles, however, all tests have been failures to date.
In conclusion, the North Korean nuclear capabilities have been largely overstated. It is important to emphasize that a North Korean nuclear strike would illicit an immediate American, and potentially Chinese and Russian military response. It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would be willing to sacrifice his entire country in a suicidal nuclear strike on the South. Furthermore, the United States maintains a powerful military presence in mainland Korea, in neighboring Japan, and off the coast, acting as a powerful deterrent.
 Roger Cavazos, “Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality”, NAPSNet Special Reports, June 26, 2012, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/mind-the-gap-between-rhetoric-and-reality/
 John Grisafi, “North Korea Reveals Details of 300mm Multiple Rocket Launcher,” NKNews.org, March 4, 2016, https://www.nknews.org/2016/03/n-korea-reveals-details-of-300mm-multiple-rocket-launcher/.
 “North Korea Conducts Nuclear Test,” BBCNews, May 25, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8066615.stm.
 Somini Sengupta, David Sanger, and Choe Sang-Hun, “Security Council Condemns Nuclear Test by North Korea,” New York Times, January 6, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/world/asia/north-korea-hydrogen-bomb-claim-reactions.html?_r=0
 Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne, “Intel Officials: North Korea ‘Probably’ Has Miniaturized Nuke,” CNN.com, March 25, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/24/politics/north-korea-miniaturized-nuclear-warhead/.
 Ankit Panda, “How We Know North Korea’s Latest SLBM Test Was Likely a Dud,” The Diplomat, January 14, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/how-we-know-north-koreas-latest-slbm-test-was-a-likely-dud/.