How powerful is North Korea’s arsenal?

A photo published by North Korean state media in 2017 allegedly showing Kim Jong-un watching the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile (REUTERS /)

North Korea has tested a flurry of missiles in recent weeks, an exercise that culminated Tuesday in the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan in the Pacific Ocean. The test missile, which it went further than any other rocket previously launched by the countrywas the latest demonstration of the North’s growing and increasingly sophisticated military arsenal.

The escalation occurs at a time when its leader, Kim Jong Un, has tried to consolidate the country’s position as a power with nuclear weapons and its role as ruler at the head of it. Last month, North Korea adopted a new law that says it will launch a nuclear attack “automatically and immediately” if the command and control system of its nuclear forces – an apparent reference to Kim’s leadership – is compromised.

As the risk of nuclear war rises once again with Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, earlier this year Kim pledged to expand North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.”as fast as possible”. He indicated that it was not a mere deterrent, but could be used “if any force tries to violate the fundamental interests of our State.”

North Korea has made 23 weapons tests so far this year, with a total of 43 ballistic and cruise missiles. Last week it carried out four tests, in apparent protest against the joint military exercises of the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The greatest distance traveled by a North Korean missile (Source: Japanese Government/By Pablo Robles)
The greatest distance traveled by a North Korean missile (Source: Japanese Government/By Pablo Robles)

President Joe Biden has warned there will be “answers” if North Korea continues to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula, but his calls for the United Nations to impose more sanctions earlier this year were blocked by Russia and China. The international community and the United States have repeatedly tried both dialogue and sanctions to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. Neither has worked.

Kim, the North Korean leader, said last month that “there will be no more negotiations on our nuclear power”.

Although it is difficult to get a clear, up-to-date picture of North Korea’s military capabilities, analysts and observers agree that in the decade that Kim has ruled, North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear program and modernized its missile fleet. . The expansion of the arsenal is a growing threat to the United States and its allies in the region. This is what it contains.

A growing number of nuclear warheads

North Korea’s ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads, and the country conducted six increasingly sophisticated underground nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017. The last four were conducted under Kim.

This year, Washington and Seoul have repeatedly warned that North Korea is preparing for another nuclear test at Punggye-ri, where the North has conducted all of its previous underground nuclear tests.

Its last and most powerful nuclear test took place in September 2017when North Korea claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb, or hydrogen. Calculations of the explosive power of the device ranged between 50 and 300 kilotons.

At just 100 kilotons, the test would be six times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

North Korea has extracted plutonium, a fuel for atomic bombs, from its Soviet-designed nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. It also uses centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium, another bomb fuel.

In 2021, North Korea had enough fissile material for 40 or 50 nuclear warheads and could produce enough to six or seven pumps a year, according to a calculation by the Gun Control Association. Last year, the United Nations nuclear watchdog claimed that North Korea may be preparing to increase its production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium at Yongbyon.

Missiles capable of flying farther

North Korea demonstrated major advances in its weapons capabilities in 2017.

That year, the country fired its intermediate-range ballistic missile, Hwasong-12, over Japan and threatened an “enveloping” attack around the US territory of Guam. He also conducted launch tests of Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles.

From left to right: Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15
From left to right: Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15

At the end of the year, Kim claimed that his country had the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

After 2017, Kim stopped testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but threatened to end his moratorium when talks with President Donald Trump failed in 2019.

During a night military parade in the fall of 2020, North Korea displayed a new intercontinental ballistic missile untested it seemed bigger than any of the above.

In March, North Korea appeared to conduct its most powerful ICBM test to date. Though state media dubbed it the larger Hwasong-17 and showed the missile in a Hollywood-style propaganda video, South Korea later said it appeared to be the older model Hwasong-15. South Korea said videos and photos of the launch were manipulated to exaggerate Kim’s weapons achievements to the domestic public.

Kim Jong-un walks next to what state media says is the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
Kim Jong-un walks next to what state media says is the “Hwasong-17” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on its launch vehicle (KCNA/)

The biggest unanswered question is whether North Korea has mastered the technology needed to send an intercontinental nuclear warhead into space and then guide it back through Earth’s atmosphere to its target. North Korea has yet to prove that its warhead can survive the intense heat and friction created by re-entry.

Their weapons are getting more and more sophisticated

When North Korea resumed missile tests in 2019 following the collapse of talks between Kim and Trump, tests included three new weapons, code named KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25 by outside experts.

Each of them marked major advances in North Korea’s short-range ballistic missile program.

Unlike its older missiles that used liquid fuel, all three new missiles used solid fuel. The new solid-fuel weapons, mounted on mobile launchers, are easier to transport and conceal, and require less preparation time. And at least two of them, the KN-23 and the KN-24, could perform low-altitude maneuvers, making them more difficult to intercept.

At a military parade in 2021, North Korea showed off what looked like a larger, improved version of the KN-23. Photos published by North Korean media indicate that it was the new tactical guided missile that North Korea launched in March of that year.

The new missile was developed to be larger than the KN-23 in order to carry a larger warhead and more fuel. North Korea claimed that the missile could carry a 2.5 ton warhead. South Korea’s defense minister later admitted that his military did not see part of the North Korean missile’s trajectory due to its maneuvers in the air.

North Korea also tested “long-range cruise missiles” in September 2021. It called them a “strategic weapon,” and indicated it would arm the new missile with nuclear warheads. Also in 2021, North Korea began testing what it called a ballistic missile with a detachable “hypersonic” sliding warhead.

The country’s missile tests have shown that they are increasingly difficult to intercept.

Also, since 2015, it has tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Launch of a missile from a submarine, in October 2019
Launch of a missile from a submarine, in October 2019 (KCNA /)

During military parades in 2020 and 2021, North Korea displayed what looked like two upgraded versions of its Pukguksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Currently, it only has one submarine capable of launching a ballistic missile, but says it is building a new one with greater capabilities.

The arsenal is not a bargaining chip, says Kim Jong-un

North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with more than a million soldiers. But much of its equipment is old and obsolete, and the army lacks fuel and spare parts.

It has tried to make up for its shortcomings by building nuclear weapons, which it says are primarily deterrent.

In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in September, Kim said the North would not give up its nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons and “imperialism” exist on Earth. He said: “We have drawn the line of no recoil on our nuclear weapons so there is no more haggling over them.”

“Pyongyang has launched a dizzying race to build an arsenal containing the kind of advanced capabilities that can be found in the United States or Russia,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “But, for the most part, these have been single-use demos: Pyongyang tests the system once, then moves on to the next. It is not so clear if they will complete the tests or carry out the deployment of some or all of these systems.

© The New York Times 2022