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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

North Korea Could Soon Test a Nuclear Weapon: The Before and After

North Korea
North Korea. Image Credit: 19FortyFive.com

U.S. and South Korean intelligence have hinted for a while this year that North Korea would test a nuclear weapon. Speculation is rising in the wake of the North’s many recent missile tests. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests to date. It has not tested a warhead since 2017. At that point, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un halted testing to facilitate diplomacy with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In.

Those negotiations failed, in part because Kim never offered serious concessions to Trump. North Korea simply does not want to negotiate its nuclear weapons away. The U.S. wants to negotiate but wants the negotiations to include nukes. The North is unwilling and seems to be trying, instead, to coerce the U.S., South Korea, and Japan into accepting it as a nuclear weapons state by testing relentlessly.

The logical next step after all the missile tests and other provocations this year would be a nuclear test. That would be a cap to all these incitements; indeed, their purpose may be to soften the ground for what indeed will be a profoundly disruptive seventh nuclear test.

What to Look for in Another Test Nuclear Test 

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is now fairly established and functional. That is, the outside analyst community is now reasonably confident that North Korea can field basic atomic bombs which will work and whose missile delivery vehicles can survive re-entry. North Korea can strike cities in northeast Asia and, probably, the continental United States. It has crossed the most important technological barriers. It probably has somewhere between thirty and fifty warheads and hundreds of missiles.

Based on the geological disturbances caused by its previous nuclear tests, the North can likely field an atomic bomb ten times more potent than that dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It is also likely that North Korea is still limited to fission atomic bombs, not fusion or thermonuclear warheads. This basic nuclear technology limits the yield – the amount of energy released by the chain reaction – of a North Korean warhead.

Hence, the most critical question for another North Korean nuclear test is if Pyongyang can make the step up to a fusion weapon. If so, this would dramatically raise the destructive potential of a North Korean nuclear strike on a city. Multiple weapons of this sort used against South Korean or Japanese cities would likely bring a breakdown of social order and even a collapse of the state itself. The pressure for more radical, risky responses to North Korean nukes would rise.

North Korea Nuclear Test: What Do We do?

As in the past, our options in response to a North Korean nuclear test are limited.

We have been unable to deter the previous six tests. We probably cannot stop a seventh if the regime is determined to do it. It is unclear whether any action short of a military strike could prevent this. That, of course, would be hugely risky for exposed South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. cities. The U.S. has not threatened serious force to prevent proliferation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We are unlikely to do so here. We will learn to live, however grudgingly, with North Korea’s nukes.

North Korea ICBM

North Korean Hwasong-16 ICBM. Image Credit: KCNA/North Korean State Media.

But we will respond, and the response proposals will become more radical as the problem worsens. The more North Korea builds nuclear weapons and missiles, the more relentlessly and recklessly it develops hugely destructive weapons, and the more it incentivizes South Korea and Japan particularly to consider previously unthinkable options. Ideally, we would negotiate a deal with the North which caps its program and includes some verification and inspection. But that is so unlikely that military options will increasingly be discussed.

On a scale of growing peril, I see a fusion test unlocking the following increasingly risky options, mainly if most tests follow, as they likely will:

– A major missile defense build-up: Missile defense, unfortunately, does not work well, and North Korea is aware of its capabilities. But this is better than nothing. South Korean and Japanese cities are naked against a missile strike, and North Korean fusion weapons will reinforce that vulnerability.

– South Korean and/or Japanese nuclearization: This is a live debate now in South Korea. The US opposes it, but 70% of South Koreans support it, and a seventh nuclear test, especially of a fusion weapon, will push that percentage up even higher.

North Korea

North Korea Ballistic Missile Test. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

– Quarantining North Korean ports: This is a much more aggressive action than the defensive two above. This was U.S. strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, an alternative to invading Cuba. If North Korea flatly refuses to stop building hugely destructive weapons, blocking the inflow of parts and material is likely to arise as an option. Sanctions on the North Korean economy are already intended to blow this inflow but are not enforced well by China or Russia.

– Airstrikes on North Korean missile sites in a crisis: South Korea’s current president proposed this as a candidate earlier this year. This is hugely risky. It could ignite the very war it seeks to prevent. But it is a sign of the desperation to which South Korea is being driven.

All of these options are terrible. All represent a major escalation. But North Korea’s adamant refusal to slow down will increasingly prompt debate of more hawkish tactics. And a seventh nuclear test – particularly one with a massive yield from a thermonuclear bomb – will increase the paranoia even further. North Korea – and its sanctions-unenforcing, passive enablers China and Russia – have no one but themselves to blame.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 5, 2022 at 10:34 am

    Biden is keen or eager to start annunder headline grabbing war, this time in Asia not just Europe.

    And sadly, he has available a puppet state or client state to do his bidding.

    Biden has been dogbarking at north Korea, with bombers, fighter jets, stealth aircraft and warships and aircraft carriers all conveying his war barks night and day or ceaselessly in east Asia.

    But Biden is unaware or unable to fathom that Kim jong-un is much less patient or tolerant than Putin.

    If Biden is thoroughly stupid and dumb as a rabid bat from hell, he’s definitely going to ignite ww3 in Asia.

    Japan could suffer a new nuke nightmare but this time Tokyo instead of Hiroshima would likely be at the receiving end. Tokyo and its suburbs have a present population of 30-40 million.

    Biden already has blood on his hands from his war in Europe. Now he’s going to bathe his body with blood from a nuke war in Asia. Hooyah, Biden, hooyah !

  2. John

    November 5, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    Message to our allies:
    You are on your own.
    Get your own nuclear deterrence if you want to live.
    Germany, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, what are you waiting for?
    And France and GB will have to go 600 deployed warheads each to deter an attack on them

  3. Commentar

    November 5, 2022 at 5:59 pm

    The whole world would be more at peace with itself if only its mega ultra superpower on earth has the sense from the very beginning to keep its fingers and hands to itself and decidedly be less amorous all around.

    But no, after wiping out the natives and rolling up the mexicans, it forced open the east, moved violently and bloodily into hawaii, china and philippines and then came ww1 & ww2 which really opened up a whole big new can of worms.

    After tasting and smelling the worms’ delicious aroma, the whole world is now its oyster and predictably, there’re crises, wars and conflicts and unrests everywhere.

    But this current period is no longer the period of the past. Today, the can of worms has turned nuclear. So, today, we have radioactive-capable worms all over the place and the Uber power on earth is unable to resist the urge to begin feasting on radioactive spewing worms. Nice move !

  4. Jim Higgins

    November 5, 2022 at 6:05 pm

    Launch a crushing nuclear First Strike on the DPRK while we still can before Fat Albert (Kim, not Michael Moore) learns how to develop fusion weapons. If we wait on “diplomacy” it will kill us.

  5. Arash P

    November 5, 2022 at 6:17 pm

    US is so scared of North Korea nukes because of all the nuclear states, North Korea is the only one US has bombed in the past!

    US cowardly bombed North Korean cities and killed millions of civilians when North Korea couldn’t fight back. Now that they can fight back, US is waging a cowardly economic siege warfare on North Korea to starve millions of their civilians to death.
    Same strategy, different tactics. That is targeting civilians to achieve a military and political objective.

    North Korea should respond to US economic warfare by openly selling nukes to the world, Mexico and Cuba first!

  6. pagar

    November 5, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    The totally uncivilized violence seen in Peking in 1900 and onwards should have been a wake-up call for everybody and anybody who had had an iota of human decency in him (wanton killings, pillage, looting and rape were seen the extent of which even shocked the Japanese !) but no, people were only lining up or paving the way for the great war of 1914.

    While there was no way to prevent 1914, America should have had scrupulously stayed out of it. But it didn’t.

    As a result, the world became highly unraveled & chaotic and Britain saw American as a future potential rival and it therefore cosied up to to japan, energetically helping it to modernize its navy and naval air fleet, in particular during the defining 1921 sempill mission.

    Result, with America also providing petroleum, steel and even modern aircraft like the dc-3 to japan, WW2 became inevitable.

    Today, the current global situation is really the handiwork of America, the true architect or the chief designer of the morass or quagmire enveloping the world.

    This massive morass or swamp now troubling the world almost surely requires the use of nuclear pumps or nuclear equipment to drain it away.

    Everybody now must be equipped with nuclear pumps today.thanks to America.

  7. TrustbutVerify

    November 6, 2022 at 11:17 am

    Want to hear how terrible this could go. Park the Fleet off Korea, bomb their nuclear facilities. Launch F-35s with AMRAAM-ERs to hit missiles in boost phase, if fired, backed up by SM-6 missiles from the fleet. Then tell them if they don’t give up on nukes, the next stage is a nuclear sanction…as in, we will nuke all of your facilities that could possibly enable a nuke using B-61 warheads as appropriate.

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