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North Korea Discloses “New” Nuclear Capabilities: Should We Be Worried?

Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: North Korea State Media.
Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: North Korea State Media.

What Is North Korea Planning? As part of a significant speech Kim Jong-un gave on the last day of 2022, he made several key disclosures. Kim stated that his nation would develop a new ICBM and “exponentially” increase its nuclear capability. In the same speech, he also stated that North Korea’s nuclear weapons could now be used for offensive operations. 

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In September of 2022, North Korea initiated a law that allowed for preemptive nuclear weapons use – though Pyongyang’s government is hardly guided by rule of law as practiced by most nation-states. Of interest, Kim also referred to North Korea’s “tactical” use of nuclear weapons, citing his goal of the North having a “quick counterstrike capability,” and designating a new goal to mass produce tactical nuclear weapons. Kim has also stated that the often (over the past three years) and recently tested 600 MM multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) in Pyongyang’s arsenal can hit anywhere in South Korea – a close-to-accurate statement – and can be equipped with tactical nuclear capabilities. Also of importance, Kim stated that “30 units” (likely meaning batteries) of the 600 MM MRLs will be deployed – presumably close to the DMZ and pointed at key nodes in South Korea.

Analysts Discuss Kim’s Statements

The announcements made by Kim, as carried by KCNA, caused some debate among analysts. What exactly does “tactical” nuclear capability mean to the North Koreans? Apparently, this means nuclear weapons that would be used on-peninsula. Strategic nuclear weapons would of course likely be weapons that could be used to target places like Japan (such as the No Dong) or the United States (such as the Hwasong-15). 

This is rather unusual because, in the past North Korea has mostly talked about using its “nuclear deterrent” against the United States or one of our key allies in East Asia, such as Japan. This has been the focus of most of the propaganda that North Korea has put out, though it appears that Kim Jong-un has now decided to change the focus of how he wants the world to perceive his nuclear capability. It now seems that Kim has told his military and his scientists that he wants to project a two-headed threat – the on-peninsula threat – which the North Koreans call “tactical” – and the strategic threat as seen in the nuclear capable Hwasong-15 tests and the nuclear tests that we have seen to date.

Proclaiming a Threat

The North Korean proclamation of the 600 MM system as a nuclear threat is curious. The reasons for this are more technical than political. Over the past four years the North Koreans have tested a variety of missile systems, not the least of which is the extremely accurate and evasive Iskander missile look-alike that North Korea seems to have conducted several successful test launches (it is likely the North Koreans got this system from the Russians). The Iskandar is an SRBM that has been used successfully in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan war. This would seem to be a better candidate (among several other systems) for a “tactical” nuclear weapon, and it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.  

The 600 MM MRL’s are a system that would more typically be used to target such things as aviation flight lines, troop concentrations, weapons depots, military headquarters etc.  Thus, it is curious that Kim has designated this system as Pyongyang’s “tactical” counter-strike capability. The other issue is the miniaturization of the warhead. It is not clear that North Korea has developed (or been given) the technology to have a nuclear warhead small enough to put on a rocket fired from a long-range MRL system such as the one that Kim described. What is clear – and a threat right now – is that 30 additional batteries of 600 MM systems would exponentially change the kind of threat that North Korea could project in wartime against South Korean and U.S. troops and key military facilities (particularly Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base) throughout the peninsula – even if only used as a conventional weapons system.

New and Unknown Armaments

The other aspect of the threat that Kim Jong-un projected in his speech was the development of a “new” ICBM that would give North Korea a “quick counter-strike” capability. Kim did not further expound on what this “new” ICBM for 2023 would be. Some analysts have stated that it could be a solid-fuel ICBM that could be fueled and fired faster than the liquid-fueled ICBMs that North Korea has test-launched to date. 

Of course, if North Korea was able to covertly fuel a liquid-powered ICBM, a solid-fuel system would not add significantly to the nuclear threat against the United States. North Korea may have been referring to the Hwasong-17 (also liquid-fueled), though thus far, its flight tests have yielded mixed results at best. If in fact Kim Jong-un was referring to a solid-fuel ICBM, then a test launch in 2023 would be extremely fast progress. North Korea only very recently did an engine test of a solid-fuel engine that many project could potentially be used in an ICBM. Nevertheless, if this is what Kim was referring to, it will be an addition to the threat that is quite troubling.

North Korea Presents Two-Headed Nuclear Threat

The biggest question that all of this raises is how does this change the threat? At the very least, it shows that Pyongyang has now chosen to focus on a two-headed nuclear threat to the ROK-U.S. alliance. Using nuclear weapons on-peninsula is not a new concept for North Korea, but it is a concept that has not been focused on as much as the threat Pyongyang has repeatedly shown that it wants to project against the United States, and to a lesser extent, Japan. The use of accurate, evasive systems, whether they are new SRBMs or MRLs, significantly changes the status quo, even if these systems are only using conventional munitions. But if North Korea’s bluster about at least one of these systems being nuclear capable (the 600 MM MRL’s) is true, this is a paradigm shift and a game changer. We should keep in mind that the North Koreans would be very unlikely to have this capability unless it has been proliferated to them by either the Russians or the Chinese.

It will thus be important that the United States makes it very clear to North Korea that any use of “tactical” nuclear weapons will be considered to be exactly the same as the use of “strategic” nuclear weapons, and will be responded to the same way. In addition, the U.S. and the UN need to step up the pressure campaign on North Korea’s illicit and illegal financial networks that support its development of WMD and related capabilities.  

These networks launder the dirty money that North Korea earns from proliferation, cyber theft, and other illegal activities that violate international law and disrupt banking systems all over the world. Putting pressure on these illegal financial networks will disrupt and contain North Korea’s ability to threaten its neighbor in the South and the United States.

Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr. (Ph.D. Union Institute), is an award-winning professor of political science at Angelo State University and a retired Marine. The author of five books on North Korea, he is also the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies. He specializes in North Korean military and counter-proliferation issues. Bechtol is a 19FortyFive contributing editor.

Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr. (Ph.D. Union Institute), is an award-winning professor of political science at Angelo State University and a retired Marine. He was formerly on the faculty at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College (2005–2010) and the Air Command and Staff College (2003–2005).