“The United States and its Asian allies regard North Korea as a grave security threat,” the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) stated bluntly in the first sentence of a lengthy look at Pyongyang’s military capabilities updated in November.
Perhaps the most troubling statement in the CFR report is this: “North Korea could have more than sixty nuclear weapons, according to analysts’ estimates, and has successfully tested missiles that could strike the United States with a nuclear warhead.”
The missile were “newly developed new-type tactical guided projectiles” capable of carrying a 2.5-ton warhead and traveled 600 kilometers (372 miles), state news agency KCNA said.
Following the test, Ri Pyong Chol, North Korean chief of weapons development, said that the development of this weapon system “is of great significance in bolstering up the military power of the country and deterring all sorts of military threats existing on the Korean Peninsula.”
That would seem to indicate these specific weapons do not put any US territory in danger.
But Japan, America’s most important ally in the Pacific and home to numerous US military bases housing tens of thousands of US personnel, was alarmed.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the twin launches, which were fired in Japan’s direction, “a threat to the peace and security” of his country.
“Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States,” Wright said in a statement at the time, though he noted that range probably wouldn’t be possible if the missile was fitted with a heavy nuclear warhead.
North Korea’s biggest missile
Last October, North Korea displayed its biggest missile yet — an updated version of the Hwasong-15 that rumbled through the streets of Pyongyang on an 11-axle mobile launch platform during a military parade.
Speaking after the event, Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington DC-based Center for the National Interest, said the missile appeared to be a new liquid-fueled ICBM that “is much bigger and clearly more powerful than anything” in North Korea’s arsenal.
The CFR report notes, however, that as the massive missile displayed at the parade had not yet been tested, its real capabilities remain unknown.
“Analysts said it could potentially carry multiple nuclear warheads or decoys to confuse missile defense systems,” the report said.
North Korea has successfully tested nuclear bombs on six occasions, in 2006, 2009, 2013, twice in 2016 and in 2017, according to the CFR report.
“With each test, North Korea’s nuclear explosions have grown in power,” the CFR said.
According to a study by University of California Santa Cruz seismologists, the 2017 test was by far the largest, estimated to have a yield of 250 kilotons of TNT. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 16 kilotons.
Experts deliver some caution here too. Despite detonating the bombs successfully, North Korea has yet to demonstrate it can mount them effectively on a ballistic missile.
Ballistic missiles are powered only through the initial stages of their flight, reaching a zenith at some point and then falling from gravity onto their targets.
Longer-range ballistic missiles leave the Earth’s atmosphere after launch. To hit their targets, the warheads on those missiles must survive the heat generated when they reenter the atmosphere, just as a manned spacecraft must do when returning from orbit.
But with the advances North Korea has made — especially under Kim’s missile modernization program — it’s likely Pyongyang will make good on the technology at some point, experts say.
“We’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” Jeffrey Lewis, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said in the CFR report.
North Korea is building more and more missiles, both nuclear-capable and conventional.
A 2020 white paper from South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Pyongyang has 13 missile brigades. At October’s military parade, nine missiles were unveiled, including the massive ICBM and a submarine-launch ballistic missile, according to the document.
“North Korea is expected to continue to upgrade its nuclear and missile capabilities in the name of strengthening its self-defense capabilities and mobilize all of its manpower and resources with the aim of improving residents’ lives by 2022 when it marks the 110th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday,” the white paper said, referring to North Korea’s founder.
While much attention goes to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, its conventional armaments should not be underestimated.
Pyongyang’s army has developed new multiple-rocket launchers that can hit anywhere in South Korea, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said, potentially putting the country’s entire population of more than 50 million people in danger.
Additionally, almost 30,000 US troops are based in South Korea on US military installations that dot the country.
North Korean special operations units could threaten any of those bases, along with South Korean infrastructure and industry, with a combination of commandos, small planes, helicopters and boats, the South Korean white paper said.
Overwhelming numbers in terms of manpower also favor North Korea.
The South Korean Defense Ministry puts Pyongyang’s army at 1.28 million people compared to Seoul’s 550,000.
North Korea’s ground forces can also call on 4,300 tanks, 2,600 armored vehicles and 8,800 artillery pieces, the South estimates.
The North’s navy has 430 combat ships and 70 submarines. And its air force has 810 combat aircraft.
When it comes to conventional arms, the North’s are older and less advanced than those available to South Korea and US forces on the Korean Peninsula. But North Korea’s firepower could be brought to bear quickly on Seoul because the South Korean capital is only about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the 38th parallel that divides the Korean Peninsula.
However, regardless of whether Pyongyang ever makes good on its threats, the CFR says the potential for attack can’t be ignored.