It has been a couple of very busy months for North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. One nuclear test in January and a series of missile tests in February, March and April this year have made it impressively clear that Pyongyang was in the business of seeking to become as threatening as possible in the run-up to the Workers’ Party Convention on May 6.
Those few remaining policymakers and scholars who thought that Pyongyang could still be convinced to negotiate its missile and nuclear program away - either through sanctions or economic incentives – must by now have realized that it has no intention whatsoever to do so. Indeed, Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January confirmed unambiguously that North Korea wants to remain in the ‘nuclear club’ on a come-what-may basis. Worse, the test in January (Pyongyang’s fourth after 2006, 2009 and 2012) was – at least according to the North Korean official propaganda – one of a more powerful hydrogen bomb. Explosions of hydrogen-bombs use fusion, i.e. the merging of atoms to unleash massive amounts of energy, whereas conventional atomic bombs use nuclear fission, i.e. the splitting of atoms. To be sure, many experts at the time had their doubts whether it was really was a hydrogen bomb, given the size of the registered explosion.
In February Pyongyang got again got down to work with its missile program, launching a rocket that is be-lieved to be part of the regime’s program to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies. That test was followed by yet another test in March when Pyongyang launched a missile with a solid-fuel rocket engine. Using solid-fuel reduces the amount of launch preparation time, increases the mobility of missiles, and makes rockets more reliable than conventional liquid-fuelled missiles. The test was believed to be part of the above-mentioned development of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology, but experts caution that such a North Korean ICBM is very unlikely to become operational before 2030.
With the help of Iran, Syria and Pakistan, Pyongyang has continuously improved its missile technologies and has over recent years invested enormous resources into increasing the number and quality of its short, medium and intermediate-range missiles. According to (sometimes not always 100% reliable) estimates, Pyongyang has deployed up to 400 Scud short-range missiles (with a range of 500 kilometres), between 175 and 300 No-dong (also known as Rodong) medium-range missiles (with a range of 1,200 kilometres), an unknown number of Taepodong-1 missiles (with a range of between 1,800 and 2,000 kilometres), an unknown number of Musudan intermediate-range missiles (with an estimated range of estimated 4,000 kilometres), and finally an unknown number of Taepodong-2/Unha SLV long-range missiles (with a range up to 8,000 kilometres). The Taepodong-2/Unha SLV long-range ICBM was tested successfully twice in March.
As regards Pyongyang’s nuclear program the million-dollar question still is whether or whether not Pyongyang is already able to mount a nuclear warhead onto a missile. Mounting a nuclear warhead atop a missile requires very complex miniaturization technology to allow the warhead to survive the journey to the target. In 2014, the South Korean government warned that Pyongyang might indeed already have mastered that technology, an assessment that Joel Wit and Sun Young Ahn of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS confirmed in February 2015.
North Korea, the two scholars argued, is able to fit a nuclear weapon onto a Nodong medium-range missile or Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile. Witt and Ahn further estimate that Pyongyang possesses between 16 and 20 nuclear bombs: 6-8 made of plutonium and 4-8 made of highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Their worst-case scenario is that North Korea could have up to 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
Currently, it is believed and feared that Pyongyang is feverishly working on mastering what is referred to as ‘re-entry technology’, i.e. the technology and capabilities needed for a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile to survive crashing through the earth’s atmosphere toward its target. Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang claims to have mastered the re-entry technology, whereas international experts are not so sure about that. Furthermore, North Korea is – at least for now – lacking so-called ‘assured retaliation capability’, i.e. Pyongyang is yet unable to actually do anything with its nuclear weapons. And if it did, the recently (November 2015) adopted joint U.S.-South Korean contingency plan to strike North Korea pre-emptively at the earliest signs of nuclear or missile attack would kick in.
Finally, while North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un reportedly tried (but failed) to obtain modern sur-face-to-air missiles from Russia, South Korea has become more and more interested in deploying the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) sys-tem to defend itself better against North Korean short and medium-range missiles.
Axel Berkofsky, Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at ISPI