Gwynne Dyer: The reality of North Korea's nuclear weapon program

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      Early this month North Korea claimed to have launched a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine. Yesterday (May 20) it announced that it can now make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a missile.

      If both those claims are true, then it can now deliver a nuclear weapon on the United States, at least in theory, but there is always some doubt about North Korean claims.

      While a defence official in Pyongyang said on Wednesday that the country’s nuclear programme has “long been in the full-fledged stage of miniaturization,” some Western defence experts think the North Koreans have not really mastered the art yet.

      But General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the senior U.S. military commander in South Korea, thinks otherwise.

      “I believe [the North Koreans] have the capability to have miniaturized the device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have,” Scaparrotti said last October. But to be sure that the miniaturized weapon actually works on a ballistic missile, North Korea would have to test-fire it to see if it survives the heat and vibration of re-entering the atmosphere in working order. It has not yet done that.

      Others think that the footage of the submarine launch may have been faked. The missile emerges from the sea, sure enough, with the Maximum Leader looking proudly on, but Kim Jong-un was obviously Photoshopped in, and in one shot there seems to be a barge floating on the surface near the missile’s exit point.

      However, let us assume for a moment that both claims are true—because they will be sooner or later.

      What does North Korea intend to do with its nuclear weapons? And why is it trying so urgently to persuade its enemies that they are ready to use now?

      The rational and conventional answer to the first question is that Pyongyang’s nukes are solely intended to deter the United States from using nuclear weapons on North Korea. The United States has long-standing military alliances with both South Korea and Japan, and it has never said that it would abstain from using nuclear weapons if there were a war between North Korea and its neighbours.

      In this rational world, having enough nuclear weapons to deter the United States from going nuclear would give North Korea a major advantage in the event of a ground war in the Korean peninsula. Its army is much bigger than the South Korean and U.S. ground forces facing it, and it might even manage to overrun South Korea in a non-nuclear war. Or at least, it may believe it could.

      How many North Korean nuclear weapons would be enough to deter the United States from using its own nukes, in this context? A dozen would probably do it, and Prof. Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, thinks that North Korea probably now has that many, “half likely fuelled by plutonium and half by highly enriched uranium.”

      But rationality has not been the outstanding feature of politics in North Korea recently. In the past three years Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has purged most of the men who worked closely with his father, Kim Jong-il, and many have been executed. Whole families have been murdered, including some with links by blood or marriage to Kim’s own.

      The crimes imputed to the victims and the methods of killing also grow increasingly bizarre. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported recently that North Korea’s defence minister, General Hyon Yong Chol, was executed last month for falling asleep during a meeting where Kim Jong-un was present.

      Again according to the NIS, the weapon used to execute General Hyon was a ZSU23-4, a Russian-made tracked anti-aircraft vehicle. It mounts four linked autocannons that fire 23 mm shells at the rate of 3,400 rounds per minute. If that report is true, it would have been hard to find enough of Hyon to bury.

      The impression this all creates of political chaos and utter uncertainty in the North Korean capital may be misleading. The old Soviet regime was never more monolithically stable than at the height of Stalin’s purges in 1936-38. But at the moment Kim’s regime certainly looks unstable when viewed from the outside. There are no safe assumptions, including assumptions about the rationality of the leadership.

      So we cannot just assume that North Korea’s nukes are purely defensive, or that Kim Jong-un, after 28 years of living in a gilded cage and three and a half years of absolute power, has been adequately instructed in the theories of nuclear deterrence that have become orthodox in older nuclear-weapons states. Nor is anybody in the North Korean military hierarchy going to try to instruct him now, if he is ignorant in such matters.

      The simple truth is that the rest of the world doesn’t know what is happening in North Korea at the moment. The mystery has deepened with the abrupt last-minute cancellation of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s scheduled visit to North Korea.

      We’ll have to wait to find out what’s really going on—but meantime military forces all over north-eastern Asia are undoubtedly on high alert.



      I Chandler

      May 21, 2015 at 12:15pm

      Dyer:"But rationality has not been the outstanding feature of politics in North Korea recently. "

      The same could be said for some other nations. The story of boys who cried wolf:

      Dyer: "So we cannot assume that Kim, has been adequately instructed in the theories of nuclear deterrence that have become orthodox in older nuclear-weapons states. "

      The same could be said for other leaders. Patrick Buchanan asked what would Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon or Reagan think of an American president willing to risk a nuclear conflict with Russia over Ukraine:
      " We would face, first, the near certainty of defeat for our allies, if not ourselves. Second, we would push Moscow further outside Europe and the West, leaving her with no alternative but to deepen ties to a rising China."

      Dyer: "The US has never said that it would abstain from using nuclear weapons if there were a war between North Korea and its neighbours."

      The U.S. doctrine for the first use of nuclear weapons is revised often... it's hard to keep up...
      China,India,USSR declared no first use of nuclear weapons...but in 2000, a Russian military doctrine stated that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons "in response to a large-scale conventional aggression"

      British defence secretary stated: " the UK was prepared to use nuclear weapons against 'rogue states' such as Iraq if they ever used WMDs against British troops. "

      Dyer: "What does North Korea intend to do with its nuclear weapons?"

      Eric Margolis: "Iraq and Libya would not have been invaded (Syria may be next on hit list. ) if they had nukes. Kim dynasty’s days would be numbered without its nuclear arsenal...
      Pyongyang’s nukes have always had the role of warding off a US-South Korean invasion – an operation that the two allies practice every fall, producing violent tantrums from Pyongyang."

      Dyer: "The methods of killing grow increasingly bizarre... hard to find enough of Hyon to bury."

      A barrel bomb or Hellfire missile might have done a better job...Dyer forgot Kim's uncle: "killed and eaten by wild dogs, according to a lurid fable spread by South Korean intelligences.So many wild stories spread about the North it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. "


      May 21, 2015 at 1:30pm

      Now this is a juicy topic: fear of an "unstable" nuclear armed N. Korea. Gee, are a nuclear armed states of Israel or Pakistan considered safe and stable? What about the chauvinistic, highly belligerent and militaristic Americans who are the first and only state to use nuclear weapons on civilians?
      Just for the historically challenged ,we should be aware that American militarists have a strong penchant for waging war by saturation bombing of countries,civilians and all. They have systematically leveled Germany,Japan, N. Korea and Vietnam in past wars. Supposedly, now they are more selective on who and what they bomb but if you get them real mad they are liable to obliterate you. So if you are wondering why N.Korea or perhaps Iran might want a nuclear deterrent it is because they have drawn some important conclusions from history. It's probably a safe bet you won't be attack by the US if you can retaliate with nuclear weapons. Americans will only attack you from the air, not by "good ole American boys" on the ground,and unless it's going to be a "turkey shoot" for them. QED


      May 22, 2015 at 3:25am

      This is a good, sober piece. We have been living in "nuclear deterrence" world so long, we think it's inevitable. But, these things can break down.

      We've also been living in divided Korea world for a while. Who knows to what extent Pyongyang still plan on full victory.

      Pyongyang will probably have to go the deterrence route to an extent. If they go for a surprise nuclear attack, the US will respond and all nuclear power is not equal.

      What happens differently if Seoul gets shelled in 2020 compared to what would have happened in 2010? We have never seen a nuclear power loose, or come close to it.

      It's dangerous.

      Just like Einstein said..

      May 22, 2015 at 10:22am

      "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones"

      And it's just a matter of time people...


      May 22, 2015 at 12:03pm


      There aren't too many things the UK, France, Russian Federation, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and the US (which hasn't used nuclear weapons in anger in 70 years btw) have in common.

      One thing they certainly do have in common is that they're all less crazy, more stable, more predictable, and more receptive to dialogue than North Korea.

      It isn't hard.


      May 22, 2015 at 3:45pm

      McRetso: you should know me by now; if I can get a dig at US or Israel I will go for it. There is nothing these states do but cause trouble and bomb people.
      Ever heard of:" All options are on the table"or "We'll bomb you back to the stoneage"? Contrary to other Nuclear powers the US has never renounced first use of strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons are in their war plans. Russia very much fears a pre-emptive nuclear attack in conjunction to the US 's insistance of an anti-ballistic missile system near Russia's boarderlands. This is a first strike capability which the Russians must counter with increased nuclear deterrance. The Americans are upgrading their nuclear arsenal. Why? Try nuclear blackmail or a game of nuclear "chicken"
      You might be convinced that states are "rational, self interested" actors amenable to predictable behavior but I don't. History shows that states act irrationally and against their long term interests. They miscalculate and make mistakes so you shouldn't count on them not using nuclear weapons. It's going to happen some day. In fact there is speculation that Israel has used mini-neutron bombs in the 1 kiloton range in Syria and Yemen [under Saudi colors] recently!


      May 23, 2015 at 2:14am

      North Korea isn't a state, it's a brutal personality cult. It doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. It's nuclear weapons program is not about simple deterrence, artillery trained on Seoul is all they've ever need for that, instead it's a lever it uses to get just enough food aid to keep the whole edifice from crumbling. It's not to prevent a first strike against them, but to protect them from retaliation when they act out.


      May 25, 2015 at 2:39am

      @macauley: I'm not sure that's true, the "all they need" part. Countries can take a beating before collapsing.

      We're good at that as a species. N. Korea can certainly hurt the south bad by shelling and rocketing Seoul with their (mostly) mid 20th century hardware. 10,000 artillery batteries is a lot of firepower if you can get within range of a capital, and they are in range. A rocket is a rocket and for this purpose a million dollar high tech rocket is not much better than a cheap grad rocket, certainly not better than a hundred of them.

      But, South Korea and their US ally are far more technologically advanced, most notably in their naval and air power. It's all speculation of course, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that if prepared, they could reduce North Koreas aging arsenal to a scattering within a few days of all out war by air attacking artillery units, ammunition supply lines etc. A WWII type of war is something that modern armies are extremely prepared for.

      Nuclear capability is a game changer from any perspective. Offensive, defensive or diplomatic.


      May 25, 2015 at 7:10am


      I see you haven't learned the difference between rhetoric and action. US officials might talk about bombing people into the stone age, and Putin and Kiselyev might talk about reducing the US to "radioactive ash", but neither country has taken practical steps to use nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. Even during the Cold War, every time the "nuclear option" became a serious possibility, both sides backed down.

      Israel has for that matter had a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East since the 1960's. No Arab country could retaliate against an Israeli nuclear strike, and yet it hasn't used them.

      I'm not sure if you've been paying attention to US and Russian nuclear forces, but there are doubts that either country is even ready to wage nuclear war.

      You would be correct in saying that states often act irrationally, but in the area of nuclear weapons, they seem about as rational as one could reasonably expect.

      North Korea hasn't nuked anyone either, but compared to those other countries I mentioned, North Korea is much less transparent or approachable.

      Chet Vogel

      Jun 9, 2015 at 10:19am

      Considering we are at a state of war with North Korea, I see only two rationale reasons for not taking them out:

      1. The Chinese, who gave them nuclear weapons, used this as leverage to justify the takeover of Taiwan if we eliminated these weapons. It appears the U.S. came out on the short end of the stick when a much more powerful China much more strongly expresses its hate for Japan and need perhaps to be the only major power in the South China Sea area.

      2. The U.S. military-industrial complex gets more money. The North Korean buildup results in massive sales of antimissile defense systems to Japan and South Korea. The U.S. used similar logic to sell antimissile defense systems to Poland to a non-existent Iranian threat. The effectiveness of some of these systems is also non-existent.

      The flawed F-35 fighter project is another example of massive military-industrial complex wasted spending. Such technological development might lead to three potentially fatal problems: (1) the Chinese seem to be able to steal our technology almost as fast as we develop them plus improve on them; (2) China’s growing economy and industrial capabilities likely will enable them to build many more advanced weapons systems than we can; and (3) the U.S. may need to by parts or materials such as heavy metals from China to build F-35 fighters and similar weapon or some other high technology systems. The F-35 also stops production and use of much cheaper and more effective existing fighters such as the A-10 Warthog which would be much more effective fighting ISIS.