North Korea's "Miniaturized" Nukes Are Only as Good as Its Missiles

Intel says it probably has a functional warhead. But will it go anywhere?

Getty Images/ Chung Sun Jun

Building a nuclear weapon isn’t rocket science. The North Korean government managed to successfully enrich uranium years ago, and has even claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb in January. On Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials told CNN that they believed North Korea had managed to miniaturize one of its nuclear devices into a functional warhead. But warheads need rockets to deliver them, and, fortunately for the world, North Korea isn’t very good at rocket science.

On March 18, North Korea launched one, possibly two, medium-range Nodong (or Rodong, depending on translation) missiles into the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea in Korea). The Nodong variants are its third-largest missiles, capable of flying about 800 miles. The Nodong is essentially a scaled-up Soviet SCUD missile, which North Korea has had since the late 70’s. It has bigger missiles, like the Taepodong-1 and Taepodong-2, but are pretty terrible at actually using them. In 2012, North Korea tried its hand at launching a long range Taepodong, and failed pitifully. It’s since launched a Taepodong successfully, ostensibly as part of a satellite program which has mostly resulted in a useless chunk of metal floating around in the upper atmosphere. The Taepodongs allegedly have a range of almost 5,000 miles, which means they could potentially threaten parts of Alaska and Canada, not to mention most of Russia, China, and Oceania, but the North Koreans have never gotten one to fly that far.

The South Koreans occasionally fish bits of N.K.'s missiles out of the ocean and prod around at them.

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The only clear danger a functional warhead presents is a close-quarters strike against South Korea. Most of the time, North Korea’s nuclear program does the country more harm than good, but its short range rockets are definitely capable of striking the South Korean capital of Seoul. According to CNN, U.S. Commanders are operating under the assumption that the North Koreans have a functional warhead, but haven’t yet given a definite opinion on its existence.

“It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that he has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM,” Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, recently told Congress.

CNN reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently been photographed standing next to a miniaturized nuclear device, as well as a new solid-fuel rocket engine for its KN-08 missile, a Nodong variant that U.S. officials say could conceivably reach the West Coast of the U.S., although it’s still in development and hasn’t been tested. So even though the country is clearly marching toward a credible nuclear threat, it has yet to demonstrate a feasible plan of extending that threat further than its immediate surroundings.

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