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Kim Jong-un Posed for Photos With What North Korea Claims Is a Nuclear Warhead

North Korea has published images of what is purportedly a miniaturized nuclear warhead, but it’s not clear whether the device is real or just a mockup.
Image via Rodong Sinmun

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

The latest edition of North Korea's newspaper of record, Rodong Sinmun, features a front-page photo of Kim Jong-un inspecting what is purportedly a miniaturized nuclear warhead, a development that would represent a leap forward in the Kim regime's nuclear capabilities after recent tests of a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile.


The North Koreans assert that the warhead, which resembles a metallic gray disco ball, is legit and proves that they have mastered the type of nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology that would allow them to attack the United States. In fact, the longer series of photos includes several images of the KN-08, a North Korean road-mobile ICBM that is supposedly capable of delivering a payload to the continental US. North Korea used a different type of ballistic missile to launch a satellite into orbit in February, but they are not known to have tested the KN-08.

"The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them," KCNA, North Korea's state media agency, quoted Kim as saying as he inspected the device, adding "this can be called a true nuclear deterrent."

Related: What Preparing for War Looks Like Inside North Korea

"He stressed the importance of building ever more powerful, precision and miniaturized nuclear weapons and their delivery means," KCNA said.

While the claims of a miniaturized warhead are impossible to verify with just images alone, there's nothing that makes it obvious that the device is a complete fake. Melissa Hanham, a nuclear weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said on Twitter shortly after the Rodong Sinmun images were published that the design seemed to be reasonably consistent with available diagrams of some kinds of nuclear weapons.


Full disclosure: I've never seen a photo, only diagrams, but this looks pretty accurate. — Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)March 9, 2016

Just eyeballing it, it seems too big for the nosecone. — Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)March 9, 2016

And another shot of the 'disco ball.' — Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)March 9, 2016

North Korean state media also published photos that appeared to show other components of a nuclear-equipped ICBM.

A closer look at the North Korean bomb display. 3 parts: heat shield, cylinder, sphere. — Joshua H. Pollack (@Joshua_Pollack)March 9, 2016

Left: schematic for implosion device. Right: new — Ankit Panda (@nktpnd)March 9, 2016

Assuming that the device is real or at least an engineering mockup, the bigger question is what kind of weapon it is. It's possible that the warhead could be a relatively lower-yield fission device, a boosted-fission device, or a full-on staged nuclear weapon.

A pure fission device is the type of bomb that the US dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. A boosted device is more complex but more efficient and can be made smaller. A full, staged thermonuclear weapon incorporates smaller devices and is prized for its ability to generate a gigantic blast capable of flattening an entire city. North Korea said it successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in January during its fourth nuclear test, but the claim has been met with skepticism from the international community.


Related: Yes, North Korea Probably Tested an H-Bomb — Just Not the Kind You're Thinking Of

Victor Cha, the top adviser on North Korea to former President George W. Bush and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News in a recent interview that even if Pyongyang doesn't have a hydrogen bomb or a nuclear warhead, the fact that they're expressing the desire to develop those weapons is cause for concern.

"My experience on this tells me that we should not simply discount what they say," Cha said. "What we should do is we should listen to what they say and see that as a real signal of where they want to go. And so for that reason I think we always tend to underestimate their capability."

The photo-op comes on the heels of strict new UN sanctions placed on North Korea, and amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula as the US conducts joint military drills with South Korea.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan