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North Korea Has Nukes and Missiles — But Does That Mean It Has Nuclear Missiles?

Just how much the West should worry about North Korea's nuclear program depends as much on what we know as on what we assume.

by Ryan Faith
Oct 27 2014, 8:40pm

Photo by David Guttenfelder/AP

Last Friday, General Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander of US Forces Korea, was at the Pentagon holding a little press press briefing. He spoke about security issues facing the US and South Korea these days, and went over what the two countries' main defense priorities will be in the coming months and years. Then he took questions.

A few of those questions were about the North Korean nuclear program. That back and forth has now mutated and grown, blossoming into breathless near-assertions that we may possibly be facing an imminent-ish nuclear terror. But before anyone gets their WMD talking points dusted off, let's back up.

North Korea has nukes. That we know.

North Korea also has a space launch vehicle and ballistic missile program. That we also know.

So the question is: Do nukes + missiles = nuclear missiles?

That we do not know.

North Korea has tested (or at least tried to test) nukes three times now, with varying degrees of success. The first test is suspected to have been a dud. The second and third tests had yields of 4 kilotons and 7 kilotons respectively. By comparison, Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons, which today is considered by major powers to be a smallish tactical nuclear weapon.

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Some in the West cited the low yields as evidence that North Korea is bad at nuclear weapons. The North Koreans, on the other hand, said the low yields were the result of shrinking their nukes to make them more transportable. Outside observers don't know if North Korea has managed to level up in Nuke Building and unlock the Miniaturize Nukes ability.

Basic nukes tend to be on the husky side. Because of their size, the entry-level nuke delivery system for most countries has been a bomb rather than a missile. However, nobody — including, most likely, the North Koreans themselves — expect the North Korean Air Force to be able to carry out long-distance bombing attacks by penetrating South Korean and US air defenses. Thus the big focus has been on whether North Korea can get nukes on missiles, since those are considerably harder to stop than a jet.

The current state of the North Korean missile program is almost as tentative as their nuclear program. North Korea has apparently gotten the knack for short- and medium-range missiles. But when it comes to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and space launches, North Korea hasn't exactly been hitting it out of the park. And if they're not reliably producing effective ICBMs, then some doubt is cast on whether they can make ICBMs to carry a big-ass nuke.

But even that is something of a moot point, because North Korea is a long ways off from having underground silos dotting the countryside. The current North Korean rockets capable of launching a nuclear weapon as far as the United States mainland are all above-ground, launch-pad-and-gantry affairs with lots of scaffolding and supporting equipment. US planners figure they can take those out with a quickness if things start looking ugly.

However, North Korea also, supposedly, has a road-mobile ICBM that's under development. The KN-08 is something that appeared in 2012 during North Korea's annual military parade. It has since put analysts into a tizzy.

The US has three main ways of getting strategic nuclear weapons to targets: on aircraft, on land-based missiles, or on submarine-launched missiles. Russia, China, and India add road-mobile missiles. These are essentially giant trucks, each carrying one missile, that drive around, regularly changing positions. These kinds of launchers are a big pain in the ass to find and neutralize, and they therefore vastly complicate nuclear strategy.

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But there's been no evidence that the vehicles put on parade in North Korea actually have working missiles. Observers note that the missiles shown in public may have been mockups, but just because those were mockups doesn't mean there aren't real ones somewhere. Are they mockups to inspire the locals and terrify the West? Or are they mockups intended to deceive, concealing important engineering details? Or maybe they really are mockups — engineering models for a system still in development.

Finally, as a dues-paying member of the Club of Nations That Irk Uncle Sam, it's not clear how much help North Korea is getting from their buddies in Iran and Pakistan, let alone Russia and China. If they're getting a great deal of assistance, then the situation starts looking more grim.

So, when you put it all together what do you get?

On one hand, North Korea may have been leveraging its limited success in ballistic missiles and space launches — and enlisting help from its friends — to get a road-mobile ICBM with miniaturized nuclear warheads up and running. On the other, that might be pure bunk coming from the unholy confluence of North Korea's professional strategic hucksters and the West's professionally paranoid intelligence community.

Here's what Scaparrotti said when asked about all this: "Personally, I think that they certainly have had the expertise [to miniaturize nuclear weapons] in the past. They've had the right connections, and so I believe have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have. We have not seen it tested."

This was followed by a couple rounds of back and forth with reporters trying to ask the same question a different way, and Scaparrotti trying to repeat himself using different words. In a nutshell, he was saying he doesn't really know if North Korea has put all the pieces together — but given his job description, he needs to plan for worst-case scenarios.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan