The New York Times
North Korea’s Arsenal has grown rapidly. Here is what it contains.
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea launched what it called a newly developed tactical guided missile on Thursday, violating international sanctions. It was the country’s first ballistic missile test in a year and its first provocation of the Biden administration, prompting President Joe Biden to warn that there will be “answers” if North Korea continues to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. A senior North Korean official, Ri Pyong Chol, responded defiantly on Saturday, warning that if the United States continues to make “thoughtless comments without thinking about the consequences, it may face something that is not good.” Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times. The United States has tried both sanctions and dialogue to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. None have worked. Instead, North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear program and modernized its missile fleet under Kim Jong Un, the country’s young leader. The expansion of the arsenal is a growing threat to the United States and its allies in the region. This is what it contains. There are nuclear warheads and more. North Korea’s ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads, and the country conducted six increasingly sophisticated underground nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017. The last four of them occurred under Kim’s direction. Its last and most powerful nuclear test was carried out in September 2017, when North Korea claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb. Estimates of the explosive power of the device ranged from 50 to 300 kilotons. At just 100 kilotons, the test would be six times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. North Korea extracted plutonium, an atomic bomb fuel, from its Soviet-designed nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. It also operates centrifuges to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium, another bomb fuel. As of January 2020, North Korea had between 30 and 40 nuclear warheads and could produce enough fissile material for six to seven bombs a year, according to an estimate by the Arms Control Association. Although the world is concerned about the North’s nuclear weapons, the country has also stockpiled thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons agents that it can launch with its missiles. When Kim’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was killed in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, North Korea used the internationally banned VX nerve agent in the operation. Its missiles can fly longer distances. In 2017, North Korea made great strides in its weapons capabilities. That year, the country fired its intermediate-range ballistic missile, Hwasong-12, over Japan and threatened an “enveloping” attack around the US territory of Guam. It also tested the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, the country’s first ICBMs. At the end of the year, Kim claimed that his country had the ability to launch a nuclear attack against the continental United States. After 2017, Kim stopped testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but threatened to end his moratorium when talks with President Donald Trump collapsed in 2019. During a nightly military parade last October, North Korea showed a new untested ICBM that appeared larger than any of the previous ones. And at a party congress in January, Kim redoubled his accumulation of nuclear weapons, offering a long list of weapons that he said he planned to develop. They included “multi-warhead” nuclear missiles, “hypersonic” missiles, solid-fuel submarine-launched ICBMs and “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons.” It is not yet clear whether North Korea has mastered the technology necessary to send an intercontinental nuclear warhead into space and then guide it back through Earth’s atmosphere to its target. North Korea has yet to prove that its warhead can survive the intense heat and friction created by reentry. Their weapons are getting more sophisticated. When North Korea resumed missile testing in 2019 following the collapse of talks between Kim and Trump, the tests included three new weapons, codenamed KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25 by outside experts. Each of them marked breakthroughs in North Korea’s short-range ballistic missile program. Unlike their older missiles that used liquid fuel, the three new missiles used solid fuel. The new solid fuel weapons, mounted on mobile launchers, are easier to transport and hide and take less time to prepare. And at least two of them, KN-23 and KN-24, could perform low-altitude maneuvers, making interception difficult. At a military parade earlier this year, North Korea displayed what looked like a larger, improved version of the KN-23. Photos released by North Korean media indicate that it was the weapon tested on Thursday. The new missile was developed to be larger than KN-23 in order to carry a larger warhead and more fuel. Kim said in January that his country would also build a nuclear-powered submarine in order to acquire the means to deliver nuclear weapons to its adversaries more stealthily. North Korea has been testing its Pukguksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles since 2015. During military parades in October and earlier this year, North Korea displayed what looked like two upgraded versions of its Pukguksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Currently, the country only has one submarine that can launch a ballistic missile, but it says it is building a new one with greater capabilities. The arsenal ‘guarantees your success’. North Korea has one of the largest permanent armies in the world, with more than 1 million soldiers. But much of its equipment is old and outdated, and the military lacks fuel and parts. North Korea has tried to make up for its shortcomings by building nuclear weapons. Kim justifies the dynastic rule of North Korea by his family by saying that the nuclear arsenal his government has built was a “treasure sword” that kept North Koreans safe from foreign invasion. It tells its people that they are under constant threat of American attack. At the January party congress, Kim said his weapons program “never excludes diplomacy” but “guarantees its success.” He has also said that he no longer has expectations of dialogue unless Washington makes an offer that satisfies his government. This week’s test reflected Kim’s determination, analysts said. It showed that “North Korea is following through on the plans” laid out by Kim during the party meeting, said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “As it had said before, North Korea had no intention of acting first to offer a concession or make a proposal.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company