(Editor’s Note; We encourage our readers to send us pieces to be considered for publication. This comes from Cris Gettel, a veteran of both the regular Army and National Guard. He is a graduate student currently, studying international relations in the Washington DC area)

On October 9th, 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon.  With a yield of less than one kiloton, it was about 1/15th the size of the early atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  However, since then North Korea has gone on to detonate five more nuclear weapons in underground testing facilities, with the most recent in September 2017.  North Korea has steadily increased its yield and the size of its arsenal, with modern estimates listing the 2017 detonation at 50 kilotons and its arsenal between 30 and 40 similarly sized warheads, with the capacity to construct roughly seven more a year.

Despite its progress in producing warheads, North Korea has no confirmed delivery systems.  This is likely due to North Koreas inability to miniaturize the warheads in order to fit them into the nosecones of its ballistic missiles.  North Korea has developed the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of 8,000 miles, enough to reach the mainland United States.  The accuracy and reliability of this missile are unknown, but this is a major step in North Korea’s nuclear program.  Since a nuclear warhead cannot be attached to this missile, North Korea cannot launch nuclear weapons.


Azimuthal equidistant projection of estimated maximum range of some North Korean missiles based on data from http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/26F5/production/_88837990_north_korea_missile_ranges2_map624new.png .

Although still not yet capable of accomplishing this feat, North Korea can still use unconventional weapons in a very unconventional way.  Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is just 35 miles from North Korea.  It is not unthinkable to conceive that a North Korean invasion could come close to capturing the city if war should break out.  A possible nuclear weapon transported by a truck inside or nearby Seoul could strengthen North Korea’s bargaining position, as no realistic war game scenario has North Korea winning a war against South Korea and its allies.  Nuclear weapons could also be detonated by North Korea along the DMZ to prevent counterattacks into the north.  While speculation, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons and North Korea, is often incorrect, it is important to think about ways that these weapons can be used in an environment as complex and opaque as that on the Korean peninsula.

With heavy sanctions in place, the Hermit Kingdom has shown that it can live with its nickname.  While outright war is unlikely, continuing hostilities are.  This creates an atmosphere ripe for miscalculation, similar to Russia and Ukraine.  An inaccurate missile launch, with or without a nuclear warhead, can accidentally hit South Korea, Japan, Guam, or any other area that America has a significant interest in.  Kim Jong Un has had multiple unexplained absences in the years past, with speculation about his health and grip on power questioned each time.  With no apparent heir, the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is not clear.  The next leader could be more or less hostile.

Trying to predict the future of international security is difficult and sometimes foolish, especially when it comes to North Korea.  However, with little information escaping from the communist dictatorship, it is all that there is.  With the absence of intelligence, theorizing is all that’s left and with any issue dealing with North Korea, is our best shot at formulating policy.