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North Korean nukes: rhetorical posturing or genuine threat?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s progress in developing nuclear weapons has been slow but steadily progressive. Since the mid-20th Century, North Korea has inched closer and closer to targeting the United States.

Photo by KCNA.

North Korea attempted a failed missile launch in the early hours of April 15, 2016.  The missile, speculated as being a BM-25 “Musudan” intermediate range ballistic missile, never posed a threat to the United States.  There is no indication that this missile contained nuclear materials, yet it still increased tensions among world powers.  An unnamed U.S. State Department official said, “[W]e call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations.”

Today, North Korea maintains four million tons of useable, high-quality nuclear materials in its uranium mines.

North Korea, which is officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”), has been furthering a nuclear development program since the 1950s.  The DPRK defends the program as necessary to protect itself from the threat of military aggression from South Korea, Japan, Europe, Australia, and the United States.  While the North insists it is interested in economic reform, it continuously argues a need to guard against a perceived security threat from the nations with which it may cooperate.  However, there is a long track record illustrating the benign intentions of countries that have engaged with the North, widely discrediting the legitimacy of its concerns.

North Korea’s nuclear program was birthed in the early 1960s with its “all-fortressization” policy.  This marked the start of the hyper-militarization that the DPRK maintains today.  During the mid-1960s, the former Soviet Union helped North Korea establish a sizeable atomic energy research complex in Yongbyon, a small town approximately 55 miles north of the capital city of Pyongyang.  By 1965, a nuclear research reactor had been assembled.  The Soviet Union supplied the DPRK with enriched fuel elements for this reactor from 1965 through 1973.  Today, North Korea maintains four million tons of useable, high-quality nuclear materials in its uranium mines.

Throughout the 1970s, North Korea focused on refining, converting, and fabricating the nuclear fuel cycle, which is “the industrial process involving various activities to produce electricity from uranium in nuclear power reactors…[starting] with the mining of uranium and end[ing] with the disposal of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.”  Fuel enrichment increased and the DPRK built a second research reactor.  In 1977, the North formed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) to allow the latter to inspect reactors built with Soviet assistance.

The weaponization of North Korea’s nuclear program began in the 1980s as the country opened facilities to fabricate and convert uranium for practical uses in a nuclear weapon.  High-explosive detonation tests soon followed the construction of a third nuclear reactor and nuclear reprocessing facilities in Taechon and Yongbyon, respectively.  In 1985, the United States stated it had proof that yet another (albeit secret) nuclear reactor was being constructed in Yongbyon.

Facing intense international pressure, the North Korean government agreed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons the same year.  However, it would not agree to IAEA safeguards, despite an obligation to do so as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  By September 1989, it was believed that North Korea would be able to manufacture nuclear devices within five years and have the means to deliver them soon after.  The following year, satellite photos showed evidence of a structure in Yongbyon that was believed to be used to separate plutonium from nuclear fuel.

For decades, the United States, along with the international community, has tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs. 

For decades, the United States, along with the international community, has tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.  In September 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced a unilateral withdrawal of all naval and land-based nuclear weapons deployed abroad.  This meant the removal of approximately 100 U.S. nuclear weapons which were based in South Korea.  Just over a week later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev did the same.

The following November, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo announced the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  Under this agreement, South Korea vowed not to produce, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.  The agreement also unilaterally prohibited South Korea from possessing any nuclear reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities.  These promises fulfilled North Korean demands in exchange for compliance with the previously refused IAEA safeguards.

On December 31, 1991, both Koreas signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula under which both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.”  The agreement allowed mutual inspections for verification of compliance.

Within three months of signing the Joint Declaration, North Korea was subjected to the first of what would be more than a dozen sanctions over the next two decades.  In the years that followed the signing of the Joint Declaration, IAEA inspectors faced a constant on-again/off-again battle for cooperation from former leader Kim Jong-il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-un, to allow the agreed-upon inspections.  Despite overwhelming international pressures to comply with global nuclear policies and crippling financial sanctions to incentivize such compliance, North Korea continued to thumb its nose in opposition to the rest of the world.

North Korea has conducted four nuclear weapons tests in the last decade: 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016. 

In May 2008, the DPRK announced it had roughly 85 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium which it had extracted from spent fuel rods.  External estimates of these claims have varied.  In November 2010, North Korea unveiled a new uranium enrichment program believed to be used to produce low enriched uranium for power reactors.  It is also possible for Pyongyang to manufacture highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes.

North Korea has conducted four nuclear weapons tests in the last decade: 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016.  According to claims by Pyongyang, the most recent test was a hydrogen bomb, which is a thermonuclear device.  Experts remain skeptical of this claim, believing it to be a boosted fission device.  While both types of weapons are nuclear in nature, they use different radioactive isotopes and their nuclear reactions upon detonation are different.

The nuclear reaction of a thermonuclear device makes it much more powerful than the nuclear reaction of an atomic device.  To put the difference into perspective, the largest thermonuclear bomb (or hydrogen bomb) ever detonated, dubbed “Tsar Bomba,” was 3,800 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  It would take 50,000 tons of TNT to equal this amount of destruction.  Consider that if one were able to build a bomb of the same size and shape from the material in the sun’s core, it would take 10 million years to generate the same amount of energy.

While it has not been confirmed that North Korea has thermonuclear capabilities, they certainly have an arsenal of missiles with a substantial amount of range.  If in fact the April 15 launch attempt was a Musudan missile, it would be the DPRK’s first with the possibility of at least 50 more to come.  The Musudan missile is the third-longest range missile in the North Korean arsenal and has a range of approximately 1,800 miles.  While this comes nowhere close to the continental United States, it is capable of reaching the US Army installation on the Pacific island of Guam.  Other variations of this missile are able to be fired from submarines, so there is the possibility that Korean Musudans may be limited in range but ultimately or eventually mobile.

North Korea has recently made several threats against South Korea and the United States in response to recent UN sanctions. 

The Taepo Dong II intercontinental ballistic missile (“ICBM”) is much more of a known current threat.  As the most long-ranged missile in the DPRK’s known arsenal, it has a maximum range of nearly 5,000 miles.  If launched from North Korea, it can reach targets in over one-third of the world, including Alaska and most of Canada.  The Taepo Dong II is easily fitted with a nuclear warhead, increasing the range of the missile from nuclear fallout.

North Korea has recently made several threats against South Korea and the United States in response to recent UN sanctions.  Current DPRK leader Kim Jong-un had previously ordered his country to be ready to use its nuclear weapons at any time.  State media reported the military has orders to be ready for a pre-emptive attack based on a growing threat from the country’s enemies.

The threats marked a further escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula and were made in response to recent U.N. Security Council sanctions.  These sanctions, which are some of the toughest ever imposed on the country, came in response to the January 2016 nuclear test and the February launch of a satellite.  Both of these actions broke existing sanction rules.  The threats also stem from North Korea’s anger over the joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States militaries, which are the largest ever between the two nations.

This is not the first time North Korea has threatened a pre-emptive attack on its enemies.  However, military experts doubt that the country has the capability of firing a long-range nuclear missile as far as the United States.  Yet, as BBC correspondent Stephen Evans stated from Seoul, South Korea, while the recent launch attempt failed, and shows the DPRK’s current limitations, it “illustrates the determination of…Kim Jong-un to get the ability to strike the United States.”  To date, hydrogen bombs have never been used as a weapon, either offensively or defensively.  Whether that ever changes remains to be seen.

Clint Davis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
About Clint Davis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (17 Articles)
Clint Davis is a 2017 Campbell Law graduate and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2016-2017 academic year. Before law school, Clint served as a police officer for seven and a half years in Williamston, N.C. He graduated from the University of Mount Olive in the Spring of 2013 with a degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology. During his time at Campbell, Clint studied abroad at the University of Cambridge (UK) with a focus on the law of the European Union and comparative data privacy. He worked for the Honorable Wanda G. Bryant at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the Honorable Seth Edwards at the Martin County District Attorney's Office, the Honorable Susan Doyle at the Johnston County District Attorney's Office, and the Honorable Lorrin Freeman at the Wake County District Attorney's Office. Clint also competed on Campbell's National Moot Court Team and served as an associate justice for the Campbell Law Honor Court.
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