Friday, April 5, 2013

North Korean Threat Overblown, So Far

Update 4-9-17:

The conclusions of this article are now obsolete.  It has been superseded by “The Time Has Come to Deal With Iran and North Korea”,  dated 4-8-17,  with search keywords “current events”,  “Mideast threats”,  “North Korean rocket test”.  

Update 9-9-16:

The recent underground test of a "larger" North Korean atomic bomb is listed variously as about 80% the yield of our first-generation bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  That would be close to 10-12 kiloton (KT).  It is completely unclear as to whether this is an enriched-uranium bomb,  or a bred-plutonium bomb.  It did create a Richter-magnitude 5 quake when they set it off.

As we built it back in 1945,  that Hiroshima bomb was a first-generation enriched-uranium critical-mass weapon weighing pretty close to 5 tons as made,  and close to 5 ft diameter.  The Nagasaki weapon was about the same size and weight,  although shorter and fatter at 10 ft diameter,  but had a larger yield at 20-25 KT.  It was a plutonium "implosion" weapon.

Bombs of these early types are far too heavy (and far too big) for any of the rockets North Korea has actually launched.  This is the very first time North Korea has exploded anything approaching a first-generation weapon yield.  I think they might have have finally duplicated first-generation warhead technology.  I just don't know which one:  enriched uranium or plutonium.

I conclude from this that North Korea is exaggerating what it can do,  in claiming that it can strike the US with atomic weapons.  That is in accord with its routine extreme exaggerations that are a matter of history from 1953 to the present.

Their current rocket might hit the Pacific coast with a 0.1 to 0.2 ton weapon,  if its reliability problems can be solved.  That's a third or fourth generation weapon.  They simply are "not there" yet.

There is one other issue to consider,  which is the intended damage mode.  For a blast/fire weapon (like our bombs on Japan),  these warheads have to survive atmospheric entry,  and they must arrive with considerable geographic precision (well under half a mile).  That means that precision guidance and a heat shield are required for missile delivery.  Period.

On the other hand,  if you intend to do only electromagnetic pulse (EMP) damage,  neither of these two enabling technologies is required.  That is because you are detonating over 50 miles up,  and range precision is immaterial,  since the effects are manifested over ranges exceeding 100 miles.  All you need is a simple rocket capable of carrying the bomb that you can build.

Such an attack destroys all solid-state electronics of any scale directly underneath,  and can crash the electrical grid directly underneath.  We have known this since the "Starfish Prime" shot over Johnston Island in the Pacific in 1962.  That was 2-4 megatons at 200 miles about 900 miles away.

If I were North Korea (or Iran),  this EMP damage is the capability I would be going for.  It offers more damage potential than the direct blast and fire damage we achieved in Japan in 1945.

North Korea isn't quite there yet,  neither is Iran.  But they soon will be.

Update ca. 2013:

However,  further nuclear weapons work will result in a 15-25 KT weapon of about 0.5 to 1 ton weight,  that might actually fit atop their long-range rocket,  albeit at reduced range.  What is required to strike the US mainland from North Korea is a better rocket and a lighter warhead.

I have seen recent news reports precipitated by an English-language posting from a story that ran in the North Korean state-run newspaper recently.  Judge for yourself what is propaganda.  Here are some excerpts from one of the response stories circulated over here:


Officials To Take ‘Whatever Precautions’ Needed After North Korea Threat

April 3, 2013 1:28 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (CBS Houston) – In response to perceived threats against the city from the North Korean government, officials in Austin have said they are willing to do whatever federal officials feel may be necessary to protect civilians.

Several images recently appeared in the Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean newspaper run by the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the most read paper in the nation, under the headline, “Kim Jong Un Convenes Operation Meeting, Finally Examines and Ratifies Plan for Firepower Strike.”


Essentially quoting Kim Jong Un himself in the story:   “He said he has judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation.”

The report added, “If they make a reckless provocation with huge strategic forces, the KPA should mercilessly strike the U.S. mainland, their stronghold, their military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in south Korea, he said.”


According to NK News, some text written on a map in the background of one image reads “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan,” and their digitally enhanced version of the image show missile strikes planned for areas surrounding Austin, as well as Washington D.C. and San Diego.

My Take On It:

I wonder why anyone believes a launcher with a 200 kilogram capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) could carry a 2-to-5 ton first- or second-generation nuclear warhead to the US,  especially without a stable-flying reentry vehicle,  or a proper heat shield? 

For real data and analysis,  see the posting dated 2-15-13 and titled “Third North Korean Nuclear Test”,  the posting dated 12-13-13 titled “On the 12-12-12 North Korean Satellite Launch”,  and the posting dated 4-6-09 titled “Thoughts on the North Korean Rocket Test And Beyond”.  These are located right here on "exrocketman".

Now,  it is true,  the North Koreans might have bought some black-market modern warheads (which would be complete as reentry vehicles with heat shields),  but they still don't have the guidance with their rocket to hit anything accurately enough,  even for a nuke. 

The only viable means that they currently have to inflict maximum damage upon us,  would be a high-altitude burst outside the atmosphere,  and let the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) wave "kill" all the electronics,  over many thousands of square miles below.  This would have to be done with a modern black-market warhead,  theirs are still too heavy for the rocket they currently have.

That'll change in 5-7 years,  by the way.  That’s about what it took for us to shrink our nukes,  some 60 years ago.  Accuracy is not an issue with an EMP attack.

Right now,  this "nuke-the-US" stuff is a propaganda scare tactic to divert attention from the brush-fire regional war they are quite evidently willing to risk,  one in which a truck or boat-mounted 2-to-5 ton nuke is actually a credible sneak weapon.  Maybe one even dropped from a big airplane,  if they have any,  although I'm not at all sure they do.

But,  as I just said,  that entire picture will have changed in 5-7 years.

The excessive bravado they now exhibit,  combined with external enemies (us and our allies) to point at,  actually indicates how near to collapse that North Korean regime is.  Their people are starving in the cold and the dark (you can see it for yourself in satellite images taken at night). 

The army gets fed by the dictator in order to prop up that dictator (currently Kim Jong Un).  I've heard unconfirmed rumors of rural cannibalism over there already.  If food runs any shorter,  that house of cards collapses into chaos. 

The North Korean leadership knows very well that regime collapse is close.  That is why they are willing to risk a war they know they would lose,  just to stave off being eaten by their own people (which would be an appropriate form of justice,  don't you think?). 

They very likely haven't got 5-7 years left before the collapse happens,  unless someone relents and ships them aid again.  And THAT is what this is all aboutextorting some aidJust like all the previous similar incidents. 

Actually,  a short war right now (that puts an end to that regime) would be the least destructive outcome in the long run.  The same could have been said for Syria last year,  but that’s a different topic.

As long as the US and South Korea or Japan don't start that war,  I believe China would not aid the North Koreans this time (the way they did in 1950),  being quite tired of all the disruptive horseshit the North Koreans cause,  and also being quite tired of supporting them economically. 

Hell,  the Chinese might even help us end it.  They have gotten very disillusioned with North Korea in recent years. 

A reunified Korea is still a buffer state for China,  no matter who runs it.  And the South still has much to teach China about free-market economies in Asia and the world.  The Chinese know that.  Enlightened self-interest could well break their historic ties with North Korea. 

Unfortunately,  we here in the US lack the weapons we need to end this quickly,  without committing many boots-on-the-ground.  And we all know how that went in the middle east. 

We are just about out of Tomahawk cruise missiles,  and we never replaced them,  nor did we build the supersonic ASALM cruise missile that would have done the same job,  except that any defense against it would have been impossible due to its speed and altitude.  (But the Russians did!) 

If we could get hold of some surface-to-surface versions of the very-supersonic Russian-made "Sunburn" or "Yakhonts" cruise missiles,  we could decapitate the North Korean regime pretty easily with them,  by simply pulverizing the Pyongyang palace and associated government buildings in a sudden mass attack.  No need to blow up the whole city. 

I think the Indians are building a version of "Yakhonts" under license from the Russians.  Maybe we could buy some from them.  Unfortunately,  it seems we’re not on such good terms with the Russians right now,  not enough to buy weapons. 

Geopolitics is a bitch,  ain’t it?


UPDATE 4-12-13:  

I have not seen anything that would change any of my original conclusions,  including the supposedly-unclassified excerpts of that rather dubious DIA report,  claiming they could hit the US with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. (DIA are same folks who claimed Iraq had nuclear weapons in 2003 - not a very good track record).  

If the North Koreans actually have bought some black-market modern warheads,  their Unha-3 rocket could indeed send one of those warheads to (at least the western portion of) the continental US.  If they have any such warheads at all,  I really doubt they have more than a very small handful.

This sort of thing is "feasible" right now for North Korea with horrible accuracy and horrible reliability.  I would remind you that the third stage of Unha-3 is reputed to be a solid propellant rocket,  which means it has anything but a precision velocity control over its trajectory insertion.  

Now,  accuracy is not a requirement for an EMP attack,  but reliability is.  I see nothing anywhere indicating reliability for any of North Korea's rockets.  Further,  no other rocket they have besides Unha-3 is capable of hitting the continental US,  even with a modern miniaturized warhead.  

So,  my previous conclusion remains unchanged:  all this war scare stuff is a foreign aid extortion attempt.  It is aimed mainly at China,  but as China "sours" on them,  they want to extort increasing aid (and other concessions) out of South Korea,  Japan,  and the US.  It is either threaten war and get the foreign aid,  or fail to get the foreign aid,  and be eaten.  Just as I said previously. 

So,  "Don't give in." 

Our best response is to ignore them,  unless they actually do attack somewhere.  That applies to us,  South Korea,  Japan,  and even China. 

If the North Koreans do attack,  then we (all of the above) should utterly decapitate that regime together,  something that can actually be done without killing the entire North Korean population,  most of which actually resides in Pyongyang.  

Simple.  Maybe not so very easy,  but simple. 

The hardest part will be figuring out who pays for bringing the North Korean people into a modern economy that can support them without foreign aid.  That's hard.  




  1. I certainly hope you're right. I remember reading about the First World War when I was a kid. I couldn't understand how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by some lunatic could have caused a world wide conflagration.
    Could it be this time some lunatic with access to nuclear weapons can cause world wide nuclear war?

  2. Lunatic with nuclear weapons starting a major war? That's always the risk with nuclear weapons. With North Korea, the real mistake now would be to let this situation fester for another decade.

    As long as the NK regime can continue to extort aid, they will continue to survive, and to increase their military capabilities. In about a decade, they will be able to threaten and extort us in the US directly.

    The stronger they get, the more costly will be the war that is required to put an end to them. And put an end to them, we-the-world must. There is no other way out of this: history shows very clearly that no dictators voluntarily abdicate power.

  3. We must also remember the Second World War was also caused by a lunatic, with the horrible loss of lives that caused.
    The greatest fear of the nuclear age is that a madman would have access to nuclear weapons. That greatest fear appears to be realized.
    The political pundits have attempted to reassure us that Kim is not insane. But consider this, what sane man would want to talk like he is insane?

    Bob Clark

  4. Hitler-the-madman started WW2 in Europe. But the Asian portion of WW2 started either in 1931 or 1937 with whichever Japanese invasion of China you wish to include. Japan didn't fit the "madman dictator" model the way both Germany and Italy did. That's not the only dictator model.

    But, the basic dictator model (mad or not) did fit Germany, Italy, Bolshevik Russia, Castro's Cuba, and (of course) North Korea. That model is: external foe to point at, for the unification of the people, and an army fed to "pay" them to prop up the dictator, at the expense of the people dominated.

    It's really just the old dark/middle ages feudal model, modified for the 20th-21st centuries.

    We've seen the cyclic extort-aid-by-war-threats pattern with North Korea since the war there ended in July 1953. The increasing vehemence of the threats is part of that patten, but I believe is partly driven by the ever-worsening lot of the population there.