This has been a banner year for North Korea and its partner, the Islamic Republic of Iran. They have demonstrated the failure of the JCPOA, UN Res. 2231 and “tougher” March 2, 2016 UN sanctions to deter, let alone stop, provocative violations by both Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile development and nuclear tests in North Korea. As if to underline this brazen defiance of international efforts, North Korean released on March 27, 2016 a propaganda video, “Last Chance,” proclaiming its armament prowess culminating in a fictional ICBM attack on Washington, DC. Watch the “Last Chance” video:
Gordon Chang in a Daily Beast article commented:
“If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a pre-emptive nuclear strike,” the video’s Korean-language subtitles said. “The United States must choose! It’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not.”
This may sound like bluster, but only part of it is. In fact, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) can incinerate the American city of its choice. …It will not have that ability for about a half decade, South Korea estimates. Other nations think longer.
Perhaps not that long, if you listen to US intelligence ballistic missile defense commanders and independent experts. We wrote about the failure of the US interceptor program in the March 2016 New English Review article, “Can Our Ballistic Missile Defense System Shield Us from Rogue Regime ICBMs?” We noted the US failed to successfully test an effective kill vehicle against the North Korean ICBM threat. The only defense we have according to remarks by the Obama White House are “tougher sanctions.”
The Chronicle of North Korean Missile and Nuclear Test Provocations since February 2016
In March and April 2016, North Korea conducted tests of ballistic missiles and made preparations for a possible fifth nuclear test, rattling South Korea, Japan, the US and the UN. On March 17th, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles from its west coast into the China Sea. March 21st, North Korea fired five short range missiles east of the Korean Peninsula that splashed down 124 miles in the Sea of Japan. A test of a BM25 Musudan medium-range missile blew up on the birthday of grandfather Kim il-Sung, founder of the hermit state, on April 15th. That was preceded on April 13th by analysis of digital satellite imagery from 38 North. That confirmed preparations for a possible fifth nuclear test were advancing at the Punggye-ri underground test site. On April 23rd Kim’s grandson Jong-un peered through a pair of binoculars while allegedly a submarine launched missile flew a fraction of its 300km range, 30 kilometers or 18 miles. On April 28th, North Korea failed to launch not one but two 1,800 mile range Musudan missiles within less than an hour from the port of Wonsan directed at either Japan or the US territory of Guam. Both missiles failed to rise more than 200 meters from the launching pad. This makes three Musudan missile launch failures in less than two weeks in April 2016 alone. Because of the intensity of North Korean violations of missile tests sanctions, the UN Security Council, at the request of the US, held discussions. China’s UN Ambassador Lieu Jieyi said he was looking to the Council for a “response.” Analysis of digital imagery from North Korea detected preparations for a possible fifth nuclear test at the underground Punggye-ri site, possibly timed to coincide with the Seventh Party Congress, the first in several decades, scheduled for May 6, 2016. That prompted South Korean President Park Geun-hye to comment, following the announcement of Pyongyang’s missile launch failures, “signs for an imminent nuclear test by North Korea are being detected ahead of the Seventh Party Congress.”
The North Koreans announced on April 24th via Ri Su-yong, their representative at the UN in Manhattan, a willingness to stop a projected fifth nuclear test in exchange for cancelling the annual joint Key Resolve 2016 maneuvers. Those began March 3rd composed of 300,000 South Korean, 17,000 US and small detachments of Australian and New Zealand troops. Pointedly, Su-yong said in the BBC report, “If they believe they can actually frustrate us with sanctions, they are totally mistaken.”
Kim Jong-Un gave orders to the Military on March 3rd to develop nuclear warheads as standby national defense. These declarations were repeated as part of a “preemptive nuclear strike of justice” in response to the March 2nd UN Sanctions to address the provocative nuclear and missile test actions of the DPRK. That meant it was time to review the credibility of both strategic and tactical nuclear threats by the North Koreans. Those were stepped up in the wake of January 6, 2016 fourth nuclear test and the February 7th space launch at the Sohae site of a second satellite in a polar orbit circling the U.S. every 95 minutes.
North Korean EMP Threat by Satellite or Ship-Borne Means
The payloads of both satellites, less than 200 kg., indicate they are primarily for observational purposes. Some analysts, like Dr. Peter Pry, formerly with the CIA, executive director of the Congressional chartered Task Force on National and Homeland Security and director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, speculate that these North Korean satellites may demonstrate a future atomic weapon satellite threat. The satellites according to the World Net Daily G-2 Forum report “the KMS 3-2 and KMS 4 – are orbiting at an altitude of 300 miles, with trajectories that put them daily over the U.S. KMS 3-2 was launched in December 2012 and KMS 4 was launched Feb. 7.” Pry suggested that the January 2016, fourth nuclear test by North Korea may have achieved a single stage hydrogen bomb capability sufficient to generate gamma radiation to produce an EMP effect. Both David Albright of the Washington, DC Institute for International Security and Science and Former Reagan era defense official Dr. Stephen Bryen in our January New English Review article suggested that the January 6th North Korean nuclear test may have resulted in a boosted fission device suitable for development of nuclear warheads. We wrote:
That was reflected in a comment in a Wall Street Journal, analysis, “North Korea Test Shows Technical Advance:”
By advancing its warhead technology while refining its missiles, Pyongyang could eventually threaten the U.S. mainland and American allies South Korea and Japan. Pentagon officials had said last year that North Korea likely had the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon.
This latest nuclear test, the fourth since 1996 according to nuclear inspection experts, probably produced a yield in the range of 6 to 9 kilotons, below that of a Hiroshima type bomb, 11 plus kilotons. Nonetheless, if missiles fitted with miniaturized nuclear warheads are launched against urban targets, they could produce significant casualties from blast and radiation effects.
Ambassador R. James Woolsey and Dr. Pry in an April 24, 2016, Washington Times opinion article further deepened the concerns over the nuclear weapon in a satellite EMP Threat:
In 2013, a publicity photo by state media of North Korea’s KSM-3 satellite interior shows a shock absorber cage, allegedly for an earth observation camera but suitable for a small nuclear weapon. North Korea recently conducted another illegal missile test demonstrating a re-entry vehicle and heat shield. Technologically, such an EMP attack is easy — since the weapon detonates at high-altitude, in space, no shock absorbers, heat shield, or vehicle for atmospheric re-entry is necessary. Since the radius of the EMP is enormous, thousands of kilometers, accuracy matters little. Almost any nuclear weapon will do.
Moreover, North Korea probably has nuclear weapons specially designed, not to make a big explosion, but to emit lots of gamma rays to generate high-frequency EMP. Russian generals warned US EMP Congressional Commissioners in 2004 that Russian EMP nuclear warhead designs were leaked “accidentally” to North Korea. Unemployed Russian scientists allegedly found work in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Such an EMP nuclear warhead could resemble an Enhanced Radiation Warhead (ERW, also called a Neutron Bomb), a technology dating to the 1950s, deployed by the U.S. in the 1980s as the W48 ERW artillery shell, weighing less than 100 pounds.
However, both Iran and North Korea may have other ship-borne capabilities of launching provocative threats against US, South Korea and Japan. The co-authors wrote about the Russian developed K-Club cruise missile in a container system that could be used by both Iranian and North Korean commercial vessels capable of hitting US targets in our vulnerable Gulf of Mexico. Equipped with a low yield nuclear warhead of the type that Ambassador Woolsey and Dr. Pry suggest, North Korea might be capable of producing a devastating EMP effect.
North Korean Tactical Nuclear Threat
38 North in a March 15, 2016 analysis drew attention to North Korean development of rocket boosted artillery equipped with low-yield tactical nuclear warheads that might trigger US military action if fired at South Korea. The author noted:
The question is whether the Kim regime believes that nuclear weapons can be used for something other than survival. The answer, unfortunately, may well be that North Korea believes employing nuclear-armed artillery, rockets, landmines or anything else that would result in low-yield nuclear detonations against localized targets in South Korea will not trigger massive alliance retaliation.
North Korea’s early use of even one low-yield nuclear device may be sufficient to trigger a full-scale US or alliance invasion. Therefore, North Korean employment of tactical nuclear weapons would pose a greater risk of miscalculation and conflict escalation on the Korean peninsula.
Increasing concern over North Korean Nuclear Warheads and ICBM Development
On March 8th, Kim Jong-un was shown in pictures with a silvery spherical device, which might have been a propaganda promotion of a possible warhead. There is increasing evidence reflected in a CNN report about the event. Experts in both the US and South Korea believe that the DPRK may have that capability:
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security told CNN’s Brian Todd that his group thinks the North Koreans had probably already miniaturized a warhead.
A South Korean Defense White Paper from 2014 also noted that its neighbor’s ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons seemed, at the time, “to have reached a considerable level.”
Karl Dewey, a proliferation expert with IHS Jane’s said the photos suggest that North Korea fit something onto a KN-08 ballistic missile.
“And it is possible that the silver sphere is a simple atomic bomb. But it is not a hydrogen bomb, also known as a thermonuclear bomb,” he said, explaining that a thermonuclear device probably would be a different shape because of its two stages.
Admiral William Gortney of the US Northern Command, concerned about ballistic missile defense, believes the North Koreans may have successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit on its growing inventory of missiles. He was cited speaking before Congress in a CNN report on intelligence information:
It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that [North Korea] has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.
The development of an advanced version of the KN-8, the KN-14, was the subject of a Bill Gertz intelligence report in the Washington Free Beacon. The KN-14 was first displayed publicly in 2012:
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who has studied the two missiles’ Chinese launchers, said Russia has estimated the KN-14 could have a range between 5,000 and 6,200 miles.
From the far northern corner of North Korea, [6,300-mile] range is sufficient for the KN-14 potentially to reach Chicago or Toronto.
North Korean missile analyst Scott LaFoy, writing in NKNews.com, said the KN-08 shown in October 2015 appears similar to the Russian SSN-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Note this comment from Adm. Gortney about the KN-14:
I agree with the intel community that we assess, they have the weapons, the ability to miniaturize those weapons, and they have the ability to put them on a rocket that can reach US homelands.
China is the supplier of the mobile launchers for the intermediate range Musudan, the K-08 and K-14 longer range ballistic missiles. This despite both the US and China behind the alleged tougher UN sanctions released on Match 2nd. Gertz noted:
The Obama administration has not taken action against China for its significant contribution to the KN-08 and KN-14, namely the Chinese-made transporter erector launchers that carry the missile and appear to have been exported in violation of United Nations sanctions.
The apparent failure of US Sanctions to stop North Korean – Iran Joint Development
Claudia Rosett wrote an April 26, 2016 Wall Street Journal opinion article, “The Failure of Sanctions Against North Korea.” The bottom line is the sanctions look like the proverbial Swiss cheese. No surprise there, given the failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal. Further, Rosett discloses the US has sanctions against Iranians involved with North Korean missile testing. That means our government believes that Tehran and Pyongyang are cooperatively developing nuclear warheads to fit on missiles that North Korea may be shipping via its merchant fleet to Iran.
North Korea has also threatened a fifth nuclear test, the second one this year, perhaps timed to coincide with the seventh party congress on May 6th. So what did President Obama threaten in the wake of the April 26 announcement from North Korea? According to Reuters, “The United States warned …it would consider “other” options, which could include new sanctions or security steps, if North Korea continued nuclear and ballistic missile testing.”
Note what Rosett wrote:
In the latest push to stop North Korea’s rogue nuclear and missile programs, the United Nations Security Council on March 2 passed a sanctions resolution widely hailed as the toughest in decades. U.S. UN Ambassador Samantha Power said “this resolution is so comprehensive, there are many provisions that leave no gap, no window.” But when it comes to North Korea’s merchant shipping ventures, these sanctions are a sieve.
These ships may be carrying legitimate cargo. But they have links to two rogue states that have cooperated for years on weapons smuggling and missile development. North Korea, which carried out its fourth illicit nuclear test this January, was caught proliferating nuclear technology to Iran’s mascot state, Syria, in 2007. The Iran nuclear deal implemented in January hasn’t stopped Iranian arms smuggling.
Both countries continue to defy U.N. sanctions by testing ballistic missiles. In January, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Sayyed Javad Musavi, a senior official in Iran’s missile program, for working “directly with North Korean officials in Iran” and overseeing Iranian missile technicians who in recent years “traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government.”
Against this background, a pattern of North Korea-flagged ships visiting Iran should raise questions. While U.N. sanctions now require all member states to inspect cargoes of North Korea-flagged ships, this means that Iran is in charge of any such inspections at its own ports. When I asked Treasury if these North Korea-flagged ships are cause for concern, a spokesperson replied, “Treasury does not comment on the activity of entities that are not designated.”
North Korea and Iran have been joint partners in developing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. by the start of the next decade. Since March 2014, the co-authors and Shoshana and Stephen Bryen argued in July 2015 what better place to conduct those developments than in the hermit state of North Korea? Assessments by the U.S. Northern Command, South Korean, U.S. intelligence and independent experts have confirmed the likely development of nuclear warheads and the technical feasibility of fitting them to ICBMs within the next half decade.
What investigative journalist Claudia Rosett has revealed are the significant loopholes in U.S. and UN sanctions that have enabled the joint development projects of both countries to continue unabated.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.