North Korea’s Missile Madness: Show Of Force Or Serious Strategy? [VIDEO]

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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North Korean missile tests are becoming more frequent as it searches for holes in the planned U.S.-South Korean missile shield.

North Korea tested a sub-launched ballistic missile July 9 and fired three ballistic missiles July 19. Both tests came shortly after the U.S. and South Korea announced plans to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield in Seongju.

A second sub-launched ballistic missile test was carried out Aug. 24, just two days after the start of the U.S.-South Korean Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise. The North argued the drill was preparation for an invasion of its territory.

China allowed the United Nations Security Council to condemn North Korea’s previous tests, so North Korea fired three ballistic missiles Sept. 5, casting a dark shadow over the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, and embarrassing China.

After Obama called for increased sanctions against North Korea during the ASEAN and East Asian summits in Laos, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test.

While these tests may resemble shows of force, temper tantrums, or political statements, the reality is that North Korea is conducting tests with clear strategic purpose. Furthermore, it is doing so at an accelerated pace.

Between 1994 and 2008, North Korea conducted 16 missile tests and one nuclear test. Between 2009 and 2016, it has, despite heavy sanctions, conducted 58 missile tests and four nuclear tests, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“While the THAAD system works well against short and medium-range ballistic missiles, it is not a foolproof defense against North Korea’s capabilities, particularly if Pyongyang continues taking steps to diversify its missile systems and increase reliability. There are several measures that Pyongyang could take to overwhelm or evade ballistic missile defenses,” Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

One of North Korea’s ambitions appears to be the ability to launch multiple ballistic missiles simultaneously. The latest missile tests make this goal abundantly clear. The following is a video released by Korean Central Television (KCTV) of Monday’s ballistic missile tests.


The video shows the three ballistic missiles fired during the test were launched one after the other in rapid succession. “Enough simultaneous launches could overwhelm the THAAD system and increase the risk of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile reaching its target in South Korea,” said Davenport.

North Korea also wants sea-based strike capabilities. The sub-launched KN-11 ballistic missile North Korea successfully tested in late August poses a legitimate threat. “THAAD has a forward-looking radar with a 120-degree field of view. In the case of a single THAAD battery, North Korea’s submarines would not have to travel very far out to sea to attack the THAAD system from behind the field of view of its radar,” explained Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Proliferation Studies, in a recent article for Arms Control Wonk.

Another North Korean goal is the development of effective intermediate-range missiles. “THAAD has not been tested against intermediate-range systems. North Korea conducted several tests of its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Musudan, this past spring. Deployment of the Musudan could challenge the THAAD system,” Davenport told TheDCNF.

North Korea has an interest in missiles with separating warheads. The ballistic missiles tested Monday, which were Extended Range Scud missiles, may have been equipped with separating warheads. “A separating warhead would pose additional challenges for missile defense systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system,” Lewis explained in a Nuclear Threat Initiative article.

Finally, North Korea desires a nuclear deterrent, not a bargaining chip. Kim Jong Un’s aspirations vary greatly from those of his father. “[North Korea’s latest test] is not a cry for negotiations,” CSIS North Korea expert Victor Cha told The New York Times. “This is very clearly a serious effort at amassing real nuclear capabilities that they can use to deter the U.S. and others.”

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test was not a temper tantrum or political statement, Lewis pointed out in a Foreign Policy article. “It has technical purpose. And that purpose is demonstrating the reliability of the ‘standardized’ nuclear warhead to arm the missile force.”

“The nuclear test finally examined and confirmed the structure and specific features of movement of the nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery pieces,” the Korean Central News Agency said in a statement. Hwasong is the term North Korea has for the ballistic missiles it uses to arm the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army. These ballistic missiles have ranges between 300 and 1,000 kilometers.

KCNA clarified the word “standardization,” explaining that, “the standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.”

North Korea has amassed around 40 kilograms of plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) argues that eight kilograms are needed to make a bomb, which should mean that North Korea can only make about five nuclear bombs.

Lewis, however, suggests that bombs can be made with as little as four kilograms of plutonium, raising the number of possible North Korean nuclear bombs to 10. North Korea also has a stockpile of enriched uranium of unknown size. Were North Korea to use composite pits consisting of both plutonium and uranium, it could reduce the required plutonium to two kilograms per bomb, meaning that North Korea could reasonably develop a dangerous collection of at least 20 bombs.

“Deploying missile defenses in South Korea will not negate the threat posed by these systems and North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal,” Davenport explained to TheDCNF. “It is critical that the next administration prioritize a new policy approach to North Korea that freezes, and eventually rolls back ballistic missiles activities,” she added.

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