North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead for its growing arsenal of ballistic missiles, and that changes the strategic playing field.
The public was made aware of this aspect of North Korea’s capabilities for the first time Tuesday, when The Washington Post revealed parts of a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency report.
The Defense Intelligence Agency introduced that North Korea “has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.” While it is unclear when the U.S. military first arrived at this conclusion, there is a good chance the U.S. knew about this development well before the news broke Tuesday.
The sudden revelation that North Korea can mount nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles was undoubtedly shocking for many readers, especially given North Korea’s recent tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that expert observers suspect could strike targets across the U.S. However, it appears North Korea has had the ability to mount a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile for some time now.
North Korean state media released an image last March of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un standing next to a spherical device that some analysts call the “disco ball.” Pyongyang claimed that the object in the picture was a nuclear warhead. In September, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear weapons test, after which they asserted that the North can mount nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles.
“North Korea almost certainly has a compact fission warhead capable of fitting on a future ICBM,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article prior to North Korea’s first test of an ICBM in early July.
“The major question now is not whether the warhead is small enough to mount on an ICBM — it is,” he explained.
“I think we should presume the North Koreans are capable of putting nukes on missiles of all ranges, not merely because they say so, but because that is credible for a state that conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in 2016,” Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The U.S. and China, once each, fired a nuclear weapon on a missile and detonated it in the atmosphere, back in the 1960s. To the best of my knowledge, no other state has ever done so.”
“We should not require the North Koreans to do so in order to accept that they have this capability,” Pollack said.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. A decade later, the regime conducted two tests in the same year, bringing the total number of tests up to five.
“China, by the time of its fifth nuclear test, had both built a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a missile and developed the basic principles for the massive thermonuclear weapon it would test next,” Lewis explained.
“There isn’t 100 percent proof that they have a warhead that would go on this missile,” Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, previously told TheDCNF, referring to the new ICBM. “Although I suspect that after five nuclear tests that it is very probable that they could do such a thing.”
North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs, testing two nuclear weapons and around two dozen missiles last year. This year, the North has tested a collection of new short-, medium-, intermediate-, and long-range missiles.
In response, the U.S. and its allies have stepped up their defense capabilities. The U.S. and South Korea are moving Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems onto the Korean Peninsula, a process that started last year. In recent months, the U.S. has conducted its own ICBM tests to ensure that its nuclear deterrent remains intact and has carried out interceptor tests to demonstrate the ability to stop a North Korean missile headed towards the U.S. or an ally. The U.S. and its allies are working harder to ensure that they can counter North Korean developments.
The shock in the wake of the revelation that North Korea can produce miniaturized nuclear warheads stems from a perpetual desire to downplay the country’s capabilities. Earlier this year, it was not uncommon to see reports assessing that North Korea could not produce an ICBM, could not develop a reliable re-entry vehicle, and could not miniaturize a nuclear bomb.
But, here we are, with the U.S. and its allies staring down an almost fully-armed nuclear North Korean state.
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