Korean leaders pledge "complete denuclearisation"

We break down what we know about North Korea's nuclear weapon tests and missiles and what denuclearisation would mean

Thomas McMullan
27 Apr 2018
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After an historic face-to-face meeting in the demilitarised zone, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in have proclaimed a “new era of peace”, promising to work towards complete denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

While the pact is currently lacking in concrete measures, the co-signed statement is nevertheless a crucial symbolic gesture, and an important moment for the global community.

“The two leaders solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun,” a translated section of the statement reads.

“South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of he Korean peninsula and agreed to carry our their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.”

The meeting comes ahead of planned talked between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. That meeting is contingent on North Korea making key concessions around its nuclear ambitions, which it has seemingly made a concerted effort to do so – culminating in today’s surprisingly amicable summit. This is the cause of optimism, especially considering that only a few months ago tensions looked like they could spill into a direct attack.

What nuclear capabilities has North Korea said it is committed to disarming? Here’s a rundown of the types of missiles the country has, and how it has used them over the previous year.  

What is an intermediate-range ballistic missile?

A missile is a guided weapon, unlike a rocket, and a ballistic missile is one that can move along a suborbital trajectory, skimming the Earth’s atmosphere to travel much further than normal missiles. In terms of North Korea, the country has specifically threatened to fire its Hwasong-12 weapons, which are domestically developed intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

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Reports about the only successful Hwasong-12 test, in May 2017, suggested the weapon travelled about 700km (430 miles) before falling into the Sea of Japan. Analysts believe the same missile could reach a maximum range of around 4,500 km (2,796 miles) if fired at a lower maximum altitude (apogee).

(Above: What analysts believe to be a Hwasong-12 missile, Credit: Wong Maye-E / AP)

If North Korea can affix a nuclear warhead to the Hwasong-12 missile, and if the weapon can indeed travel as far as is suggested, it could decimate Guam – which is roughly 3,400 km (2,113 miles) from North Korea. For comparison, to reach the US West Coast, North Korea would need a range of more than 8,000 km (4,971 miles).

IRBM versus ICBM

The difference between an IRBM and an ICBM missile is in terms of range. An IRBM has a range of 3,000-5,000 km (1,864 - 3,418 miles), while the ICBM is a minimum range of 5,000 km (3,400 miles).

To manage the long distances needed to reach the US, North Korea would need a working ICBM-class missile. The Hwasong-14 is thought to be within that category, although it has only been tested at ranges of around 1,000 km (621 miles). With a degree of theatrical sinisterness, North Korea gave the Hwasong-14 its maiden flight on 4 July 2017, coinciding with the US' Independence Day.

The Hwasong-12’s Circular Error Probability (CEP), which marks the radius of its expected precision, is unknown. Experts have predicted it could be between 5km and 10km (around 3 and 6 miles), which is a relatively large margin of error if you’re planning to target specific military complexes.

North Korean nuclear capabilities

Last year, North Korea's Kim Jong-un claimed on national television that the country had successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching "the whole of continental United States."

The broadcast described the Hwasong-15 missile as its most powerful yet and said it had flown higher than any missile previously tested - reaching an altitude of 2,780 miles (4,475km) and flying 590 miles (950km) over the course of 53 minutes.

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Reports added that Pyongyang "had achieved its mission of becoming a nuclear state" and the missile is believed to have landed in water off the coast of Japan. In response, President Trump said the US "will deal with it".

This test followed a series of trials in August and September during which Kim Jong-un tested ICBMs as well as a hydrogen bomb in Kilju County, the site of North Korea's nuclear test site. North Korea’s previous missile was said to have reached an altitude of 478 miles (about 770km) and was airborne for around 2,230 miles (3,700km). It eventually landed in the sea near Hokkaido, according to South Korea's military.

South Korea responded by firing two ballistic missiles into the sea in a simulated strike on its northern neighbour.

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The US condemned that particular test and called on China and Russia to step up their efforts to help contain the problem and put pressure on North Korea’s leader.

In response to Kim Jong-un's hydrogen bomb test, the US warned that any threat would be met with a "massive military response".

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August's reported hydrogen bomb test marked the sixth time North Korea has trialled it nuclear weapons in recent years. Kim Jong-un has defied calls from the UN to cease nuclear testing as well the sanctions imposed by the international body which prohibits North Korea from developing nuclear weapons testing missiles which could potentially reach the mainland US.

Last year, North Korea threatened to launch four liquid-fuelled, intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) into the ocean near American territory Guam. Donald Trump’s promise to rain down “fire and fury” in response to those threats on Guam stoked rhetoric around a teetering conflict before North Korea escalated tensions by announcing alleged plans to fire Hwasong-12 rockets by mid-August. This did not take place as planned.

ICBM, IRBM and hydrogen bombs: What nuclear weapons does North Korea have?

Reports suggest Kim Jong-un does have some form of nuclear bomb, but there is disagreement over whether the country has managed to make warheads small enough to fit on its missiles. For months, the belief was that North Korea was overplaying its ability to successfully "miniaturise" nuclear warheads, but a recently leaked report in the The Washington Post points to evidence the nation has an estimated 30 to 60 nuclear warheads.

If a hydrogen bomb has been tested, this bomb could either be the one Kim Jong-un intends to fit onto a weapon, or is a prototype for a future version.

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“The IC [intelligence community] assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] ICBM-class missiles,” states the assessment, written by US intelligence officials.

How could the US and its allies stop North Korea’s missiles?

As The New York Times reports, there are three main stages where attempts to disable a launched missile could potentially be made: on the way up, in midflight, and on the way down.

Of these, the likeliest is when the missile is descending, or at its “terminal stage”. A US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system – one of which is based in at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam – could attempt to shoot the weapon down at this point. The ship-based SM-3 missile system, used by the US Navy, could also take a shot. The positions of warships are kept secret, but the US and Japan could reposition its forces to defend the ocean close to Guam.

(Above: THAAD interceptors. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

SM-3 systems are also capable of hitting missiles in midflight as they coast the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Given the speed of the missile at this stage, it makes it a tricky point to attempt any interception, but it’s also the point where any explosions and debris will be furthest from the ground.

The hardest point to take the missile down will be when it launches, as the initial velocity it takes to get into space will leave intercepting weapons in their tracks. The THAAD systems stations in South Korea could track the launch of the missiles but are unlikely to be able to shoot them down.

The wider question is whether the US and its allies should even attempt to target North Korea’s missiles in the first place. If the US or Japan successfully intercept the missile it could be taken as an act of war, prompting further military response. There’s also the risk that an attempt to shoot the missile down will fail, and undermine trust in defences that are designed to protect nations from bombardment but have yet to be tested in full combat.

Russia's new weapons

In March, Vladimir Putin said in a televised speech that Russia is developing a new line of strategic, nuclear-capable missiles that can thwart US defence systems. Delivering his annual State of the Union address, the Russian leader pressed the country's security capabilities in a move that some are worried could kick off a new arms race with the West.

"We've adopted 300 new models of weaponry providing our armed forces with 18 new ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], two submarine-based ballistic missiles, we've commissioned three new nuclear submarines and [...] we've increased the number of high-precision long-range missiles," Putin said, according to a translation made by CNBC.  

Putin went on to speak about how Russia has developed by weaponry systems since the US withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty: "US global missile systems are mainly against ballistic missiles and these are the core of our nuclear deterrent. This is why Russia has been developing extremely effective systems to defeat missile defense and all our ICBMs are equipped with such systems now," he said.

"Also we have developed a new generation of missiles, namely, [we] are testing a new missile system that uses a heavy ICBM." Russia is notably absent from the conversations being had between North and South Korea, the US and China. 

Hydrogen bombs explained

All nuclear weapons use a process called fission. It is this process that forms the catalyst needed for their staggering explosions. Some of the first nuclear weapons, developed by the US and including the Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War, generated fission by firing a hollow uranium-235 cylinder at a target made from the same material. These were atomic bombs. Hydrogen bombs are altogether more extreme and dangerous.

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They are effectively two bombs in one – a fission bomb and a fusion bomb. Like an atomic bomb, the fission process releases a blast of powerful radiation. However, instead of firing this at the hollow cylinder and creating an explosion, the radiation is fired at the second 'fusion bomb' which creates an explosion so powerful, it forces atoms to crash into each other and merge. The energy from this event triggers a bigger blast than the one produced by an atomic bomb. Some experts say these blasts are up to 1,000 times more powerful.

Lead image: Kyodo

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