The world is up in arms about the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea, but what do we know about the nation’s nuclear capabilities and how do they compare to those of the U.S.?
The New York Times released a classified intelligence report which concluded that North Korea is “capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks,” and Pyongyang threatened its sixth nuclear test in 11 years. As a result, world leaders are sounding the alarm about the nuclear danger emanating from North Korea.
The U.S. spends about $600 billion a year on military, compared to North Korea’s estimated $7 billion. Now President Donald Trump finds himself at the center of the media’s attention, as he has previously indicated that he would respond to the growing North Korean nuclear threat. And if Trump’s response turns out to be a military one, what are the odds that the U.S. would win a nuclear war against North Korea? To determine the answer to that question, let’s review North Korea nuclear capabilities.
How scary is nuclear war with North Korea?
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and since then, it has sent shock waves across the world with four other tests, the three last of which generated Hiroshima-size explosions and had world leaders worried. North Korea, which conducted its most recent test in September, keeps its nuclear program under wraps. This is not surprising as this is a country that keeps its citizens away from the global web and has its own Internet network known as Kwangmyong.
On Tuesday, North Korea carried out what appears to be its biggest-ever live-firing drill to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army. Despite calls from leaders around the world to cut its nuclear weapons program in half, North Korea has remained adamant on developing its weapons. And while world leaders condemn the program, the real scope of which remains a classified government secret in Pyongyang, there is no non-military plan in sight that would make North Korean leader Kim Jong-un give up his nuclear weapons.
This means a military solution cannot be ruled out anymore. And with the U.S. being viewed as the most likely war enemy of North Korea in the case of any military confrontation, let’s see how North Korean nuclear stockpiles compares to America’s.
At a glance: North Korea vs. U.S. nuclear capabilities
Nuclear weapons experts estimate that Pyongyang could have anywhere between 20 and 100 nuclear warheads by 2020 thanks to its accelerations of its nuclear program and technological advances. The U.S., which has the world’s second biggest nuclear stockpile (after Russia), has 1,411 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 673 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers, according to April 2017 New START data.
The 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength by Heritage describes America’s nuclear stockpile as “the world’s safest and most secure stockpile,” adding, that the security of long-term storage sites and overseas sites and improper handling “could compromise the integrity of U.S. warheads.” However, it’s safe to estimate that even if half of Washington’s impressive nuclear arsenal was compromised, it would still have many more nuclear warheads than North Korea.
A week before Trump’s inauguration in January, former Vice President Joe Biden revealed that as of September 2016, the U.S. possessed 4,018 active and inactive nuclear warheads. Even though North Korea’s nuclear stockpile is laughably small compared to that of the U.S., Pyongyang is nonetheless a big threat to the world.
The thing about nuclear weapons is that they do not spare anything on their way and the winner is the one that destroys the enemy’s territory and vital military and governmental infrastructure so fast and so badly that it cannot retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
North Korea estimated to have 50 nukes by 2020: Report
North Korea, which successfully tested a hydrogen bomb last year, is estimated to possess enough plutonium to develop about 10 plutonium-based warheads. While it’s unclear if North Koreans use the centrifuge facility that was unveiled by the West in 2010 to produce highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, there’s solid evidence that Pyongyang operates its 5-megawatt reactor to extract plutonium for nuclear warheads and is likely separating plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel at its reprocessing facility.
Nuclear weapons experts estimate that if North Korea is already producing highly-enriched uranium, it could be creating multiple uranium based warheads annually, and that would be a big problem for the U.S. There’s no telling at what rate North Koreans could be developing nuclear warheads and how many nukes Pyongyang really has in possession.
According to The New York Times, North Korea could possess a 50 nuclear weapons by the end of Trump’s first presidential term in 2020, and that’s about half the size of Pakistan’s entire nuclear stockpile. The report also indicates that Pyongyang has “roughly 1,000 ballistic missiles in eight or so varieties.”
North Korea is taking advantage of the West’s lack of knowledge about its nuclear capabilities by constantly making loud statements such as that it’s already capable of reaching the U.S. with nuclear weapons. But is Pyongyang really capable of launching nukes that would travel all that way to wipe out the U.S.?
North Korea’s nuclear weapons can reach US… but when?
North Korea boasts several types of missiles, all of which have different maximum reach capabilities. The country owns a short-range missile called Nodong, which could in theory hit South Korea and Japan – two of its biggest regional enemies and two of the most vital allies of the U.S. in the region. However, given its poor accuracy, the Nodong would be an ineffective weapon to wage a war with, though when it hits, it could bring about massive destruction and serious civilian casualties. Additionally, it would be quite a challenge to use the Nodong to destroy U.S. military bases within its reach given its poor accuracy.
North Korea’s middle-range Musudan missile, meanwhile, is what keeps the Japanese awake at night. The missile – with its 2,500-4,000 km reach – could hit anywhere in Japan’s territory. While the number of Musudan missiles in North Korea’s arsenal is estimated at between 10 and more than 200, the middle-range missile could be used to destroy America’s military bases in Japan.
North Korea’s Taepodong 2 missile is the biggest concern for the Pentagon, as this is the only missile in the arsenal that could in theory target Scotland, Alaska and Canada. But reaching the mainland United States is obviously the ultimate goal of North Korea’s missile development program.
The report on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal by The New York Times cites Siegfried S. Hecker, a U.S. professor Pyongyang allowed into its uranium enrichment facility in 2010. Mr. Hecker says North Korea needs about four to five years to develop bombs that can travel all the way from North Korea to the U.S. Those bombs would have to be “smaller, lighter and surmount the additional difficulties of the stresses and temperatures.”
Pyongyang is said to have in development at least two missile variants – the KN-14 and KN-08 – that could reach the mainland U.S. According to the Center of Nonproliferation Studies and Department of Defense, North Korea has at least six launchers for these two missiles, but Pyongyang has not yet tested them. But when it does, North Korea will most likely make a public circus out of it.