Kim’s rare display of nuclear warheads sends a chilling message

(Bloomberg) – While the US has long been asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the regime’s largest demonstration of warheads lets the world know that Kim Jong Un has no intention of abandoning his nuclear arsenal.

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North Korea’s propaganda apparatus released photos for the first time in several years of Kim inspecting warheads designed for missiles to hit US allies in Asia and deliver a nuclear bomb to the US mainland. Weapons experts said images released this week showed Pyongyang had made strides in miniaturizing its warheads, increasing its ability to deliver a nuclear strike.

The warhead’s depiction comes as Kim’s regime has moved from one-off tests of a missile to evaluate performance to drills showing it can deliver a coordinated nuclear strike in the short term. By that time, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities may have reached a stage where the US may not be able to provide enough incentive to push them back.

“Kim has conditioned the international community to accept his country’s nuclear weapons, to the point that these missile launches have become routine and an integral part of dealings with North Korea,” said Soo Kim, a former CIA Korea analyst , who is now senior policy practice area at US consultancy LMI.

“As strange as it sounds, it has gotten to a point where it is now difficult for us to fathom ‘life without North Korean nuclear weapons,'” she added.

The Biden administration has repeatedly told Pyongyang that the door is open to resume protracted nuclear talks. But Kim’s regime has rejected the offers and escalated its provocations to levels not seen since the “fire and fury” days of nuclear and missile tests in 2017, when it urged the US to conduct joint military exercises with its allies in set the region.

North Korea’s ability to carry out a nuclear strike has grown to the point that some political pundits are calling for the country to be declared a nuclear-armed state. The change would result in an overhaul of a decades-old US policy aimed at preventing this, while also seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible end of its nuclear arsenal. There is no indication that the Biden administration would make such a statement.

Meanwhile, North Korea has pushed forward. In March it began testing dummy nuclear devices attached to missiles that could reach all of South Korea and western parts of Japan. It has released photos of detonations hundreds of meters above a target and said the tests had “confirmed the operational reliability of nuclear explosion control equipment and detonators.”

Although North Korea has shown that its missiles can fly as far as the US, the question naturally arises as to whether the warheads would remain intact and reach their targets upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

It is estimated that North Korea has about 80 to 90 warheads, the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyzes said in a paper released in January, adding that Kim Jong Un is aiming for between 100 and 300 in the long term. The arsenal is the smallest among states that have said they have nuclear weapons, but Kim has modernized its missiles and delivery systems to ensure its bombs can reach their targets.

According to George William Herbert, an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the recent warhead display showed size improvements – and possibly design advances – over previous North Korean nuclear weapons. Additionally, North Korea appears to be trying to repackage its weapon designs so they can be mounted on its latest missiles, he said.

“Having a design that’s adaptable to many different delivery platforms is a very efficient development move that they can likely continue in the future,” Herbert said via email. North Korea also released a photo of Kim standing in front of a poster showing the different missiles the warheads could be used on.

“The individual weapons in this room were probably all mockups, but their claim that they will build many and use them on the many types of delivery systems is believable,” he said.

One area of ​​concern could come from North Korea, which is making strides in miniaturizing its peanut-shaped thermonuclear device, which could be incorporated into more types of weapons and increase the detonation power of a nuclear blast.

Another concern would be an upcoming test of the new nuclear devices. North Korea was the only country in this century to perform physical detonations of nuclear weapons. Other nuclear powers use computer simulations to test the efficiency of their devices.

Satellite imagery has shown for more than a year that North Korea is poised to conduct a nuclear test at its mountainous Punggye-ri site, where it conducted all six of its previous tests. But Kim has held back — perhaps for technical reasons, or perhaps not to put pressure on his state’s biggest benefactor, China, which has received calls from around the world to rein in Pyongyang following earlier tests.

The US, Japan and South Korea have all pledged a tough and coordinated response to any nuclear test. But years of sanctions have done little to slow North Korea’s weapons program, and it’s hard to see what leverage really remains.

Kyodo News and other local media reported Japan’s foreign minister plans to visit China this weekend, the first such trip in about three years, to hold talks that could include discussions about North Korea.

There’s also little chance that Russia or China, which has veto power in the UN Security Council, would support action against North Korea like they did in 2017 after a series of weapons tests.

Kim’s visit to the warhead facility may indicate that a test could come sooner rather than later. When the North Korean leader paid a similar visit to a warhead facility in August 2017, his state detonated its most powerful nuclear device just days later.

Yang Uk, a research associate at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea, said the newly discovered nuclear warheads appear to be extremely compact and much lighter than those used in previous tests.

“Therefore, a verification process is still needed to confirm whether they can function properly in real-world situations,” he said. “North Korea needs to affirm this for itself while enhancing its strategic visibility by showing it to the outside world.”

(Updates with reported Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to China.)

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