North Korea’s published photos point to its advances in “tactical” nuclear weapons

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Tuesday released photos of what appear to be its first lower-yield “tactical” nuclear warheads, sparking concerns in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s growing arsenal and the rising likelihood that nuclear weapons could be used in a conflict across the divided peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime has long claimed to have tactical nuclear weapons, but has so far not publicly displayed them or released photos of them.

Analysts say such weapons can be more dangerous precisely because they are less powerful and less lethal than traditional nuclear weapons. Governments and commanders, the theory went, would be more likely to drop a lower-yield bomb on a target without engaging in full-scale nuclear war.

North Korea is also involved in a series of missile tests to protest major US and South Korean military exercises. The heavy publicity being given to nuclear weapons is also fueling fears that the North is getting closer to its first field test of a nuclear weapon since 2017.

State-controlled media circulated photos of Mr Kim inspecting a series of what appeared to be small warheads at a nuclear weapons research institute. South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency reported that the photos showed “about 10 tactical nuclear warheads” named Hwasan-31.

The images apparently wanted to show that North Korea “could place such warheads on super-large multiple rocket launchers or cruise missiles aimed at South Korea,” the news agency reported.

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Although it has tested six strategic nuclear devices since 2006, Pyongyang is not known to have detonated a tactical-size device. High-yield strategic nuclear weapons are used to destroy large targets such as cities, while smaller tactical nuclear weapons are designed for use on the battlefield.

North Korea has tested ICBMs capable of delivering high-yield nuclear weapons to their targets and has deployed numerous delivery options for the tactical weapons.

Long-range barreled artillery is being dug into mountain windows north of Seoul. Pyongyang has been testing a variety of devices — from short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to large-caliber, multi-launch missile systems — that could mount tactical warheads.

Since 2022, the regime has been stress testing command and control networks and missile units in conducting nuclear counterattacks.

The BBC reported that it was impossible to verify that the warheads shown in the photos were “real”. North Korea has a long history of publicly discussing or displaying dummy weapons that were later found to have real capabilities.

Officers from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul that they were evaluating the images from North Korea and whether they posed a threat.

“It can be said that the North’s nuclear capability will not be fully developed until it has been successfully tested in real conditions,” said an official of the joint chiefs. after to the Korea Times. “But we have yet to confirm things like this, so we’re still checking if the weapons are operational.”

The exercises continue

The US and South Korean military are holding a series of joint drills that the Kim regime has described as a “rehearsal” for an invasion of North Korea.

The USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, docked in South Korea on Tuesday, and US, British and South Korean Marines are scheduled to conduct sea landing exercises on South Korea’s east coast on Wednesday.

The Kim regime often responds to exercises with missile tests and other provocations, which may explain the timing of the warhead’s unveiling.

North Korea tested two short-range ballistic missiles on Monday. State media said Pyongyang successfully staged a simulated “nuclear air blast” 500 meters above an island in the Sea of ​​Japan. On Friday, North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle.

In nuclear doctrine, tactical weapons have two main purposes: to deny use of territory and to eliminate massed troops. The Korean theater, with its short horizons and limited strategic depth, is ideal for both and poses problems for war planners in Seoul and Washington.

Experts say the main bases of US troops in South Korea, scattered along the west coast of the peninsula, represent concentrated targets for a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike. If war breaks out, the Pentagon would likely reinforce the peninsula with ports and airports that could potentially be turned into hot zones.

“Tactical nuclear weapons would turn the Kunsan and Osan airfields into smoking craters,” said David Park, a retired US Army major with experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea. “The same goes for Busan, Jinhae, Mokpo and Ulsan.”

The first two are US Air Force bases on the west coast. The other four are South Korean ports on the south and east coasts likely to be used for US troops and equipment arriving from Japan, Okinawa, Guam and further afield.

Guy Taylor reported from Washington.

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