ANALYSIS-N.Korea could ‘go small’ with tactical nukes if it resumes testing

Band Josh Smith

SEOUL, April 22 (Reuters)If North Korea resumes nuclear testing, it could include the development of smaller “tactical” warheads for use on the battlefield and designed to fit short-range missiles such as the one tested over the weekend. -end last, analysts said.

South Korean and U.S. officials say there are signs North Korea is seeking to resume operations in an underground tunnel at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was officially closed in 2018.

The North on Saturday tested a new short-range missile that state media said was intended to “improve the operational efficiency of tactical nuclear weapons”, marking the first time that North Korea has paired a specific system with nuclear weapons. tactical nuclear weapons.

Analysts say putting small warheads on short-range missiles could represent a dangerous shift in how North Korea deploys and plans to use nuclear weapons. This means Pyongyang can deploy more of them and, instead of threatening a few cities to deter an attack, could use them against a wide range of military targets in the South.

“North Korea doesn’t need to test to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, but it looks like we should expect to see a seventh and possibly more low-yield nuclear tests as they develop these weapons. “said Ankit Panda from the United States. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

North Korea’s previous six nuclear tests have seen it detonate increasingly larger weapons; the last was considered likely to be a thermonuclear weapon.

“They don’t need to demonstrate they have a nuclear warhead, but this time they could demonstrate they have one small enough to put on a relatively small missile,” said Chun In-bum, a general. retired from the South Korean army. “This greatly increases the dangers on the Korean peninsula and increasingly the capabilities of the North Koreans.”

The weekend’s missile test, whose importance was underscored by the personal presence of leader Kim Jong Un, underscored recent warnings from the North that in the event of war it would use nuclear weapons to wipe out the Southern Army.

Concerns over North Korea’s recent tests, including what it claims are “hypersonic missiles”, have prompted new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to advocate strengthening the South’s military deterrence and allow possible pre-emptive strikes if an attack is imminent.


There is no universally accepted definition of what a tactical nuclear weapon is, but the term often refers to systems including land-based missiles for battlefield use with a range of less than 500 km (300 miles).

Their yield, or blast size, is often lower than that of other types of nuclear weapons, although physically smaller warheads can have relatively large yields.

In the depths of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union viewed tactical nuclear weapons as a means of stopping otherwise catastrophic battlefield advances by their enemies. Because they are less destructive than larger weapons intended for strategic use, some analysts say there is a risk that leaders may be too willing to launch them.

As early as 2017, the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that North Korea could miniaturize nuclear weapons for all of its delivery systems, from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In January 2021, Kim Jong Un touted the country’s ability to assemble small nuclear warheads and said making “smaller and lighter nuclear weapons for more tactical uses” was a key strategic task.

Panda said his research showed the North had several options, including “cannon-like” warheads of the type used in the Little Boy bomb in 1945, and the plutonium-based linear implosion bomb, which was used for particularly small nuclear weapons such as the US artillery shell W48.

But firearms use too much highly enriched uranium fuel, and plutonium-based linear implosion bombs are complex and use too much plutonium. This means that North Korea is likely to stick with the standard spherical implosion fission bomb it has already developed.

The warheads already presented by North Korea appear to be small enough to fit on some of its recently tested KN-23 or KN-24 SRBMs, Panda said, though analysts say it’s unclear if these systems are meant to have nuclear capability.

Saturday’s test showed they had ambitions for even smaller warheads, he said.

“I would suspect they would look to test them first as they might opt ​​for a more exotic warhead design to accommodate smaller dimensions,” Panda said.

Such tests could be accompanied by a “show-and-tell” element where Kim visits the Institute of Nuclear Weapons and inspects a mock-up of a tactical nuclear warhead, he added.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)


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