North Korea claims first evidence of tactical nuclear weapons

MAR 29 – The North has long claimed it has tactical nuclear weapons, capable of hitting targets in South Korea.

But the photos published in his state newspaper on Tuesday are the first time he has provided evidence.

However, it is impossible to verify if they are real. Until North Korea tests one of these devices, we are left wondering.

Pyongyang has spent the last fortnight firing a barrage of what it says are nuclear-capable weapons, while simulating nuclear attacks on Seoul.

Admittedly, it’s hard to keep track of North Korean missile launches these days. Testing in isolation no longer generates the headlines it used to, but if we look at it all together, there’s a lot we can learn.

North Korea says it is punishing the United States and South Korea for holding their biggest military exercises in years. The allies have been practicing how to defeat the North in the event of an attack. This is not a scenario that their leader Kim Jong Un enjoys.

Only this is not a typical North Korean protest. In the past, it has responded to such exercises by firing a mix of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles, and perhaps some artillery shells.

This time, in the course of two weeks, Pyongyang has launched its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, which can theoretically reach anywhere in the continental United States.

He has fired missiles from a submarine and from what appears to be an underground silo. His army has simulated a nuclear attack on a South Korean airfield.

And Kim Jong Un has unveiled a new underwater drone, which he says can fire nuclear weapons under the sea to unleash a “large-scale radioactive tsunami” and destroy enemy warships.

On top of this, it has now come up with nuclear warheads which it claims can be fitted to these weapons.

This is an eclectic and troubling lineup.

Analyst Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies described it to me as “the North Korean equivalent of a fashion show,” a nod to the Dior-style jacket Kim’s daughter wore at one of the launches.

Analysts, including Kim, are concerned about the diversity of the collection on show this season. Pyongyang has unveiled new and more sophisticated weapons, which can be fired from sea and land to target the United States, South Korea and Japan.

“Before, we didn’t know they could fire cruise missiles from submarines or missiles underground. Their weapons are getting harder to track and intercept,” Kim said.

This increases the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

Take cruise missiles fired from a submarine as an example. These missiles are what worries Yang Uk, a weapons expert at the Asan Institute in Seoul, the most. As he explains, firing a missile from underwater makes it more difficult to detect before launch. After launch, cruise missiles fly low and can be maneuvered mid-air to evade missile defenses.

Kim Jong Un has always feared that the United States would attack his country first and remove his weapons before he had a chance to use them. The message he seems to be sending with this series of tests is that the North now has the ability to strike back, or even strike first. It is difficult to destroy weapons hidden underground or underwater.

In other words, he is saying “don’t think about attacking us”.

However, we must be careful. Kim has a tendency to exaggerate his military abilities.

The lingering question has always been whether North Korea really has nuclear warheads to attach to these missiles. Most of the weapons on display recently could only carry a very small and lightweight warhead. So far, we have not seen any evidence that Pyongyang has succeeded in developing them.

On Tuesday, he provided the first proof. Photos published in the main state newspaper show Kim Jong Un inspecting a row of what he said were small nuclear warheads.

There is no way to verify that the warheads are what they say. That is why the intelligence community has been holding its breath for so long, waiting for such a nuclear test.

By the time North Korea can build miniaturized warheads on a large scale, that will be the time when its simulated threats become real and it can attack South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons.

Some argue that the US and the international community should do more to bring the North back to the negotiating table, to prevent this nuclear test. Talks between the two parties have been stalled for more than four years. But Pyongyang has shown no sign of wanting to talk. He tends to pick the moment when he thinks he has the most to gain.

With China and Russia refusing to punish North Korea in the UN Security Council, it can continue to develop its weapons without consequence. Why stop now? The better your weapons, the stronger your hand, and you still have more to prove.

In addition to the miniaturized warheads, it has yet to prove that its normal warheads can survive a full intercontinental flight. Currently, the North tests long-range missiles by firing them into space. It also wants to develop a more sophisticated ICBM, one that doesn’t require fuel before launch and can therefore be fired with less warning.

Yang Uk believes that Kim Jong Un is also being driven by a dire situation at home. With a shaky economy and his people starving, his advancing nuclear weapons program is “the only card left for him to play,” Yang says.

Therefore, North Korea appears poised to press on, developing an increasingly diverse and lethal range of weapons.

For Ellen Kim, only one thing is certain: “More tests will come.”

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