SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ ANN) - North Korea’s nuclear program, its latest missile launch and why it matters
North Korea said it “successfully” test-fired a new strategic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on Sunday.Officials and experts in South Korea confirmed the latest launch to involve a new type of missile and concluded that progress has been made in the communist state’s missile technologies and delivery methods for nuclear weapons. Below, The Korea Herald explains the North’s weapons of mass destruction program, its latest missile tested and why it matters to S. Korea, the US and other countries.
1. Things you need to know about North Korea
By playing the villain and trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has elicited aid, security guarantees and recognition from the international community far greater than its economic or political importance justifies. Its missile and nuclear weapons program, spanning at least two decades, picked up the pace under Kim Jong-un, the country’s 33-year-old tyrant who inherited power from his father in 2011. The reclusive communist nation earlier this year claimed to be “in the final stage” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could strike the mainland US some 10,000 kilometers away. It is said to be making a “prime time” push to complete its nuclear program before the end of this year.
2. How far along is NK’s nuclear program?
In order for a country to develop a nuclear weapon and use it for missile attacks, there are three key components to be acquired: nuclear material, delivery vehicles (missiles) and detonation devices for miniaturized nuclear warheads. North Korea appears to have secured two of them. According to the Sejong Institute in Seoul, the regime is presumed to have 280 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and 52 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, a stockpile that can produce as many as 45 nuclear bombs. Regarding the delivery, Pyongyang has already deployed short-range Scud and medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles that can reach most of S. Korea and Japan. Its Musudan missiles are capable of reaching American military bases in the Pacific, including those on Guam. Its remaining challenge is to make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on those ballistic missiles. Seoul’s military experts estimate that the North has made “significant progress” in its efforts to secure the technology. Last March, its leader Kim claimed his country had miniaturized nuclear warheads.
3. What was the latest launch about?
Pukguksong-2 is a new type of surface-to-surface medium-long range ballistic missile that North Korea claims to have used an advanced engine system from those applied in Rodong and Musudan missiles. The country claimed the test was a success in that the propellant was separated from the warhead, a technology that can extend the missile’s range; the missile used solid fuel propellant to power the engine, which allows the missile launch to avoid detection; and it used a missile launching truck with a caterpillar, equipment that can deliver projectiles to hostile surface terrain. Despite Pyongyang’s track record of overblown rhetoric, military officials here assessed that the regime’s claim was “mostly true,” although they remain cautious over whether the new missile is able to evade interception and re-enter the atmosphere as claimed.
4. Can the missile be blocked?
The progress shown in the latest missile may pose a sizable challenge to South Korea’s existing missile defense regime. With a range presumed to be over 2,000 kilometers, the missiles may reach practically every part of South Korea.South Korea and the US have developed a pre-emptive strike plan against the North’s potential missile attack. But the plan, known as Kill Chain, would lose its effectiveness if Pyongyang were able to hide its missile from the allies’ satellite reconnaissance. Interception-evading technology is also worrisome. With this technology, North Korea may avoid an intercepting missile fired from the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries. The units are expected to be stationed as early as this summer in the southern part of South Korea The THAAD is designed to intercept ballistic missiles during their final phase of flight and has so far proven effective against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. But critics said the system cannot shoot down a missile heading toward Seoul because the city is only about 50 kilometers away from the border with the North.5. How to stop North Korea? Since North Korea announced its nuclear ambition early in the 1990s, the international community has sought various options to curb the regime’s nuclear program, ranging from multilateral six-party talks to tough economic sanctions. But the efforts have largely failed and now it seems to be up to the new US President Donald Trump, a former business tycoon who vowed to deal “very strongly” with North Korea and make the issue one of the administration’s foreign policy priorities.One of his ideas is to seek help from China, the North’s main ally. Beijing is Pyongyang’s biggest trade partner and main source of aid, but their ties have been weakened since 2006 when Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test and Beijing joined the international community in supporting UN sanctions against it.