NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR ATTACK ON THE UNITED STATES
A THREAT ANALYSIS
North Korea is gonna Nuke us into the stone age!!!!!
There has been a lot of saber rattling in East Asia as of late between the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) also known as North Korea(NK) on one side and the United States (US), Republic of Korea (ROK) also known as South Korea, and Japan on the other side. The pundits love to scurry about with their hands in the air proclaiming that the sky will fall at any minute and there's nothing that we can do about it!
After many conversations on social media, campfire discussions, and morning coffee mutterings I've been coerced by friends and family to "just go ahead and say it so we can all hear it."
Therefore, lets forget about what the media and politicians are saying for the moment, and look at this objectively. I'd like to share with you my findings from my research, mostly from open source, the rest from my experience as an EOD Technician assisting the WMD Counter Proliferation efforts of the United States.
Please Remember, due to the secretive and insular nature of North Korea, accurate information is incredibly difficult to glean from unclassified sources, so some of this article will likely be taken by some as conjecture.
I would also like to apologize for my shameless use of others research data, graphics and photos. I googled them and used them, if you didn't want them shared, they shouldn't be on the internet without a watermark! Besides, they were all really good stuff!
This is NOT a technical analysis. It is NOT for use by anyone in a technical or tactical capacity. I will NOT divulge classified information, no matter how hard you may ask. I still consult for the DoD on occasion and that would be a bad thing for me professionally, so let's all agree to keep this on the "Low Side".
Guess What .... The North Koreans are NOT going to nuke us into the stone age!
There, I said it, the cat's out of the bag!
Let us begin with acquainting everyone with the the big picture and the NK Nuclear Weapons Program. You'll need a basic understanding of a couple points related to nuclear weapons and the particulars of the NK Weapons Program before we move along.
1. Nuclear Yield
The explosive yield of a nuclear weapon is the amount of energy released when that particular nuclear weapon is detonated, usually expressed as a TNT equivalent (the standardized equivalent mass of trinitrotolulene which, if detonated, would produce the same energy discharge), either in kilotons (Kt - thousands of tons of TNT), or in megatons (Mt - millions of tons of TNT).
For reference, the "Little Boy" device used on Hiroshima in 1945 had an estimated yield of 13-18Kt, but lets remember that the effects of that are on a city made mostly of wood and paper.
The largest device ever detonated was the "Tsar Bomba", tested by the USSR in 1962 with a firing yield of 50Mt. As designed, it was capable of a full 100Mt yield, but even the Soviets thought that might be a bit much for our planet and dialed it back.
2. NK Yield Development
is approximately on par with US development in the mid-1950s, they just broached the 100Kt milestone within the last few years. Further development is hampered by sanctions that will continue to slow the pace of their system development.
The most recent weapon test is reported by the DPRK as their first "Thermonuclear", multi-stage weapon. It's yield has been estimated at 150-300Kt, though it is certainly physically too large to employ practically.
3. NK Weapon Structure Miniaturization
is approximately on par with US development in the mid to late 1950's. This progress is seriously hampered by sanctions and the technological leaps necessary to develop a multi-stage weapon that is also small enough to be employed practically. This, not Yield, is the greatest measure of Nuclear/Thermonuclear weapon development.
4. NK Missile Technology
has moved ahead at a rapid pace, though there were several accidents, mishaps, and failures in the last 30 years. Developmental assistance from both Iran and China, and weapons sales to anyone who will pay cash has fueled the NK regimes dreams of becoming a regional nuclear power. Toss in an entirely disposable workforce and a wholly unscrupulous, power hungry leadership intent on doing everything in their power to retain that power, and you have a recipe for hostilities.
5. Who is calling the shots in the DPRK you ask?
.... Well, it's This guy!
Kim Jong-un or as I like to call him, "lil-Kim" has been something of an introvert, ruthless as they come and an absolute thug during his time as Supreme Leader (hence the Thug-Life nickname). Because of the nature of his quiet upbringing, and the insular society of the DPRK, facts about "lil-Kim" are scant. Educated in a private Swiss boarding school where he wanted to be an NBA all star (sorry dude, you're only 5'7"), he is reported as being quite socially awkward, with an explosive personality.1
He had his Half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated using a binary version of VX Nerve Agent in February 2017 in front of the whole world in Kuala Lumpur Airport! A shining testament to his warm and fuzzy character.
It is clear that the behavior of Kim Jong-un, specifically very recently, shows paranoia and a perceived target in the US, a great length of time being isolated from the rest of the world, producing an increase in stress levels, causing anger and aggression; and with an entire army and nuclear arsenal at his disposal, Kim Jong-un would likely crack under further pressure, having been backed into a corner2.
He likes long walks on the beach, executing Generals that displease him with anti-aircraft guns, and mass incarcerations!
Of note, there is also the possibility that "lil-Kim" may NOT be the only one truly calling the shots. The real possibility exists that one of the DPRKs hardline senior Military Leaders, Choi Ryong Hae, may be fueling this fire and using "lil-Kim" as a mouthpiece to further his own ends!3
6. Other Players in the Game
The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has been patron to the DPRK since the beginning. Unfortunately, the DPRK seems to have become more of a liability and an embarrassment to the PRC Government over the last few decades. The official stance of the PRC is that if "lil-Kim" starts the fight he is picking, they will sit back and watch. But if the US, ROK, or Japan start swinging first, they will support the DPRK with much more than hopes and prayers.... I think we can all agree that would be bad. The upside is this, the Chinese at heart are businessmen, the hardline Communists of the Revolution and the Great Leap Forward have all died off, replaced by the pragmatic and Capitalistic new generation. They know as well as anyone that going to war, especially on the side of a madman like "lil-Kim", is just bad for business!
Japan doesn't want this fight, but they are also not going to sit back and let the DPRK take pot shots at them either. Tokyo has stated that they will contribute bases, air and sea power and their own Defense Systems if it becomes necessary. The US has based several Patriot and THAAD Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems around Japan. One thing to remember, there is a long term hatred by the Korean people for Japans brutal colonial rule of them from 1910-1945.
The Republic of Korea is split, one half of the population would love to reunite the Korean people no matter the loss of life and the other half would like to just ignore "lil-Kim" and go on with their booming business of international commerce while "those people in the North" eventually just starve, and then reunite with whoever is left. The US maintains several forward Airbases and a single Army Brigade Combat Team in South Korea, with several Patriot and THAAD ABM systems now, as well as the ROK Military, one of the toughest militaries around today!
Russia is oddly neutral in this case, neither supporting nor condemning the DPRK. Though they trade daily with the DPRK for hard currency in violation of UN Sanctions. What was unforeseen was the Russian Defense Ministers statement recently that Russia would not condone the flight of any missiles or aircraft from either side over their territory, any violators would be immediately shot down. The Russians maintain a large contingent of S-300/400 ABM Capable systems in Kamchatka and Vladivostok, all capable of easily swatting down anything in the air in or near Russian airspace.
7. The Set Up
The Korean peninsula is virtually surrounded by one of the most advanced, integrated ABM networks ever to gaze down on the Earth. Not to mention, the entire territory is likely under the continuous scrutiny of several dozen Spy Satellites at any given moment. If allied commands see an imminent launch, there is a chance they may institute a preemptive attack on the launch site with cruise missiles or some other form of first strike weapon. Though with the added dynamic of China, they may be forced to forego such a strike. Beginning it's flight, any missile would be immediately spotted by the fully integrated Ground/Sea/Air/Space Satellite radar and control system known as AEGIS (brought to you by our friends at the US Navy).
The system isn't just on US Ships, both Japanese and ROK Navies are also AEGIS integrated, so all of the radars, on all of the ship, on all of the land platforms, on all of the missiles, on all of the satellites...... All talk to each other!
(yep, one step closer to Skynet folks! Good thing it's all built by the lowest bidder!)
Any Missile or aircraft would immediately contend with land based Medium Range Patriot-PAC-3 and Long Range Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Missile Systems in South Korea and Japan. The combined Navies in the area have been at the forefront of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) over the last 4 decades and AEGIS would certainly launch several volleys of BMD SM-6 missiles from ships stationed throughout the region. Were a missile capable of making it's way past this cloud of flying metal, it would be targeted by radar tracking satellites and one or more Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) Strategic ABM missiles would be launched from Vandenberg AFB, CA and Fort Greely, AK. These Kinetic Kill Systems are meant to intercept targets outside the Earths atmosphere at the apogee of their flight. Anything that gets past these, must descend into the atmosphere and again face a withering fire from SM-6 firing Cruisers and Destroyers along the coastlines of Washington, Alaska, Guam and Hawaii that know what's coming for them. Followed by even more THAAD and Patriot land-based systems in each potential strike area.
Not exactly the friendly skies!
Threat Scenario Analysis
I've Decided to approach this from a Threat Analysis point of view, laying out several likely scenarios posited recently, then discuss the likelihood of success, counters, and ramifications to such threats. I will be modeling the terminal end of each strike utilizing the "NukeMap" tool online. It's a wonderful prediction tool, I highly recommend you play with it and it's sister tool "MissileMap". Each Strike will be modeled and hyperlinked to the model for you to see.
NK Attack Scenario 1 - Nuclear Ballistic Missile Attack upon the Continental United States
The DPRK has had some great successes recently in Missile Technology, notably in the form of the TAEPODONG-2/HWASONG-14 Platform, reported to have a maximum ballistic flight range of 10,000 miles. That makes great reporting, but it's inaccurate, the range reported is without a payload. Adding a Nuclear payload to the system would certainly reduce the missiles range to no more than 8,000 miles, barely putting the continental US into range, mostly just the Pacific North-West, North of Portland.The Likelihood of the DPRK attempting this sort of an attack is LOW for several reasons. First and foremost, the sheer volume of ABM systems now emplaced around the Korean peninsula is prohibitive. Next, they have relatively few of these Ballistic Missile platforms in an operational state at the moment (but growing in number daily). And finally, these platforms cannot handle the weight of the Nuclear devices "lil-Kim" wants them to deliver, 10-20Kt is about it for the moment.
For sake of argument, let's assume one of these systems makes it to the Continental US. The ramifications of one of these getting through to Seattle would be a catastrophe for the area, but not nearly as bad as you might think. A Seattle Surface Burst from a 10Kt weapon would cause approximately 18,000 immediate deaths and approximately 50,000 injuries, of which, we can assume approximately 10,000 would die at a later time from their injuries and exposure to various radioactivity. On the other hand, the death toll and damage caused by retaliatory strikes to North Korea would end their civilization.
As discussed previously, the chances of a successful missile launch and a flight of 8,000 miles to a target in the Continental US are remote at best. The NK Generals are no fools, they know full well that the time for this course of action is long past. The odds of one of their missiles just making it out of their own airspace is just to slim, and to what benefit for the DPRK?
NK Attack Scenario 2 - Nuclear Ballistic Missile Attack on South Korea and Japan
This Scenario has a bit more possibility of success just because the targets are so much closer.
In the case of Seoul South Korea, the flight time for a missile could be as low as 2 minutes. That's a VERY short reaction time for any ABM system. As a missile could have as low as an 80km flight to Seoul and would be able to avoid the higher altitude ABM systems such as THAAD and GMD, it's chances of survival increase greatly. It would still have to contend with Patriot and AEGIS threats as well as the possibility that South Korea may be installing the combat proven "Iron Dome System" purchased from Israel including C-RAM, Short Range Missiles, and Energy Weapons into an integrated defense chain.
The ramifications of these strikes would be the targeting of two of the most densely populated cities on the planet, with Millions exposed to the effects of the strikes.
A Seoul Surface Burst would likely kill nearly a quarter of a million people instantly, with over half a million injured and dying.
An attack on Japan would also be capable of a much lower flight trajectory, but have a flight time of over 10 minutes, ample exposure time for the multitude of ABM Systems to do their work.
Were it to successfully get through the chain of missiles, a Tokyo Surface Burst would cause similar, if not higher casualties than an attack on Seoul, the only saving grace being that the majority of the fallout plume would fall on the Pacific Ocean.
Again, both scenarios play out as a Zero-Sum Game for North Korea. The chances of success are still small, and retaliatory consequences would be severe. We are left with a very clear picture that a Ballistic Missile Launch by the DPRK would only be a final desperate act of a madman.
NK Attack Scenario 3 - EMP Device Attack upon the United States
Two possibilities have been posited regarding this scenario. A ballistic Missile delivered device, and a Satellite borne device already in orbit.
The likelihood on this is beyond slim. I can't even begin to count the zeros before you hit the first number in the percentages.
First, the scientific basics of a High-altitude Electro Magnetic Pulse (HEMP) device. The generally accepted threshold for a weapon that can perform this role is approximately 1.18Mt minimum yield for a weapon designed specifically to optimize this effect, detonated at approximately 30-100km above the surface of the target area. A modern, advanced weapon of this magnitude still weighs in at several hundred pounds, by comparison, the US W59 Warhead for the Minuteman-1 Missile (circa 1961) with a yield of 1Mt weighs in at a slim 550lbs, and the US had a lot of years of practice at weapons miniaturization before we got to it.
The DPRK still haven't achieved the Megaton Threshold for their weapons systems yield development. It's not an easy line to achieve either! They lack the ability to miniaturize a 300Kt weapon for practical use, so a multi-Megaton device of several hundred kilos additional weight is out of the question for the lift platforms the DPRK currently possess.
Even if the DPRK could load a weapon of the appropriate magnitude onto a platform, it is still an 8,000-mile flight across the North Pacific getting shot at the entire way.
The DPRK has also had a tough time getting into the Satellite game, their Unha Launch vehicle so far has a 50% success rate launching from the DPRKs only launch site in North Phyongan Province near the PRC border. Thus far, the two "Bright Star-3" platforms the DPRK has successfully put into orbit are Earth and Weather Observation systems. Both weigh in at approximately 220lbs and have been observed for what they are, by both South Korea and the US Space Command. This weight puts the DPRK platforms well below the mass necessary to house a Megaton range EMP Device.
Both platforms operate between 499 and 584 kilometers above the Earth, well outside HEMP envelopes, and it is reported that they will likely be incapable of maintaining their orbits for their full 2-year lifespan. That alone should speak volumes about the quality of what the DPRK are launching.
The DPRK is just NOT capable of employing a Strategic HEMP weapon system at this point in time.
NK Attack Scenario 4 - Submarine Launched Nuclear Ballistic Missile Attack on the United States
The Korean Peoples Navy has ONE, count them with me, one Ballistic Missile Submarine, the Sinpo Class. Reportedly there are a total of six to be built, but it is unknown the status of the other five boats.
The SINPO Class is armed with either one or two NK-11 Submarine Launched Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) which are strikingly similar to the PRCs JL-1 SLBM (thanks again China!). The exact warhead for the missile is unknown, but is likely in the 10-20Kt range.
The Sinpo is powered by a Diesel-Electric plant, similar to those used by all submarines before the advent of nuclear powered subs, so it will need to surface or raise it's snorkel on occasion to run it's engine and power it's batteries, as well as to provide the crew with air. Running on electric power does make these boats very stealthy, so detection is difficult. The sub has an estimated range of 1,500 nautical miles, so there is no way it's going to make it to the US without a couple refueling stops along the way.
These are, however, a threat regionally to South Korea and Japan. The coastlines are heavily broken with thousands of inlets for this type of boat to hide in, allowing a patient sub commander to bide his time and chose his own time to attack Japan or the ROK. But it's a one shot deal, as soon as he launches his missile, everyone will know exactly where he is at, so they must get it right the first time, because the boat likely won't make it back to port, much less get a chance to rearm and strike again.
An SLBM missiles flight time is short, just a few minutes, so if the boat were able to get into position off the coast of Seoul, the chance of intercept would be about even.
This scenario is a credible threat, which is why the ROK have installed their own version of the SOSUS sonar listening nets and are likely tracking this boat full time via satellite. If hostilities begin, this boat would be on the "Kill Immediately" list for the navies in the area.
NK Attack Scenario 5 - Covert Nuclear Device Attack upon the United States
This is the scenario that truly concerns me. If the DPRK were to shield the interior of a standard 40-foot Shipping container with sufficient lead to defeat all but direct radiological survey instruments. Load in one of their 300Kt devices with a self-contained firing system, and slip it on board a cargo ship headed for the US, then who cares how bulky it is or how much it weighs, it's getting delivered to it's target by a cargo ship after all.
For this scenario, we will assume that the container is aboard ship and before detailed inspections, the device is functioned just as it passes under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The immediate fatalities from the detonation would not be that severe, less than 10,000. The injuries would exceed 150,000 initially with approximately 20% of those dying within a week. The Fallout plume stretches across Sacramento all the way to Lake Tahoe. The resulting chaos in the surrounding cities would cause thousands more deaths and injuries. The United States would also have lost a major West Coast port facility.
The ramifications of detonating a Thermonuclear device directly on the increasingly fragile San Andreas fault cannot be overlooked. The fault stretches 1,200 kilometers from Baja to Northern California where it extends into the Pacific Ocean. Granted, the critical areas of the fault are hundreds of miles beneath the surface, but the possibility of a nuclear initiated earthquake are compelling.
Before anyone thinks the DPRK could get away with purporting this sort of act with impunity, lets discuss the concept of nuclear isotopic marking. All nuclear material will have a unique signature based upon where the raw material was mined and where it was refined. Within hours of a detonation, a Nuclear Contamination survey team as part of the National Emergency Response Group would have a sample of the nuclear material used in the weapon and would quickly identify it's origin, leading directly back to the DPRK. Have I mentioned that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is just a 10-minute helicopter ride from the damage zone?
While this scenario is plausible, there are significant resources in play to defeat such a plan. The likelihood of success is still low, but significantly higher for those for a successful Ballistic Missile attack.
Based upon my research and expertise, the DPRK is playing a losing game, this is evidenced by the increasingly desperate statements made by the irrational personage of "lil-Kim". The facts are this, the DPRK is starving, they have sunk everything into their own private arms race, their allies are increasingly stepping back from them, and their potential enemies just grow stronger and better armed. With "lil-Kims" desperation, an "all or nothing" perception, and no one to control or challenge his dictatorial behavior, there is a dangerously high probability that Kim Jong-Un would launch a nuclear attack on anyone who he believes is about to take away everything he has, regardless of it's remote possibility of success.
Although, the seeds planted by his sister during the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea may bear fruit, but I would doubt it highly. I believe that he is merely stalling for time, and looking for some way to get out of the corner he's painted himself into. Will this lead to a unified Korea? Who knows, hope springs eternal. What I do know is that it will NOT happen with "lil-Kim" calling the shots.
Were I a betting man, I'd bet a months pay that the Kim dynasty is not long for this world.
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Scott Thursday, 22 February 2018 20:09 Comment Link
Great analysis of scenarios we all hope never come to pass. Thanks!