TCS Daily

It's All in the Delivery

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Increasingly the assumption in the intelligence community, reflected as well in the media, is that North Korean scientists have indeed produced or somehow acquired enough plutonium to fashion two or perhaps as many as five "nuclear devices."

Well, here's the thing. What kind of nuclear weapon can North Korea produce? That is, how big would it be? How heavy? And, most important, how could it be delivered to a target?

If a North Korean nuclear weapon is to be a credible threat it must first be tested in some fashion (not necessarily by detonation). If they do set one off -- and the impulse to demonstrate what they have achieved must be powerful -- it would be a sure indication that they have built more than one. There is no doubt that they are building plants to enrich uranium, the alternative to plutonium, and to make other components for the serial production of nuclear weapons.

Then the North Koreans must figure out how to get the weapon to a target in working order. Here are some of the possibilities for delivering a nuclear weapon:

1. As a warhead on a missile, or as an artillery shell.

2. As a bomb dropped from an aircraft.

3. As a bomb hidden in a boat or ship.

4. As a bomb delivered by a vehicle over roads.

5. As a device smuggled into another country piece-by-piece and assembled at the target.

A warhead deliverable by a missile would have to be fairly compact, with its components robust enough to withstand the tremendous G forces of a rocket launch. This is no small feat of engineering. A typical American thermonuclear warhead, the product of thousands of man-years of development, can withstand accelerations up to 3000 Gs.

The warhead would also have to incorporate safety devices that would ensure that it detonates at the target and not above the launch pad or (if the rocket goes astray) somewhere in "friendly" territory.

All these characteristics must be incorporated into a warhead light enough to be carried by North Korea's ballistic missiles, such as its standard Nodong-1, which has a range of about 900 miles. The regime is rapidly developing much longer-range, three-stage missiles, including one with a range of more than 9000 miles.

The question remains, how large a payload these North Korean missiles can carry. State of the art ballistic missile warheads today -- outer shell, components and nuclear weapon itself -- weigh between 1100 and 2200 pounds. And even these are the products of exceptional component miniaturization and ingenious design. (The United States has produced nuclear warheads weighing as little as 35 pounds to be used on the battlefield.)

The same constraints on size, weight and to some extent, robustness and safety, would apply to a weapon to be carried by aircraft. North Korea has no heavy bombers but it does have obsolescent fighter-bombers (like the Soviet-made MIG-23P) capable of carrying a nuclear weapon provided it is small enough.

A bomb hidden in boat, ship or truck could be fairly large and heavy, as could a device smuggled into a target country and assembled there. Such a device might be patterned after the one type of nuclear weapon so simple (relatively) that it could be built and "deployed" without a full-fledged test. This is the "gun type" of weapon, similar to Little Boy, the first atomic weapon the U.S. produced back in 1945.

Little Boy was a fairly large, very heavy weapon, weighing in at over 4.5 tons. But a half century of technological and materials development means it is now possible to produce a gun type weapon much smaller and lighter. South Africa produced one weighing a little over a ton, but it was made to score political points rather than come up with a deliverable military weapon.

Given North Korea's proven reputation as an international nut case, one should not discount any possible employment of even a relatively crude nuclear weapon. Consider this, for instance:

The North Koreans have proved over the years to be the world's most prodigious tunnelers. They have developed tunneling to a high art, digging their way down to and under the Demilitarized Zone into neighboring South Korea. These are large tunnels, through which North Korea apparently hoped to disperse large numbers of Special Forces troops suddenly behind South Korean lines. (One of these tunnels, discovered by the South Korean military back in 1978, opened to the surface only 27 miles from the capital city, Seoul.)

South Korean intelligence has speculated for some time on the possibility of North Korea positioning a nuclear weapon in a tunnel facing south and near the border. Then, as a stunning herald of an invasion, they would detonate it when prevailing winds would carry the fallout over South Korea.

Some sort of pre-emptive "decapitation" of North Korea's nuclear facilities is out of the question. We know enough about these facilities to know we don't know nearly enough. The sprawling complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, consisting of three reactors and a plutonium reprocessing plant about two football fields in length, would be easy targets for cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. But we don't know where other facilities - weapon fabrication and storage, uranium enrichment etc. -- are located. It's a good bet, given the North Koreans' predilection for tunneling, that these labs and plants are deep underground.

And, as has been discussed in a previous article, even if a comprehensive and effective attack on North Korea's nuclear infrastructure were possible, it would probably trigger a savage retaliatory attack on South Korea by the poised and more than ready NK forces. Most military experts believe the highly trained South Korean army and the U.S. forces backing them up would prevail against the North Koreans, but not before their massed firepower had done tremendous damage, including the use chemical weapons and perhaps nuclear ones.

Unfortunately, we are well past the point where we might prevent North Korea from becoming a "nuclear power." The real question is whether this dangerous, dysfunctional and xenophobic regime has a "political" nuclear weapon or a militarily practical one. For now, it would seem, the United States, Japan and South Korea must concentrate every intelligence resource on determining what type -- and therefore how "deliverable" -- a nuclear weapon North Korea has hidden somewhere in its misty, mountainous reaches. Not an easy task.


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