The seismic shock generated by the North Korean nuclear test may not have been felt by countries in the west, but it did set off a chain reaction of sorts. The isolated communist regime in the Korean peninsula claimed on Wednesday that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, much to the chagrin of US, China, Japan, South Korea, the United Nations and Nato. Analysts were, however, skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims, but agree that more study would present a clear picture whether the country has perfected nuclear technology.
During the time of Kim Jong-Il, father of the current “supreme leader” Kim Jong-Un, Korea began taking a keen interest in nuclear technology. By the 90s, the country’s two plutonium facilities in Yongbyon and Taechon were capable of producing close to 30 atomic bombs annually. However, Korea, which signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, could not actively develop nuclear weapons. In the summer of 1996, Korea had reached an agreement with Pakistan to trade their long-range missile technology in exchange for its highly enriched uranium (HEU) program. The architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, AQ khan, had even sold designs of uranium enrichment centrifuges to Korea. And Pakistan had modified Korean missile design to develop its mid-range surface-to-surface missile Ghauri. Years later, North Korea had successfully conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The question, however, remains whether they are close to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. By 1998, Korea has successfully developed the Nodong missile that brought parts of South Korea and most of Japan within its crosshairs. The bright side is that its crosshairs has an error of around 2-4 kilometer radius, according to a paper published by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The downside is that any attempt to target security installations could result in the missile landing in civilian areas. The Nodong, which has a range of 1000 kilometers, is reportedly capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The 2000s saw Korea develop the Taepodong series that are capable of lighting up Alaska, a United States territory located northwest of Canada.
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Named after Korea’s highest mountain, the Taepodong-2 (Paektusan in North Korea) spectacularly failed thrice, most notably in 2006 when it blew up 40 seconds into flight. Its technology was nonetheless perfected by Korean scientists and a space launcher version of the missile known as Unha, Galaxy in Korean, was successfully tested in 2012. This paved the way for an advanced KN-08 missile that is believed to be capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The website 38 North, operated by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, reported in December, 2015 that “with a light warhead, the KN-08 would have a range of roughly 9,000 km, enough to cover the US west coast”.
US Adm. Bill Gortney grudgingly admitted that the North Koreans are close to achieving a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
“Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland,” Gortney told reporters during a Pentagon briefing last year. “That is the way we think, and that’s our assessment of the process.”
Besides from using its missile capabilities as leverage against western powers, North Korea has considerably profited from developing missiles. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies, citing a US military source, reported that the impoverished nation’s missile exports totaled $580 million in 2001. Major buyers of North Korean missiles from the middle east include Iran, Syria, Yemen and Egypt. Joshua Pollack, an arms expert, wrote in a 2011 report titled ‘The Evolution of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Market’ that 40 per cent of missiles supplied between 1987 and 2009 to developing nations came from North Korea. Though trade has considerably diminished over the years due to seizures and countries becoming more independent in developing missiles, North Korea has become responsible for arming warring factions in middle east conflicts. Pollack quotes an unnamed US official as saying that “North Korea’s missile trade is like a localized cancer that starts to spread. First you see the missile sales, but then
it spreads to services and production technology and becomes harder and harder to track.”