North Korea’s hollow threat

by Chris Becker

Death. Destruction. Nuclear holocaust! These headlines sell papers and bait clicks. Add to the mix a man-child US president, plus any chance to talk up defence contracts and the military-media-industrial complex goes into a frenzy. Doom sells!

Luckily, science comes to the rescue. Let’s dispel the “threat” from North Korea using some reason.

They can’t attack anyone with nuclear missiles. That’s a known known. Let’s step through the reasons why:

Yes: The North Koreans have nuclear warheads that can be detonated. So far, there has been five underground tests, all successful. But all of them are weak as piss (that’s the technical term), generating only 10kT. That’s enough to take out a very small city, but pales into insignificance compared to the conventional artillery/missile capability of the North Korean army which could devastate most of South Korea’s populated centers in the first strike.

Yes: The North Koreans have launched ballistic missiles. Here’s some more detail at IFLScience:

North Korea has inarguably made huge progress on missile technology since it first started giving it a go a few decades back, but it fails as often as it succeeds. When it test fires a new rocket, it either explodes on the launch pad or, as planned, lands in the Sea of Japan – a provocative act to one of its oldest foes.

At present, it has fired at least two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the second of which traveled 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), reached a height of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), and then splashed again into the Sea of Japan.

Experts have suggested that, if aimed at a certain angle, the missile could have a maximum range of 10,400 kilometers (6,462 miles). When the rotation of the Earth is taken into account, this range is only extended.

Technically then, these missiles could reach both the western and eastern seaboard of the United States. Hawaii is easily in range, as is Guam, an American territory in Micronesia with 163,000 people living on it – and one that’s been threatened by a North Korean missile strike.

Maybe – recent leaks suggest that the North Koreans may be able to miniaturise their crude plutonium based 10KT bombs to fit into a missile warhead. Will it have the same yield? Have they tested it to deploy after launch and crucially…

No – they haven’t mastered re-entry. Launch, yes, land – no. All tests have shown so far that the North Koreans are nowhere near capable of actually mastering re-entry back through the thick atmospheric layers at supersonic speed. All analysis shows each ballistic missile breaking up.

So they have the bomb, they have the missiles, but they can’t shoot the missile long or even medium range successfully, and they definitely can’t survive re-entry.

There’s almost zero risk here. 

The only extant risk is using their crude conventional artillery systems to attack South Korea and possibly Japan with medium range missiles. The risk management in place is the vast anti-missile defence shields both nations have in place.

An uneasy “peace” on the Korean peninsula has stood for over sixty years. The real risks are not nuclear, but rather the collapse of the regime into chaos that could spark a conventional war, or lesser but still real, an equally brash “Dear Leader” who wants to use extreme force, with “fire and fury” against an oppressed and starving population.

Diplomacy must win out here, not pissing contests.

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      • Kelly was reasonably sane for Homeland security before his chief of staff appointment.
        I have also been mildly impressed by Rex Tillerson as SOS as he seems to be able to play Good cop to Trumps bad, but his days are numbered as he is hating the role.

    • Complacent? I was merely stating there is a rational Sec Def in front of irrational President.

      Mattis DOES NOT WANT TO GO TO WAR WITH NORTH KOREA. He will try everything to stop that war…

  1. I’m not sure that successful reentry is a requirement, Imagine the devastation of a Plutonium bomb that breaks up over a major city and rains down tiny grains of Plutonium or worse still the effects of an upper atmosphere Hbomb explosion. Are Australia or America ready for a major EMP event? Do we even have the vaguest idea what would happen to our modern communication capability if an EMP happened above a major city?
    Might try reading

    • You don’t have to be “not sure”, because its wrong.

      Can’t re-enter? You breakup. No detonation.

      The plutonium casing would be fried on re-entry and the breakup would have minimal impact, but yes there is a small risk (equal to say a small shelling of a town by conventional artillery)

      The North Koreans can’t successfully make H-bombs detonate, all of their nukes so far are piss weak yields (6-10Kt)

      • Re-entry isn’t a massive challenge if you’re only aiming for a broad area in the ionosphere with a missile already capable of exiting the atmosphere and therefore capable of handling most of the atmospheric issues.

        It’s a challenge which was solved over 60 years ago. Ceramic heat shield. Done. It only has to last a fraction of the time required of a shuttle.

        An EMP is a real possibility.

        However, Kim is said to have released an American prisoner. A sure sign that he wants to negotiate.

        It will be a historic meeting if Kim and Don get in a room.
        That’ll be when we see if Don is half as full of shit as the world wants to believe.
        It’ll be hilarious, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he just talks real estate and somehow manages to convince Kim into letting him build a Trump tower as a show of good faith.

      • What are you talking about? 10kt is more than enough to cause EMP damage especially if the weapon is EMP optimized.

      • All due respect, your blog and all, but in this case you’re the one that doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
        Trust me or better still do the research, look at the various heights for the different EMP experiments back in the late 50’s early 60’s and look at the effects and the sizes of the nukes used for EMP experiments. Reentry is not a problem for detonation at these heights, there are other problems but burning-up is not the main problem.
        EMP would cause massive electrical infrastructure damage without substantial loss of life, it’d be just the sort of weapon to use if you wanted to Teach-them-a-lesson. An EMP strike could cause massive localized economic damage without incurring the wrath of the world.

  2. Some have suggested Trump’s rhetoric is directed at both North Korea and China in an effort to force China to exert necessary pressure on Pyongyang. A little bit of fiery rhetoric goes down well in the home States too. MAGA.

  3. But if the DKRP is serious would they have the ability to deploy a nuke in any of the tunnels they have dug under the border and into South Korea? There’s more than one way to transport the nuke to the target. Perhaps I am reading the relations wrong though and the DPRK would prefer to avoid devastating other Koreans and would prefer unification.

    • casewithscience


      That is a terrible misunderstanding of the peninsula. Why would KJ want to massacre people (in the South) with a nuke that he believes should be his subjects? DPRK won’t ever nuke the South unless existentially threatened or targetting specific US or SK military targets.

      • they don’t have to nuke them. They have plenty of the world’s best conventional artillery.

      • @case

        Yeah I’ll freely admit I have minimal understanding of the history of the region and even less of the politics at play. What I had been told *and may it easily be untrue* is that the DPRK has on standby a crazy amount of conventional artillery ready and in range of Seoul. If they ever pulled the trigger on those forces the outcome would be catastrophic. Not on par with a nuke mind you but I don’t think *again with minimal knowledge* you’d use battalions of artillery for surgical strikes on a dense urban centre.

        So from my perspective it always looked like the DPRK was holding a pot of boiling water over the south and has been increasingly threatening to pour it over them.

  4. casewithscience

    North Korea is just a pawn in the game being used to pressure China and maintain US dominance in the neighbouring US protectorates of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Classic Athenian tactics. They are all pouring into US markets as a safe harbour, just as the delian league did following the threat of persian interference.

    • The Chinese just laid claim to 1 million square miles of the SCS. The US doesn’t need NK to play bad guy here.

    • Harsh statement.
      I have been in wars in the past, and I can’t tell you enough how dangerous it is

    • DodgydamoMEMBER

      reading Mr Becker’s analysis above seems to me like there’d be a fair to good chance NK would save us all the hassle and nuke themselves if they ever tried to fire a missile with one of their ‘piss weak’ warheads on it.

  5. Chris, I like you and I like your posts. But you know the square of **** all about both American politics and foreign affairs. I still remember you telling us that Donald Trump was definitely not going to win the presidency.

    • I agree that he knows nothing about US politics and foreign affairs, but the analysis about the warheads isn’t wrong.

    • Yes, I got the call completely wrong about Trump, and looking back, that’s a good thing, made me re-evaluate how to interpret and listen to a wider variety of views and what was going on.

      As to your unsubstantiated opinion in the first place, just because you don’t agree with my views or if I misunderstand one or many elements, doesn’t mean I dont know “anything” about geopolitics/history….

      I do have the guts to place my opinions and views out there in the internet ether with my real name attached though. You?

      • I’m an entrepreneur. I develop medical devices and before that I’ve been paid my whole working career based on deals I was able to close myself as well as proprietary trades.

        I’m not getting paid to attach my name to anything. I’ve had enough resistance making my living doing those things.

  6. Persuasive writings like such is what I beleive is the real fake news.

    Yes they have “piss weak nukes” and “there’s almost zero risk here” a beautiful view point for 99.9% of America.

    So let’s work backwards, you hoped a “piss weak nuke” dossier would leave readers with the simple view that America is not threatened and Trumps actions (words) are ones made by a imbecile, surely he knows about piss weak nukes? Right?

    Yet you continue to pen that the real ramifications are actually to South Korea etc with ONLY crude conventional weapons that will essentially wipe them out wave #1.

    Here’s the real news, President Moon Jae-in / Trump both promised a tougher response to NK threats last month. SK voted moon in wanting a harder stance on NK.

    Dismissing Trumps actions purely on a “piss weak nuke” dossier defies logic, neglects SK views and lacks to mention the elaborate missile upgrading programs run by NK government.

    It’s strong men like Trump that fought back the lefties out of SK in the 1950’s.

    It’s weak men that wrote dossiers against the continued armament of south Vietnamese soldiers and subsequently lost a war that was allready won in doing so.

    North Korea is still at war.

    • What are you talking about? “It’s strong men like Trump that fought back the lefties out of SK in the 1950’s.”

      In terms of fighting for his countryTrump had his chance to be a strong man during the Vietnam War but instead he was a draft dodger. Each to his own I suppose but he can’t have it both ways (and no, avoiding getting STD’s is not the equivalent of going off to war).

      • So Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower did not fight the communist back to the Chinese border 🤔?

        So when Trump bombed Syria recently he didnt really do that?

  7. I hope China is wondering how much nuclear fall out a billion of there citizens might get exposed to, Maybe then they might stop cosying up to ex-conrads.

  8. I’m probably entirely alone here but the threat from NK looks grossly over-stated. Some recent pictures of that lunatic leader, Kim, with various pieces of military equipment suggest their arsenal consists of weapons that K-mart would be allowed to stock. They may have substantial military personnel but the hardware looks like it’s from the Stone Age.

    NK is one of the poorest countries on the planet with an economy that’s been in dire straits for decades. That does not equate, in my eyes to a powerful / advanced military.

    • The threat analysis of a conventional war with NK is very well known and measured.

      TLDR version: lots of young Koreans will die, on both sides, but the North would not win the conflict because of their inability to logistically support a conventional conflict and evade the combined C4I abilities of the South Koreans/Japanese/US forces.

    • i’m with you. we should just leave them alone and treat them like a small, eccentric monarchy. we clearly have no idea how to handle these basket cases with any surety of a good outcome. lets leave it alone – not like there are not enough problems already.

  9. piss weak or not, if anything does happens, one thing leads to another, the butterfly effect and bo0m who knows where it ends up what sort of vol ends up eventuating in markets.

  10. PolarBearMEMBER

    It won’t be that hard to get a re entry vehicle to work. The rocket technology is the most difficult and they have largely done that. But agree that the present risk is overstated in the media. Mind you I wouldn’t like to be anywhere near a 10kt equivalent plutonium bomb, extremely toxic fallout.

    • Relevant StakeholderMEMBER

      Cmon Bro, NK leadership/media use bombastic language calling for the death and destruction of the west on a daily basis.

      They have parades based on that theme FFS.

      • I’m not claiming anything about North Korea but just that I remember seeing Trump use that term on the news recently while the article gives the impression that it was the Korean leader that said that.

      • desmodromicMEMBER

        Yes, but posturing is different to doing. The US is the only power to cross the moral threshold and use a nuclear weapon against another country. In an unstable world on the brink of war there is every chance they will do it again.

  11. It’s certainly a country that needs to not exist. Much like what Melbourne is to Australia. I think we should start with economic sanctions on Melbourne.

    • blockade the port.

      marrickville council could start a bdr program on victorian products and service

      refuse to accept victorian exports

      intern all victorian citizens in nsw

      ban the term “laneway”

      ban black skivvies

      and berets

    • refuse to use the word tram. use “light rail” instead

      refer to soccer as “football”

  12. We see the same confident predictions from the same people who told us the Iraq war will cost under $50 Billion.

    One thing is for sure, fighting a dug in NK at home would be a far harder task than fighting a bunch of goat herders and camel jockeys – and that one is still ongoing.