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North Korea Today - Iran Tomorrow

Family Security Matters, April 12, 2013

by Dr. Peter Vincent Pry

Prudence 1957

After the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 1949 and then launched into orbit its Sputnik satellite in 1957, a bipartisan national consensus quickly emerged, led by President Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson among others, that the USSR had achieved a technological breakthrough, and would soon possess intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering nuclear annihilation against the American heartland.  Consequently, the U.S. launched a crash program to develop ICBMs and other systems to deter this emerging Soviet nuclear missile threat.

Intelligence on the Soviet missile program was poor--probably poorer than present intelligence on the nuclear missile threat from North Korea.  However, the American people and their political leaders of 1957, who had witnessed Pearl Harbor and survived World War II, knew that it is far safer to prepare for the worst than to hope for the best.

Liberal historians often criticize those Republican and Democrat leaders of 1957 for "overreacting" to an allegedly exaggerated "missile gap" between the U.S. and USSR that spurred the United States to outrace the Soviet Union in ICBM production.  But President John F. Kennedy was glad to have a 5-to-1 advantage over the USSR in ICBMs during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is no such thing as an excess of caution when it comes to anticipating and preparing to deter or defeat the existential threat represented by nuclear weapons.  Prudence, caution, and preparedness are the watchwords that enabled the United States to avoid a thermonuclear holocaust and ultimately prevail in the Cold War, the same virtues by which most Americans live their daily lives.

Ordinary Americans understand from the experience of life that it is far better to be "over-prepared" than under-prepared.  Although for the average person the risk is remote of a dangerous car collision or of their house burning down, the prudent person wears a seatbelt, is glad to have air bags in their car, and invests in a home fire alarm.  The worst can happen.

Only fools drive around without seatbelts, refuse fire alarms in their homes, and generally act with reckless confidence that the worst can never happen to them.  Prudence is the wisdom of anticipating and preparing for the worst.

Imprudence 2013

Prudence and common sense appear to be absent in the Obama administration, and among Republicans, who during the present crisis with North Korea falsely reassure the American people that Pyongyang cannot deliver on its threats to make a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland.

North Korea could deliver a nuclear bomb in the hold of a freighter under a foreign flag to destroy a U.S. port city, like New York or Los Angeles.  They could give a bomb to terrorists like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah to deliver by truck or plane across the porous U.S. border.  They could use a false flagged freighter to move a Scud or their medium-range Nodong missile close enough to make a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.

What about North Korea's claim that it has long-range nuclear missiles that can strike the U.S.--right now?  If our present crop of leaders is as prudent as were President Eisenhower and Senator Johnson in 1957, they would warn the American people that North Korean nuclear threats to the U.S. heartland may be real.  After all, North Korea has had at least three successful nuclear tests and successfully orbited a satellite--this last the usual indicator that a nuclear power has achieved intercontinental reach.

A recently leaked Defense Intelligence Agency briefing concludes North Korea probably has miniaturized nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles.  The Obama administration is desperately backpedaling from this DIA assessment, trying to downplay and even deny the existence of a North Korean nuclear missile threat--in sad contrast to the example of strategic prudence, realism and honesty set by President Eisenhower and Senator Johnson in 1957.

However, contrary to most press reporting, that North Korea has nuclear missiles is old news.  Previously the DIA (2011), European intelligence agencies (2009), and a CIA official (2008) have stated publicly that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads and deployed them on its Nodong medium-range missile.  This a conservative, sound assessment, since North Korea has been working on nuclear warheads for nearly 20 years, and has had three nuclear tests.  Israel and South Africa developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without any nuclear tests.

The Miniaturization Myth

Since the Obama administration cannot deny that North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons, and cannot deny that North Korea has successfully tested and deployed ballistic missiles, their last remaining rationalization to hide from the reality that North Korea is already a nuclear threat to its neighbors and the United States is--miniaturization.  Supposedly, according to the Obama administration, North Korea has not yet "demonstrated" --North Korea's assertions and threats notwithstanding--that it can actually build a nuclear warhead small enough for delivery by missile.

How can North Korea "demonstrate" to the satisfaction of the Obama administration that they can, as White House spokesman Jay Carney challenged, "attach a warhead to a missile and fire it"?  Shall they turn Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington into "a sea of flames"--as Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to do--in order to overcome the Obama administration's stubborn denial of the obvious fact that North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state?  Kim Jong-un just might.  North Korea so far has met every White House challenge in their quest to prove that they are a nuclear missile power capable of destroying us and our allies.

President Obama should stop playing a game of rhetorical "nuclear chicken" with Kim Jong-un.  The President of the United States and the American people cannot afford to indulge the dangerous fantasy that North Korea is not a nuclear weapons state.  Instead of this petulant war of words, emulate the example of President Eisenhower and Senator Johnson in 1957, and of President Ronald Reagan's courageous decisions during the Cold War, to match enemy threats with the deeds of military preparedness.  Mr. President, it was called "Peace through Strength."         

"Peace through Strength" is needed now more than ever, because President Obama is wrong and Kim Jong-un is right--North Korea really is a nuclear missile power.

Contrary to the Obama administration and the uninformed mass media, developing a nuclear missile warhead is not such an insurmountable technological challenge that it should be used as an excuse to deny the existence of a nuclear missile threat from North Korea.  A missile warhead must be miniaturized to fit inside a reentry vehicle, equipped with shock absorbers to protect the physics package from the shocks of acceleration and deceleration during flight, and a heat shield provided for the inferno of atmospheric re-entry.  These are significant technological challenges.  But they are easy to accomplish, even trivial, compared to the technological challenges of developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the first place.

Any nation that has mastered the technological challenges of successfully detonating a nuclear device, developing ballistic missiles, and orbiting a satellite, can easily miniaturize their nuclear device and solve the other technical problems associated with developing a missile nuclear warhead--including a warhead deliverable to intercontinental range.         

Modern technology has already solved for North Korea one of the hardest parts of warhead miniaturization--electronics.  In the early days of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, one of the greatest technological challenges facing warhead miniaturization was reducing the weight and size of the electronics during those vacuum tube days.  Modern microelectronics virtually eliminates this problem.

North Korea's Nodong medium-range missile can deliver a warhead weighing 2000 pounds to a range of about 1300 kilometers.  North Korea's so-called Space Launch Vehicle, which is really a variant of their Taepodong II intercontinental missile, has a demonstrated capability to project a satellite into orbit--which means it has unlimited range and could potentially deliver a nuclear attack against any nation on Earth, if armed with a miniaturized warhead.  This planetary delivery system appears to be borrowed from the Russians, who during the Cold War developed a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) to make a stealthy surprise nuclear attack upon the United States. 

North Korea's version of the FOBS with worldwide range orbited a satellite that weighs only 220 pounds--can a nuclear warhead weigh so little?

Even using the technologies of a half-century ago, nuclear weapons were developed that could be delivered by North Korea to the U.S. mainland today.   North Korea's so-called Space Launch Vehicle could deliver against the U.S. heartland any of the antique nuclear weapons below:

Using the technology of 56 years ago, in 1957 the U.S. deployed the T-4, a nuclear weapon weighing 120 pounds with a yield of 15 kilotons, as powerful as the 9,000 pound Hiroshima bomb (10-15 KTs), but with weight reduced to about 1 percent. 

Using the technology of 51 years ago, in 1962 the U.S. deployed the W-45 missile warhead, that weighed 150 pounds with a yield of 15 kilotons.

Using the technology of 49 years ago, in 1964, the U.S. deployed the W-58 warhead, that weighed 257 pounds and had a yield of 200 kilotons--some twenty times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.  The U.S. deployed the W-58 nineteen years after Hiroshima.

North Korea has been working on nuclear weapons for 19 years, but using modern 21st century technology, with access to copious declassified U.S. materials on nuclear weapons design, and with help from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and others.  We know from our own experience with nuclear weapon designs of a half-century ago that North Korea may well already have warheads that its missiles can deliver against the United States.

North Korean Nuclear Weapons

The W-58 was a thermonuclear warhead, while North Korea is assessed as having only plutonium and uranium fission atomic weapons--might North Korea have the H-bomb?

In 2010, North Korea may have conducted two clandestine tests of fusion nuclear devices, according to credible European analysis of radionuclides.

The U.S. focuses on North Korea's plutonium and uranium programs because that is all we can see.  Hiding advancement to thermonuclear weapons is relatively easy.  The U.S. did not know Israel developed thermonuclear weapons, and assessed Israel as having only atomic weapons, until the defection of Israeli nuclear weapons expert Mordechai Vanunu exposed that Israel has thermonuclear weapons too--developed clandestinely without testing.

But the yields of North Korean nuclear weapons tested in 2006, 2009, and 2013 were just a few kilotons, and the alleged tests of thermonuclear devices in 2010 were also very low yield?

Suppose the strategic optimists and "best case thinkers" are right in their wishful thinking that North Korea, even with help from Russia and other nuclear states, is so incompetent that it cannot duplicate the U.S. achievement of 1945 and build an atomic bomb with a yield greater than several kilotons.  Even such primitive, inefficient weapons would pose an unprecedented threat to the U.S. mainland.  Ground burst in a city, such a weapon would probably kill more people than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined from blast, thermal, and radioactive fallout effects.  Even such a poorly designed nuclear weapon, used in the most benign scenario for an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, lofted to the minimum altitude by balloon, could still collapse the Eastern Grid that generates 70 percent of the nation's electricity, causing a protracted blackout.

Unfortunately, the above optimistic explanation for the low-yield of North Korea's nuclear tests, that they are incompetent, is so at variance with the experience of the U.S. and all other nations in developing nuclear weapons that it strains credulity--and is almost certainly false.

Far more likely that the North Koreans are not testing their weapons to full yield, because they want to conceal their actual capabilities and achieve technological surprise, and need to conserve their precious reserves of plutonium, uranium and,  possibly, tritium--if they have thermonuclear weapons.  They could be testing the primaries, the part of a nuclear weapon that sets off a larger atomic or fusion explosion, and the part most prone to failure.  The United States, after the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, rarely tested nuclear weapons to full yield.  U.S. nuclear tests focused on effects experiments and testing weapon primaries, which are low yield.

Most likely is the worst case--North Korea is doing full weapon testing of Super-EMP warheads.  A Super-EMP weapon would look exactly like the North Korean nuclear tests, consistently producing such very low yields because it is not designed to create a big explosion, but to convert energy into an enormous burst of gamma rays, which generates the Super-EMP effect.  This also seems the most likely explanation for the North Korean nuclear tests because multiple credible sources say that North Korea has Super-EMP warheads.         

Worst Case Most Likely

Worst case for the United States is if North Korea has Super-EMP weapons--a single such nuclear warhead detonated over America would generate a powerful electromagnetic pulse that would assuredly collapse the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures necessary to sustain modern society and the lives of 300 million Americans.

A Super-EMP warhead would likely be small enough for delivery against the U.S. mainland by North Korea's long-range missiles.  Indeed, since an EMP attack detonates the warhead above the atmosphere, a weapon designed for EMP attack does not need a re-entry vehicle or heat shield, which are usually the heaviest components of a nuclear warhead.  Thus, rogue states like North Korea and Iran whose long-range missiles are constrained in payload may find EMP attack most attractive because it is the easiest nuclear strike option to engineer--and by far the most damaging.    

Russia, South Korea, China, and the U.S. EMP Commission have all warned that North Korea has Super-EMP nuclear weapons.

Existing U.S. missile defenses cannot stop a North Korean long-range missile attack against the U.S. mainland, if they launch a warhead like a satellite, on a south polar orbit, so it strikes the U.S. mainland from the south, where there are no missile radars or interceptors--hitting the U.S. from its blindside.  North Korea appeared to practice just such an attack with its satellite launch in December 2012.  Iran too, with a so-called Space Launch Vehicle using North Korean boosters and helped by North Korean technicians, has orbited several satellites that appear to practice this stealthy nuclear attack.

All of these North Korean and Iranian satellite orbits were at an altitude--if instead a nuclear warhead is used--optimal for placing an EMP field over the entire contiguous 48 United States.

The Obama administration's decision to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system to Guam at first gave me hope that they were secretly concerned about a possible North Korean nuclear missile threat to the U.S. mainland.  North Korea's so-called Space Launch Vehicle would have to pass over the vicinity of Guam to orbit a nuclear warhead on a stealthy south polar trajectory, to hit the U.S. from the south.  However, THAAD only has a ceiling of 200 kilometers--a North Korean warhead hurled at the United States would sail over Guam at an altitude of 500 kilometers, untouchable by THAAD.       

Astonishingly, the Obama administration really is concerned only about a possible imminent North Korean missile strike (presumably non-nuclear) on Guam, and is unprepared for a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland!

Prudence and caution dictate that North Korea's threats to make nuclear attacks on the continental U.S. should not be lightly dismissed as mere "bluster."  Otherwise, if we are prepared to be so misled by our leaders, then we should be prepared to hear from the White House and Congress in the near future that Iran--despite orbiting several satellites, and even if it conducts three successful nuclear tests--is still not a real threat to the American heartland. 


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