Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nuclear Korea


On the 25th of May, 2009, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its second nuclear weapons test. Once again, the DPRK has become an area of focus for intelligence analysts and politicians as the next course of action for the West is determined. While it remains to be seen whether or not tensions between the DPRK, its southern neighbor, and the rest of the world will be mitigated, one fact remains: the DPRK is developing a nuclear arsenal.


The DPRK has detonated two nuclear devices in the past three years. The first test took place in October of 2006, with the second taking place in May of 2009. Seismic monitoring has provided analysts with a general location of both test events, along with a rough determination of the yield of both tests. The first test seems to have been a sub-kiloton event, with the second test falling in the 1-3 kiloton range. The test location is roughly 65 kilometers northwest of the Musudan-Ri missile test complex, in the isolated northeastern sector of the DPRK.


The DPRK's nuclear test site consists of multiple areas. The isolated location is ideal for this type of testing; there is no civillian presence to speak of, and the terrain allows for UGFs to be employed at will to protect and mask sensitive activity. The bulk of the test area consists of three likely test locations, five unidentified locations, and a rail transfer point located south of Sumunnae, representing the only significant source of transportation into the area.

The locations of the identified facilities and areas in the DPRK's nuclear test area can be seen in the image below. Unidentified facilities are marked as red buildings.
Two of the possible test locations are similar, with the third site being of a wholly different configuration. Of the two similar sites, the northern site is commonly associated with the DPRK's nuclear testing. Whether this is due to intelligence sources leaking information or due to imagery interpretation, it is interesting to note that the southern site has escaped mention, as has the central site. Moreover, Globalsecurity offers before and after imagery of the northern site captured at the time of the 2006 nuclear test. While the imagery is not the highest quality, it should be pointed out that there does not appear to be any significant difference or change in activity at the northern site in either image. This begs the question: was this the actual site of the October 2006 test?

After the 2009 test event, the CTBTO provided coordinate data for the presumed test events of 2006 and 2009, along with probability ellipses indicating the area around the theorized detonation sites where the event was likely located. All three of the identified facilities in the test area fall within the boundaries of both the 2006 and 2009 probability ellipses.

While there is no firm evidence to suggest which site was the "host" to which event, some conclusions may be drawn. It is likely that at least one event took place at the northern site, given that all of the coordinates released by various agencies such as the USGS and the CTBTO for the epicenters of the 2006 and 2009 events are arrayed roughly in an east-west line just north of the northern site. This suggests that at least one, and perhaps both, of the test events took place at the northern site. The central site is not as expansive as the other facilities, and features an antenna farm of some sort, suggesting that it may represent a monitoring station for the two other facilities. The devices seen mounted atop the masts to the north of the facility may be atmospheric sampling devices meant to track the unintended release of radiation from the underground tests.

Details of the northern, central, and southern sites can be seen in the images below. The first image depicts the north site. A possible security checkpoint for entry into the test area can be seen, as well as the likely location of the test shaft itself.
Next, the central site can be seen. This site contains fewer structures than the north or south sites. In fact, the facilities on the western edge of the main area appear to possibly be in disrepair, suggesting that this may have been an existing facility partially converted to use for monitoring the nuclear testing grounds. To the north, the possible sensor masts can clearly be seen.
Finally, the southern site is depicted. Notice the similar layout to the northern site, with the buildings in the main area of the facility organized in a general "U" shape. There is also a possible security checkpoint, and a facility which may be housing the opening to the vertical test shaft. More likely, however, would be positioning the entrance to a vertical or horizontal shaft inside the main facility itself, given that it is situated in a valley between two ridges.
The remaining four unidentified facilities in the area likely perform administrative and support functions for the test range. One such facility, seen in the image below, contains a helipad and apparent housing structures.
The three remaining facilities may be abandoned or unoccupied military garrisons (the site was imaged in February of 2005), or further housing and support areas for nuclear technicians manning the site during a test cycle. The lack of activity at these locations in the available imagery suggests that the site may only be manned during a test period, and also raises a significant question: where did the bomb come from?

There are numerous UGFs in the area, a helipad, and a rail transfer point to the south. This suggests that range security and transport may be supported by helicopter, and that significant amounts of material and personnel arrive by rail, perhaps after arriving in the region by air. The UGFs and various unidentified facilities are the dark horses of the facility. It is possible that the components were delivered individually and then assembled on-site for a test. It is also possible that there is a nuclear weapons plant buried within one of the UGFs producing the weapons after nuclear material is delivered. A final option, one which has no real supporting evidence but which should nevertheless be considered, is that there is a facility in the region, likely inside of an UGF, that produces both the fissile material and the weapons. Enrichment facilities at Yongbyon would seem to refute this idea, but it does make for an interesting theory: while the world is distracted by the goings-on at Yongbyon, the DPRK quietly produces and tests nuclear weapons at a much more remote and lesser-known facility.


Many analysts have assumed that the DPRK is working towards a nuclear capability and has not as of yet fielded a weaponized bomb. There are two holes in this logic which should be pointed out immediately. Bear in mind that this is speculation, and should not necessarily be taken as pure fact, but rather a logical line of thought given the information at hand.

Firstly, a small detonation is a small detonation, not necessarily a fizzle or test failure. Current estimates indicate that the 2009 event was the result of a device no larger than three kilotons detonating underground. Rather than assuming that this is a step towards a multi-kiloton, or even megaton class nuclear or thermonuclear device, the possibility that the test was a complete success and the weapon performed as designed should not be overlooked. For that matter, the previous test in 2006 may have been a complete success as well, either testing a small-scale nuclear device or validating the performance of the components to be used for a later test.

With regard to the possibility of a small-scale nuclear weapon having been developed successfully, it is known that an armed conflict on the peninsula would result in the DPRK employing a large number of special operations forces. Small devices would be ideal weapons to smuggle into the Repiblic of Korea and detonate in advantageous locations. A small device detonating on the Han river in Seoul, for example, would not only destroy many of the bridges crossing the river, but would likely incite a mass panic, without obliterating a sizeable portion of the city itself. The resulting exodus of civillians, seeking shelter from future attacks or medical care for exposure to radiation, has the potential to interfere with the movement and resupply of military forces in the region. Small warheads would also be ideal for delivery by submarine or missile to targets such as air bases close to the coastline, and could be detonated inside the major port facilities to further complicate the ROK's resupply and civillian evacuation operations. From an asymmetric aspect, they could also be used after an outbreak of hostilities to environmentally cripple fishing grounds in the area which are important for both the ROK and Japan.

The second of the aforementioned holes in logic is that current analysis seems to be focusing on a nuclear-armed ballistic missile representing the end result of the DPRK's nuclear weapons program. As demonstrated previously, this may not necessarily be the case. The standard explanation given is that the DPRK has designs on fielding a nuclear-armed ICBM capable of striking the United States. Testing a weapon and miniaturizing the warhead to fit atop an ICBM takes time. However, this assumes that the second test was another trial, and does not allow for the possibility that the device which detonated was a weapons-ready device. If that were to be the case, then it would be likely that the intended delivery vehicle is not in fact an ICBM.

If DPRK nuclear warheads do not progress much further in yield, they will not have much value atop the nations's largely inaccurate ballistic missiles over intercontinental ranges. This would make aerial delivery or delivery by other means far more likely as they can impart a greater degree of accuracy. Where the weapons would be valuable in terms of missile delivery would be as "terror weapons" meant to be fired at the ROK or Japan. In this capacity the accuracy of the delivery systems would be less important given the large metropolitan and industrial areas in each nation which would be far easier to target. Also, firing a small yield weapon into the ROK to cause panic among the populace as described previously would not result in a release of radiation on the scale found in detonating a much larger weapon. That would almost make it more logical for the DPRK to pursue smaller yield weapons as they could then be employed in select areas without causing a significant degree of ill effects for the DPRK's own military forces to contend with. Alternatively these small weapons could be deployed in artillery shells or battlefield rockets to pulverize US and ROK positions along the DMZ before an advance into the ROK.

However, a limited number of nuclear warheads, large or small yield, are still not logically destined to be fitted to ballistic missiles targeting facilities in or outside the Korean theater. The DPRK's leaders may be paranoid and misguided, but they are not stupid. The United States is fielding numerous ballistic-missile defense systems and has multiple PAC-3 batteries in theater. Japan is also fielding the PAC-3, and the ROK is beginning to field the Patriot system as well, albeit in the PAC-2 form. AEGIS ABM-tasked vessels could also be placed in-theater if needed. This would make relying on ballistic missiles as the delivery system for nuclear warheads a questionable proposition as there is no guarantee that the nuclear-armed missiles would reach their targets. That is not an acceptable proposition for such an important national asset, of which there would only be a limited quantity. In that respect, the asymmetric, naval, or airborne delivery methods begin to seem far more plausible, and more logical from the standpoint of the DPRK. Airborne delivery would not necessarily require any miniaturization of a weapon, making it seem like a decent enough solution, but many of the same air defenses which would be used to intercept ballistic missiles would also be able to target hostile aircraft in conjunction with allied fighters, making airborne delivery a dubious proposition as well. At the end of the day, unless a large number of warheads are fielded to mount atop ballistic missiles and the loss of a percentage is accepted, the most likely uses would seem to be naval or asymmetric.

There is still value to testing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, even if a large scale deployment is not planned. This would force the US, the ROK, and Japan to divert more attention and resources to missile defense, potentially at the expense of other forces in-theater. Ergo, small-yield weapons testing and ballistic missile trials may not indicate that the DPRK is intending to operationally mate missiles and warheads to a significant degree.


The next question that must be answered is the future direction of the DPRK's nuclear weapons program. It will be important to study the results of any future nuclear test events to answer some of these questions.

Further tests resulting in a yield in the same range seen in the 2009 test will indicate that this is likely the design yield of the weapon. Contrarily, testing of weapons with increasing yield will indicate that the DPRK has its sights set on large yield weapons, and perhaps on thermonuclear weapons. Future nuclear test events will also aid analysts in determining the potential uses for such a weapon. Large yield weapons would have the ability to strike hardened facilities using less-accurate delivery systems, but small yield weapons would have to be accurately delivered and may only have limited use until a time when the DPRK has fielded a ballistic missile with hard-target kill levels of accuracy. Also, an expanded test program with shorter intervals between events will likely indicate that the DPRK has neared deployment of an operational weapon. However, a lack of test events does not necessarily indicate that weapons are not being deployed; if, as theorized previously, the current test met the DPRK's goals, then future testing may not be required until such a time when a larger yield weapon is desired.

Missile testing and training operations will also provide insight into whether nuclear warheads are being developed or deployed. Chemical or biological weapons are more likely to be used given their comparative cheapness and the belief that the DPRK maintains a large stockpile of one or both of those weapons. As long as CBW handling operations are detected in missile units without a significant change in procedure, it can be assessed with a degree of accuracy that nuclear weapons are not present.

A final option to consider for the future is another weapon system that has been rendered partially ineffective by recent defensive systems testing by the West: a FOBS. The DPRK's continued efforts to develop the Taepo-dong 2 SLV/ICBM is potentially indicative of a desire to have a space launch capability. After the most recent test the DPRK declared that a satellite had been orbited, a point which Western analysts dispute. Nevertheless, as a nuclear-tipped TD-2 is a paper threat until the DPRK produces a warhead of significant size to overcome the inherent inaccuracy of the delivery vehicle and develops penetration aids to defeat any American ABM systems, if a satellite launch capability can be developed and demonstrated, a FOBS would be an interesting avenue to pursue.


It can be stated with certainty that the DPRK is developing a nuclear weapons capability. How far along the program is, how many weapons may be available, and the intended and actual yields of the developed systems are up for debate. But at the end of the day, it would seem that the world is going to have to make room for another member of the Nuclear Club. How the West approaches and deals with the DPRK will have a significant impact on other nations wishing to acquire the same capability, providing them with an idea of how far the West will go to get its way. In this light, the DPRK's nuclear program, should it reach operational status, may be an impetus for Iran to fully develop a similar capability. And as a final note, the effect of a nuclear DPRK in the Korean theater may have much more ominous implications; could this be the final straw which forces Japan to shake off its self-imposed shackles and become a nuclear and offensive power in its own right?


Feel free to discuss the content of this article at the IMINT & Analysis Forum in the discussion thread found here.


-Satellite imagery provided courtesy of Google Earth

CTBTO on the DPRK's Nuclear Tests
The ROK's Patriots
DPRK Nuke Test
ISIS Online

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