Seriously 2020, what next?
At a military parade on Saturday to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers Party, North Korea unveiled a new and massive intercontinental ballistic missile, which arms experts say may be capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads to targets as far away as the US homeland.
Experts say the new North Korean ICBM is probably called the Hwasong-16. Measuring some 82 to 85 feet in length, about 9 feet in diameter, and likely weighing between 220,000 and 330,000 pounds at launch, it’s the world’s largest mobile missile, according to an Oct. 10 assessment from 38 North, a North Korea-focused intelligence and analysis website.
The 38 North authors estimate the new ICBM, which is an upgrade of the existing Hwasong-15 missile, could “in principle” deliver a payload of 4,400 to 7,700 pounds “to any point in the continental United States.”
North Korea also reportedly unveiled a new solid-fuel, submarine-launched missile at Saturday’s parade. Yet, the massive, liquid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM is what caught the eye of US officials and nuclear arms experts, sparking concerns that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might try to exploit this new weapon to extort diplomatic concessions from the US.
“It’s not clear why the North Koreans invested in huge missiles. All I can think of is that they are replicating those parts of the old Soviet ICBM force that worried us the most in the 1970s and 1980s, and hope to get some kind of favorable reaction from us, something that will make us trade something [North Korea] wants, such as international recognition and lifting of sanctions, in exchange for getting rid of the missiles,” Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, arms control expert, and former chief scientist of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
North Korea’s new intercontinental ballistic missile. Photo by Lokman Karadag via Twitter.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal comprises some 30 to 40 weapons and enough fissile material on hand for six or seven more, according to the Arms Control Association. A US government study in 2017 estimated that North Korea’s production of weapons-grade material may be enough to build some 12 nuclear weapons a year.
“An unexpected ‘super heavy’ ICBM would be a classically Khrushchevian statement of North Korea’s technical prowess, the robustness of its ability to threaten the US, and the permanence of its nuclear weapons status,” wrote the 38 North authors, referring to the former Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, whose decision to place nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962 sparked the Cuban missile crisis.
“Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word ‘war’ would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” North Korea’s Kim reportedly said during a July 28 speech.
Although North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since September 2017, a report by a panel of UN experts, released last month, determined that Pyongyang has likely developed the ability to manufacture miniaturized nuclear warheads. North Korea is also reportedly working to develop multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, also known as MIRVs, for its biggest ICBMs.
If those assessments are accurate, Pyongyang may already be capable of arming a single missile with multiple warheads, each of which can target a different location after release from the mother missile. Such a missile system would be much more difficult for America’s missile defense shield to destroy. However, its presence on North Korean territory also offers America’s strategic military forces a “lucrative” option for a nuclear counterstrike, Zimmerman said, adding that North Korea was “putting all their nuclear eggs under one shroud.”
“I don’t see an increase in the overall nuclear threat to the United States, because I think that deterrence is pretty robust. That said, very large ICBMs with multiple warheads increase the consequences should anything go wrong. That cannot be a good thing,” said Zimmerman, who is now emeritus professor of Science and Security at King’s College London.
The 38 North authors doubted whether Pyongyang has developed a “militarily useful” MIRV system, noting that North Korea’s military has not yet flight-tested an operational MIRV from the second stage of an ICBM. The massive new ICBM revealed over the weekend has also not been flight tested, raising questions about its operational utility.
Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, designed to carry nuclear weapons, on display in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Thomas Moore, a former senior professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
“[North Korea] may need larger missiles for heavy payloads. They may also simply be faking it,” Moore said, adding that trying to derive useful intelligence from parade images is “useful speculation, but still just speculation.”
Pyongyang’s new missiles mark the latest in a series of incremental upticks in the overall global nuclear threat against the US.
US and Russian leaders appear to be at an impasse in negotiations to save the New START agreement — the last remaining nuclear arms limitation treaty between the two Cold War-era foes — before it expires in February. The US side says China is in the midst of a “crash nuclear program” and any future deal with Russia must impose limits on China’s nuclear arsenal, too.
“The antiquated Cold War construct of a bilateral, two-country-only solution does not work in a world where a third party — in this case China — is rapidly building up,” Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, the US special presidential envoy for arms control, told reporters in June.
“So we think and what we seek to do is avoid a three-way arms race, and we believe the very best way to do that is to arrive and achieve a three-way nuclear deal,” Billingslea said.
China is expected to “at least double” the size of its nuclear arsenal in the next decade, US officials have said. China is also reportedly developing a so-called nuclear triad — comprising the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by ground-based ICBMs, by sea-launched missiles from submarines, and by aircraft.
In April, the US State Department published a report raising concerns that China had conducted low-yield nuclear tests in 2019 at a site called Lop Nur. And last year China test-fired more than 200 ballistic missiles, “far more than the rest of the world combined,” Billingslea said in August.
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge/Released.
According to the Arms Control Association, the US possesses some 6,185 nuclear weapons, while Russia has 6,490 such weapons in its arsenal. The US-based Federation of American Scientists estimated China has about 320 warheads — roughly on par with France’s number of 300.
“While Beijing has long focused on maintaining a minimum deterrent, it is likely that its nuclear stockpile will increase in the next few decades,” the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said in an April 2020 report.
The report’s authors added: “Additionally, if the United States continues to expand and strengthen its missile defense program, China may modify its nuclear posture to include a significantly larger nuclear force with the potential to strike the United States.”
Signed by former Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the New START treaty limits Russia and the US each to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. The original START I was signed in 1991, six months before the Soviet Union dissolved.
In addition to China’s inclusion, the US also wants New START to enact limits on Russia’s newest weapons, including hypersonic missiles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles, which were not included in the original deal. So far, Russia has balked at meeting America’s requirements, setting up a contentious final few months of negotiations in advance of New START’s expiration in February.
President Donald Trump is trying to secure a deal with Moscow to extend the strategic arms treaty before the upcoming presidential election, Axios reported Sunday. Putin, too, has said he’s open to renegotiating the pact. However, in June the Russian president raised some eyebrows in Washington when he signed an executive order authorizing the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear attacks that “threaten the existence” of Russia or its nuclear forces.
Meanwhile, in defiance of US and international sanctions, Iran has not abandoned its uranium enrichment program. In June the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated it would take Iran three to six months to manufacture enough weapons-grade material to produce a nuclear weapon.
“The Iranians continue to enrich uranium, and to a much higher degree than they have committed themselves to. And this amount is growing by the month,” International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi told the German newspaper Die Presse in an interview published Saturday.