North Korea’s Threat to Airburst a Hydrogen Bomb Over the Pacific: Causes and Consequences.

For 10 years, if not more, I have been writing in various fora regarding the North Korean nuclear crisis. I have always argued that without a change of course that we are “sleepwalking” toward catastrophe on the Korean peninsula, and this week the United Nations General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, repeated that very expression when referring to current developments.

As I am sure we are all aware President Trump in his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. That comment has been widely criticised, as it should be, but one important aspect was almost uniformly neglected in commentary. Namely, the United States has just about “totally destroyed” North Korea before through the use of strategic air power. According to Dean Rusk, ““everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another” was to borrow from Trump “totally destroyed.”

That this has been forgotten by us, including by those stepped in nuclear and strategic history, is to be expected but it is also to be expected that this fact, and it is a fact, has not been forgotten in North Korea as it indeed has not. That bombing included significant war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the bombing of dams and dykes. For us the Korean War is little more than Radar and Hawkeye.

This might explain some of the heated rhetoric from Kim Jong-un in response to the Trump statement. As if to compact the folly, one sees reports today of a B-1B bomber patrol close to North Korea’s border, and that for the first time North of the 38th parallel, with Japanese F-15 Eagles providing fighter escort. The B-1B is nuclear capable, but no longer has nuclear missions, but that is a subtlety perhaps lost on the North Koreans.

There has also appeared plenty of rhetoric regarding the possible decapitation of the North Korean leadership through military means, and even South Korean exercises and missile tests, of the Hyunmoo-2A and 2B, simulating this. Doubtless the bomber patrols are relevant to this context also.

The problem with this is that North Korea will have a very tightly controlled and centralised strategic nuclear command, control and information system much as the Soviet Union did. The rhetoric on, and exercises of, decapitation only adds to the use them or lose them dynamic that North Korea would be confronted with during a military crisis. That dynamic, of C3I vulnerability and decapitation, would apply even if North Korea’s strategic nuclear capabilities are road mobile (North Korea just tested a Hwasong-12 IRBM from a TEL for the first time).

The big attention grabbing news item last week was Kim Jong-un’s direct response to a US President, made following Trump’s remarks suggesting some form of escalatory counter reaction, and the accompanying suggestion form a North Korean official that a possible response to Trump’s remarks would be a live missile firing of a thermonuclear warhead to be air bursted over the Pacific Ocean.

Just what missile that would be is an interesting matter. Just before the September 03 hydrogen bomb test North Korea showed off a model of a two-stage thermonuclear warhead being placed into the Hwasong-14 ICBM RV, the model is not the same as the warhead tested, but declared that the warhead is for a new ICBM. Presumably that’s a new ICBM carrying a Hwasong-14 RV with a heavier payload. Can the Hwasong-12 RV be configured for the thermonuclear warhead tested? The North Koreans may provide us answers to such questions, as well as a wealth of radionuclide data, sooner than we expected.

Trump’s rhetoric, and actions, provide North Korea with a sort of cover for a full scale reliability test of its strategic nuclear capabilities.

Established nuclear weapon states have conducted live fire missile tests to establish the integrated system wide reliability of their strategic nuclear missiles. The most well known is China’s test of a nuclear warhead, with a yield of 20-30KT, launched by a ballistic missile, a DF-2, on October 27 1966. A declassified CIA analysis at the time states that the test came when “the regime was badly in need of a showy achievement.” Part of that “showy achievement” was demonstrating to Washington that this was a capability China possessed, although interestingly enough the CIA concluded that the test was inefficient, not a true two-stage thermonuclear warhead, and that the warhead and RV was heavy and bulky and so thus “the Chinese have much to learn about thermonuclear technology.”

The United States itself also conducted a live nuclear warhead test, of the W-47, from a missile in this case a Polaris-A2 SLBM. The warhead was air bursted over the Pacific, to the South of Hawaii, and the yield was 600KT. The US has also conducted other atmospheric tests from missile launches, although not on a ballistic trajectory. The Soviet Union also conducted live fire reliability tests of nuclear missiles in the early 1960s.

In commentary during the week it was not pointed out that the nuclear missile era actually began with the live firing of a missile with a nuclear warhead. That event occurred on February 02 1956, when the Soviet Union launched an R-5M MRBM from Kapustin Yar to the Karakum Desert. The yield here is an interesting tale in itself. It is widely reported that the yield of this test was a fizzle, of 300 tonnes of TNT, and that the desired yield was 70-80KT. Boris Chertok in his memoirs describes this test and an encounter with a nuclear academician, General Yevgeny Negin, many years after the event. Chertok reports that Negin told him the yield of the R-5M live test was less than 3KT. If it were a fizzle, then Negin misled Chertok for Chertok makes no mention of a fizzle yield.

One interesting feature of the possible live firing of a thermonuclear warhead, or any nuclear warhead for that matter, by North Korea into the Pacific relates to Ballistic Missile Defense.

Consider.

Then US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, at the tail end of the Obama administration, stated that if a North Korean missile launch threatens the US or its allies, read Japan and South Korea, the US would likely conduct an intercept attempt with the BMD assets available to it. There has been no BMD intercept attempt, even though the Hwasong-12 has now twice overgone Japan. The second overgone flight prompted much commentary regarding the comatose state of BMD, as it should have, prompting the current Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, to issue a corollary namely an intercept would be attempted only if it “directly” threatens the US or its allies.

Notice how the red line was shifted toward greater accommodation of Kim Jong-un? Not a lot of analysis has been devoted to this, but surely Pyongyang has noticed this back tracking after its recent actions. This may well have influenced North Korea’s perception of US resolve.
However, the recent North Korean statements have again adjusted the goal posts here. Unless informed prior there is no way for Tokyo and Washington to know whether a North Korean MET, standard trajectory, test or exercise of its long range ballistic missile capabilities does or does not carry a live nuclear warhead.

So therefore, every MET test of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14, on standard prudential grounds, must now be construed as a direct threat to Japan. That means certainly under the Carter doctrine, but also the Mattis corollary, that a BMD interception attempt, either of Aegis BMD assets in situ, or for the Hwasong-14, if fired toward the North Pacific, GMD enters the interception picture.

A Hwasong-14 with a possible thermonuclear warhead fired into the North Pacific directly toward the United States meets both the Carter doctrine and its Mattis corollary Pacific (nothing to stop Pyongyang going south but that would be toward US territories). Should GMD stay put under these circumstances then it would be a PR fiasco for the Pentagon of the highest order. There are three problems that I see on the GMD front. Firstly, GMD is a dud. Secondly, multiple GMD GBI interceptors need to be fired at the Hwasong-14 to increase the probability of kill. Those multiple interceptors might be construed by Russian early warning as a US attack upon Russia. Thirdly, we have no idea how North Korea would react to a BMD intercept attempt.

What the consequences of a BMD interception attempt would be in so far as escalatory dynamics are concerned is unknown to us.

President Kennedy stated during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the odds of nuclear war were between one third and even. Those are high odds. The chances that we are heading toward a war on the Korean peninsula seem to me to be high. I will write more about the possible road to war during the upcoming week (at some point).