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Jan 3, 2017 | 09:01 GMT

10 mins read

Derailing a Nuclear Program by Force

This is the second installment of a five-part series examining the measures that could be taken to inhibit North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Editor's Note

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a five-part series that originally ran in May 2016 examining the measures that could be taken to inhibit North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The purpose of this series is not to consider political rhetoric or noninvasive means of coercion, such as sanctions. Rather, we are exploring the military options, however remote, that are open to the United States and its allies, and the expected retaliatory response from Pyongyang. The entire series can be found here.

Exactly how the United States and its allies would derail the North Korean nuclear program depends on many factors, not least of which is the extent to which they want to destabilize the sole governing body in Pyongyang. Washington does not want a long-term intervention, meaning that target sets, duration of activity and levels of violence would be limited. That said, any military action must be carried out swiftly and decisively. Rather than exhaustively explore every possible course of action, in the second part of this series, Stratfor will examine the most likely targets should the United States wish to curtail Pyongyang's nuclear activities through force.

A comprehensive evaluation of U.S. targeting options against North Korean nuclear infrastructure must take into account a tremendous number of variables. The political objective, the scope, and the operational nature of the scenario in question will impose vastly different parameters, leading to very different results. For instance, a U.S. strike could be conducted as part of a larger regime change operation; it could be done as part of a strategic plan to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program, allowing plenty of time for planning and preparation; or it could be done on short notice in reaction to an imminent threat. Other variables can certainly be integrated into the evaluation but not without changing the mission profile.

When considering an attack on North Korea, there are two broad categories of strikes to deliberate. The first is a minimalist strike, specifically focused on dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program. In this scenario, the United States would engage North Korean nuclear objectives only. By not launching strikes on other North Korean targets, Washington leaves the door open, if only slightly, for de-escalation if Pyongyang can be convinced that the strike is not part of a regime change operation. What benefits Pentagon planners in this scenario is that a limited strike requires less resources and preparation, enhancing the element of surprise.

The second category of strike that must be considered is a comprehensive one. This scenario assumes that that a U.S.-led strike against North Korea's nuclear infrastructure would inevitably escalate into full-scale war. Therefore, the United States would launch a strategic air campaign not only to destroy North Korean nuclear infrastructure but also to target North Korean command and control facilities, key leaders, artillery and missile units, chemical and biological weapons facilities, airfields, ports, forward positions, and other targets of importance. The disadvantage for the United States in this scenario is that staging for such a campaign would be of such a large scale that Pyongyang would inevitably be forewarned. North Korea could carry out its own pre-emptive strikes in addition to shielding and dispersing its units in advance.

Stratfor's evaluation will focus on the minimalist strike option. The United States has no reason to initiate a massive conflict with North Korea without a reasonable hope of dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program. The first priority, then, is to figure out what would be required to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program, followed by whether the U.S. military can carry out the mission. 

Target Sets

To be sure of destroying Pyongyang's nuclear capability, there are three categories of targets that the United States would have to hit: nuclear production infrastructure, the nuclear devices and warheads themselves, and any associated delivery vehicles. The intelligence picture is incomplete, however, making it exceedingly difficult to carry out a complete evaluation. As a result, some deductions rely heavily on planning estimates.

Nuclear Production Infrastructure

Yongbyon Gas-cooled Reactor Complex

In late 1985, North Korea brought into operation a small "experimental power reactor" at Yongbyon, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Pyongyang. The gas-cooled, graphite-moderated, natural uranium-fueled plant exhibited all the features of a plutonium production reactor for weapons purposes, producing only 5 electrical megawatts (MWe) of power, roughly the same output as a small geothermal power plant. North Korea also made substantial progress in the construction of two larger reactors from 1985 onward, applying the same design principles. One prototype at Yongbyon produced about 200 thermal megawatts (MWt), equivalent to around 50 MWe.

By international standards, any plant producing less than 300 MWe is considered small — for comparison, a U.S. Navy Nimitz-class supercarrier is powered by a pair of 550-MWt nuclear reactors, each producing around 165 MWe. A full-scale reactor constructed at Taechon, 25 kilometers north of Yongbyon, produced around 800 MWt, or 200 MWe. In addition to the nuclear power stations, Pyongyang completed and commissioned a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, specifically for the extraction of plutonium from spent reactor fuel. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors revealed the existence of the plant, speculating that it could produce up to 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of fissile plutonium per year. Modern implosion-type nuclear devices generally require around 5-6 kilograms of fissile plutonium (or uranium) per weapon.

Pyongsan Uranium Mine and Enrichment Facility

In 1992, North Korea acknowledged to the IAEA the existence of a uranium mine and associated concentrate plant in Pyongsan. Pyongsan is believed to be the most important uranium mine and mill in North Korea, producing the highest quality uranium in the northern part of the peninsula. There is another mill, near Pakchon, but that is believed to be a pilot facility. The Pyongsan mine is connected to the mill by a conveyor belt that brings uranium ore into the mill for processing. The various structures within the mill are connected to one another, allowing the uranium to be processed in stages. Finally, the mill is connected to a large pond where tailings are dumped.

Though Pyongyang has operated the facility intermittently over the past decade, new spoil and tailings appeared sometime between 2006 and 2011, suggesting that the North resumed uranium mining and milling after a lull of many years. The uranium produced may have been fabricated into new fuel rods for the 5-MWe gas graphite reactor. North Korea has only 2,500 fresh fuel rods for this reactor — less than a third of a full load. (North Korea also produced 12,000 rods that were fabricated for the never completed 50-MWt reactor, which could be converted into reactor fuel.) The uranium might also have been converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which could be enriched to build nuclear weapons, either at the enrichment plant that the North revealed to U.S. inspectors visiting Yongbyon in 2010 or at a covert site.

Pyongsong Research and Development Facility

During a reorganization of scientific research activities in the 1970s, the majority of North Korea's nuclear research institutes were transferred from Pyongyang to the city of Pyongsong, 26 kilometers from the capital. Here the various institutes and laboratories were combined into a single scientific center, often referred to as North Korea's Silicon Valley.

Other Targets

These facilities form the heart of North Korean nuclear production infrastructure. If they were destroyed or disabled, the North Korean nuclear production network would be crippled, set back years at least. There are other facilities, however, that have a role in Pyongyang's nuclear program and would be considered viable targets. These include the Pakchon uranium enrichment pilot facility, the Cheonma-San uranium enrichment facility, the Yongjo-ri uranium enrichment facility, the Sunchon and Pakchon uranium mines, the alleged Taechon reprocessing plant, and the Punggye-ri explosives test facility.

Nuclear Warhead and Devices Stockpiles 

Little information exists on the size of the North Korean arsenal, or even on the type of warheads and devices Pyongyang has constructed. North Korea is estimated to have a stockpile of 10-25 nuclear weapons or devices. It is working to enhance its weapons design and sophistication and is seeking to miniaturize devices to fit into a range of delivery vehicles. No information is publicly available on the location of individual weapons, warhead clusters or larger stockpiles.

Nuclear Delivery Vehicles

Land-Based

North Korea primarily seeks to deliver its nuclear warheads via its land-based ballistic missile arsenal. Its scientists are trying to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit onto ballistic missiles, but it is unknown how successful those attempts have been or the degree to which the program has progressed.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, North Korea has fewer than 100 Toksa and Scud launchers, fewer than 50 Nodong launchers, and fewer than 50 intermediate-range ballistic missile launchers, including the BM25 Musudan. The North Koreans are working on developing the KN-08/KN-14 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and they have previously tested the Taepodong series of missiles from static locations at the Tongchang-ri and Musudan-ri fixed missile launch sites. Pyongyang would prefer a highly mobile land-based arsenal, giving it the option to move its nuclear weapons around, hiding them from prying eyes or airstrikes. Fixed sites are for the most part easily identifiable and quickly destroyed, and some of the larger mobile platforms are more vulnerable, given the time it takes to set up and fire. The type of missile and launch platform determines its range: Toksa and Scud mobile platforms can engage targets from 100 to 700 kilometers away. Longer-range intermediate ballistic missiles are designed to travel from 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers, but it is uncertain whether Pyongyang can achieve these ranges in practice.

Air-Based

The North Korean combat air fleet is aging and vulnerable, but it is also large and technologically the easiest way to deliver a nuclear weapon or device to target. Though modifications are generally necessary to enable aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons, the upgrades are relatively easy to do, especially if the North Koreans are not concerned about the aircraft surviving the delivery process.

On paper, North Korea fields more than 800 combat aircraft. Many aircraft types flown by North Korea could be modified to drop a nuclear bomb, but the H-5 bomber, of which North Korea is believed to have approximately 80, is probably the best-suited airframe for the job.

Sea-Based

The North Koreans operate a single Sinpo-class diesel-electric submarine, which is able to launch a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The North Korean Sinpo is currently being used to test the KN-11 SLBM, which has yet to fly all the way to target during tests.

Other

The North Koreans could alternatively deliver a nuclear warhead or device to its target though subterfuge. This tactic would almost certainly involve a suicide mission using deception and unconventional means. Such a move would ensure delivery through perfidy — in other words, using a civilian aircraft or commercial cargo vessel to move the weapon. A submarine could even be used to deliver the payload, but in each case, the device would most likely be triggered manually upon reaching the target area. Though not the quickest means of transporting a weapon, clandestine methods of payload delivery can present significant problems for military planners because of the sheer number and variety of potential platforms.

Having considered where and what the United States and its allies would need to strike to neutralize North Korea's nuclear program, the next installment of this series will examine the methods by which Washington might prosecute its strike. 

Part 1: Assessing the North Korean Hazard

Part 2: Derailing a Nuclear Program by Force

Part 3: What the U.S. Would Use to Strike North Korea

Part 4: How North Korea Would Retaliate

Part 5: The Cost of Intervention

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