This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Pyongyang is not yet in a position to deploy tactical nuclear weapons that could hit precise targets in South Korea but is likely to begin testing such weapons in the near future, experts told Radio Free Asia.
Recent high-profile missile tests carried out by the North were described by North Korean state media on Monday as having been a “simulation of loading tactical nuclear warheads” to strike military centers in the South.
But experts say the North is far from reaching such capabilities and was likely readying to test a tactical weapon – a smaller bomb not intended to cause widespread destruction – at its underground Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, where its six previous nuclear weapons tests took place.
Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told RFA that Pyongyang did not have adequate fuel to produce multiple tactical nuclear weapons.
“The bulk of its plutonium has the wrong composition for short-range targeted strikes,” Heinonen said, adding that the North was striving “to produce good fissile material for miniaturizing nuclear weapons.”
Yet even once Pyongyang builds up enough of the plutonium, he added, the testing of weapons would lead supplies to be depleted.
“They need to conduct nuclear tests if they want to miniaturize weapons. Once they will test it, they will see if it works,” Heinonen said. “Only then can they manufacture more efficient and smaller weapons.”
‘Not serious operational tests’
The recent missile tests were themselves “not very serious operational tests,” added Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, who said Kim Jong Un may have been driven by a desire “to make sure his personnel really understand how to fire the missiles.”
“In real operations, these theater missiles would need to be fired within a few tens of seconds of each other to then give their launchers time to escape before they could be targeted,” Bennett told RFA.
“But on the North’s five recent test events involving two missiles, the shortest separation in the launches was nine minutes, the longest 22 minutes, and the average 14 minutes. That is not really operational,” he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a press briefing on Tuesday that the United States was committed to “dialogue and diplomacy” to defuse tensions with North Korea but was also ensuring that its “deterrent capabilities are where they need to be.”
“We want to see the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Price said. “We believe that the best way to do that is through diplomacy – through principled, hard-nosed diplomacy with the DPRK,” referring to North Korea. “Clearly the DPRK is not there yet.”
Andrew Yeo, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said Pyongyang was widely expected to soon shift toward ramping up its tests of tactical nuclear weapons.
“North Korea may be seeking to diversify its nuclear arsenal by advancing tactical nuclear capabilities,” Yeo told RFA, adding that its desire to test tactical weapons was “consistent with speculation from U.S. experts.”
“The U.S. and [South Korea] as well as Japan need to be vigilant in monitoring any military activity or movements in North Korea,” he said.