North Koreans Just Threatened to Nuke D.C.—And They Can Actually Do It

Pyongyang put out a video suggesting the strike would come from a submarine. More likely: in a suitcase.

03.27.16 12:32 PM ET

On Friday, a North Korean propaganda outlet released a four-minute video showing an American flag in flames—and a submarine-launched warhead detonating near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

“If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a pre-emptive nuclear strike,” the video’s Korean-language subtitles said. “The United States must choose! It’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not.” 

This may sound like bluster, but only part of it is. In fact, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can incinerate the American city of its choice. But Pyongyang can’t do that with a warhead fired from a sub, yet. It will not have that ability for about a half decade, South Korea estimates. Other nations think longer.

The North Koreans in May released images of a missile breaking the surface of the water and claimed it was launched from a sub. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was photographed watching the test. 

In all probability, the missile, which in fact did not travel far, was fired from a submerged platform. Yet the “pop-up” test was significant as it showed North Korea’s expanding ambitions.

After the release of Friday’s video, titled “Last Chance” and appearing on the YouTube channel of DPRK Today, Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times issued a comforting assessment of the North’s capabilities. “North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, but is not believed to have perfected either enough to pose a credible threat to major U.S. cities,” the veteran journalist noted.

The 10,000-kilometer range of the Taepodong-3, the military version of the Unha-3 rocket tested on Feb. 7, means the missile can reach at least Alaska and the West Coast. Analysts, however, are not worried. They make the point that it takes time to transport, assemble, fuel, and test the big launcher and the time involved gives the U.S. ample opportunity to destroy it on the pad. 

Although the February launch showed that the North Koreans have drastically reduced preparation time—and hence the period of vulnerability—observers are correct that the big missile is not really a usable weapon.

The KN-08, however, appears to be. The road-mobile missile is carried on a 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher, which means in wartime it can run, hide, and shoot. It is, therefore, hard to destroy on the ground.

Analysts say the KN-08, first revealed in April 2012 in a parade in Pyongyang, has never been flight-tested, but Adm. William Gortney, the commander of U.S. Northern Command, believes it is operational, as does Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the outgoing commander of U.S. Forces Korea, seems to concur. 

Without a usable warhead, however, the most these launchers can do is put a dent in real estate. Currently, the U.S. assesses North Korea has not miniaturized a nuke and developed the shielding necessary to protect it on re-entry into the atmosphere. 

That assessment may no longer be correct. North Korean media on the 9th of this month showed Kim Jong Un standing next to what observers laughingly called a 1970s-style “disco ball.” The device, undoubtedly not an actual nuclear weapon, nonetheless suggests his technicians had made surprising progress in developing a small warhead.

On the 15th of this month, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that the North had successfully lab-tested a warhead re-entry. Analysts think the test was in fact successful.

Because of these and other developments, there is a view emerging in the U.S. intelligence community that North Korea has “probably” miniaturized a nuclear warhead, as officials told CNN in recent days. The view has not yet been formalized, but it nonetheless looks correct. 

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“It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that he has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM,” Adm. Gortney told Congress, referring to Chairman Kim.

There is some open-source information corroborating Gortney’s view. After all, the North Koreans have had a nuclear warhead for their 620-mile range Nodong missile “since at least 2010,” as Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University told “The Nelson Report,” the Washington-insider newsletter, in the middle of this month. Moreover, Bechtol, the author of various books on Kim’s military, makes the point that the Norks may already have detonated a warhead for a long-range missile on Jan. 6. 

Having a nuke is one thing. Using it is another. Kim, unless in dire straits, would never launch because a missile has a “return address,” meaning it’s easy to determine which country fired off the weapon. Therefore, retaliation can be swift. If the target is the United States or one of its allies, the punishment will also be utterly devastating. 

In these circumstances, virtually everyone assumes that the assured destruction of Kim’s state will prevent him from pushing the button first. That, in a nutshell, is the theory of deterrence.

Yet Kim does not need to launch a missile to deliver a nuke. He could, for instance, have his agents or diplomats smuggle the parts for a bomb across the open borders of the United States as well as bring in two half-grapefruit-size pieces of uranium. The device could then be assembled on site and set off. 

The U.S. surely does not know all the locations of the North’s centrifuges, the devices that whirl at supersonic-speed as they enrich uranium to weapons-grade purity, and so it cannot track some uranium isotopes back to the regime. Washington knows of one location—at Yongbyon—but only because the regime voluntarily revealed it to visiting American scientists in November 2010, presumably to show U.S. officials how little ability they had to keep track of nuclear facilities. 

America’s ignorance means there may be no way for anyone to do the nuclear forensics—in other words, track back fissile material to its country of origin—after a detonation on U.S. soil.  

No forensics means no attribution of responsibility. No attribution of responsibility means no retaliation. No retaliation means no deterrence. No deterrence means the only reason Washington, D.C.—or any other U.S. city for that matter—still exists is because Kim Jong Un does not think it is in his interest to destroy it.

Yet after Friday’s video—plus all the other threats in the last few months to kill Americans—it really does appear he would like to try.