City of Brass

City of Brass

North Korea nukes? a paper tiger

In the span of two days, North Korea has test-fired five (short-range) missiles and performed a nuclear detonation test. This is of course a serious matter, especially since the city of Seoul is essentially adjacent to the border and would probably be destroyed in a full-scale conflict. However, I still have trouble taking the threat of a nuclear North Korea seriously. The image below is just one reason why.

See that vast dark area between mainland China and South Korea? At night, North Korea is dark from space – South Korea, China, Japan all shine brilliantly (as you would expect any industrial society would) but NK is virtually prehistoric. This is not the mark of a civilization that can feed its own people, let alone sustain the extensive engineering and scientific infrastructure needed to develop a working nuclear weapon.


The central dogma of the NK regime is juche, which translates loosely to “self-reliance”. Unfortunately, juche is a lie, since NK is propped up solely by virtue of oil and food shipments from China. However, the NK nuclear program may be the closest thing to genuine juche that the regime has yet achieved, with the entire thing completely home-grown – and it shows:

North Korea claimed Monday that its second nuclear test was more powerful and better controlled than its 2006 test, which many experts characterized as a semi-failure.

But several U.S. experts on nuclear weapons said Monday’s test demonstrated that the North Koreans have not yet mastered the technology of creating a reliable nuclear bomb.


“The simplest hypothesis is that they’re trying to build a weaponizable device and they’re still not that good at it,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit group.

The explosive yield from Monday’s test was in the range of 2 to 4 kilotons, which is two to five times that of the 2006 test, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a periodic visitor to North Korea’s nuclear complex in Yongbyon who is a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and current co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“You would expect 10 to 20 times that yield,” said Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “These guys have not solved the problem.”


On a technical level, Postol said, the North Koreans appear to be having trouble building a device that uses explosives to compress plutonium into a perfect ball, which creates a uniformly spherical implosion and the maximum possible explosive yield.

“It means they are not yet able to confidently build an experimental weapon and they may not be able to determine what they did wrong,” Postol said.

[…] North Korea has for years been the target of international sanctions intended to limit the country’s access to bomb and missile-making technology. But a senior administration official said that although the sanctions have undermined the North’s economy, they have had little direct effect on its “entirely indigenous” nuclear program.


The government mines its own uranium, builds laboratories using its own technical expertise and generates its own plutonium, making it hard to stop the process from the outside, the official said.

In summary – they arent even close to being a threat, and they know it. As the Washington Post notes, the 2006 test was used as a bargaining chip for more food and aid. I think it is likely that NK is trying to shake the tree again, to try and conceal its weak hand. And there may be other, internal political reasons as well: Kim Jong-il’s health has been frail of late and his son is being groomed for takeover.

During NK’s earlier nuclear test in 2006, Joe Biden called NK a “paper tiger”. I recall how prior to the Iraq War in 2003 we were treated to tales of Saddam’s army might, but when actual conflict ensued, it was a ultimately no contest. North Korea makes Saddam-era Iraq seem like a superpower in comparison. It is hard to see how NK can be a credible threat in the long term, given how fragile and precarious its situation is. As James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic a few years ago, NK is undergoing the Seven Stages of Collapse in slow-motion. Unfortunately, the people of North Korea continue to suffer in the interim.

Related: I’ve written extensively on North Korea before. Fans of the Wrinkle in Time fiction series may particularly appreciate my analogy of NK to Camazotz.

Comments read comments(7)
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so they're not a threat

posted May 26, 2009 at 5:18 pm

So you’re not afraid of them because they have not yet perfected the means to destroy us?
Would you not be afraid of a cancerous tumor if it had not yet spread thru your body? Would you not be afraid if your house was on fire if it was only 1 wall in flames?
Your logic is pathetic.

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Ergo Ratio

posted May 26, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Please make a case for either of the following:
NK’s nuclear tests are equivalent to a cancerous tumor.
NK’s nuclear tests are equivalent to a wall inside a house in flames.

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posted May 26, 2009 at 11:47 pm

I afraid that I don’t see the connection between North Korea and a tumor. The author appears to be simply making the point that the threat is overrated. The North Korean government barely seems to be able to keep their country afloat and appear to be many years away from being able to launch a powerful long range attack on anyone. Fearmongering doesn’t really help anyone. They can’t even hit us with a warhead and the United States could wipe North Korea off the map. We have thousands of icbms. According to this article, it appears that the bomb test was much less powerful than the “fatman” bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The whole “destroy us” thing is hyperbole.

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posted May 27, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Aziz, got to disagree with you here. The yield on the weapon the NK’s just tested, by most estimates, is comparable to the weapons used on Japan at the end of the Second World War. It is also not reasonable to assume, considering that almost 40% of NK’s GDP is exportable weapons sales, that just because they do not have the ability to screw a nuke on top of an accurate missile that the actual bomb is not a danger. NK will sell missiles to anyone with cash, this they have demonstrated repeatedly, it is reasonable to assume they would also sell a nuke. Stick it in a cargo container, and float it into NY, Tel Aviv, London, or any port with minimal security, and when you light it up you still have made a powerful statement. Yeah, I know that a nuke detonated at ground level causes a lot less damage then one exploded at the proper altitude, but if you are the unlucky soul who happens to be close by when it goes off, it is a bit late to get into a debate at that point about how dangerous the bomb is. NK knows we could obliterate it in a retaliatory strike, but that isn’t the point. It does scare them because they know they have nothing to lose by playing brinkmanship, and frankly, playing chicken with the world has served their purposes up to this point. The problem with brinksmanship is it leaves little room for the political settlement if it goes too far, and it is getting close.

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posted May 30, 2009 at 1:42 am

I wonder why certain countries are authorized to produce weapons of mass destruction and then export them to other countries at – may be -50 times the cost prize. If you dig into the details you will find that the five permanent members of UN Security council are the five top producers and exporters of dangerous weapons created to destroy humanity. Is this all justified? American arms are causing havoc for Palestinian, Afghan, Pakistan and Iraqi civilians and caused hundreds of thousand deaths – for a cause only the US justifies – not everyone.
Why Israel has the legimitate right to mass produce nuclear weapon? All these talks are absurd. They call for the dominance of the world by some selected nations – their own way.

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Your Name

posted June 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

“I wonder why certain countries are authorized to produce weapons of mass destruction and then export them to other countries”
Go look up the last time we gave weapons away, its been a LONG time, so we really don’t do that anymore…. poor logic. Nukes don’t get exported anymore.
“at – may be -50 times the cost prize.”
That doesn’t even make sense.
“five permanent members of UN Security council are the five top producers and exporters of dangerous weapons created to destroy humanity”
We also didn’t destroy each other OR humanity while we had an easily accessible way to do so. Nor have we used nukes since WWII.
“American arms are causing havoc for Palestinian, Afghan, Pakistan and Iraqi civilians and caused hundreds of thousand deaths”
Actually its the Russian AK-47 and RPG-7 being spread around the world that havelead to tens of millions of deaths, though I suppose if any of the corrupt leaders in the Middle East were given dominance over the entire world, they would be REAL humanitarians. And to think most of those killed weren’t armed it an absolute delusion.
“Why Israel has the legimitate right to mass produce nuclear weapon?”
Great syntax… They don’t make them anymore, and they only have a handful. They haven’t built any since the early 80’s if my memory serves me right. Also, THEY HAVEN’T USED THEM YOU IDIOT.

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posted March 24, 2010 at 8:31 am

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