North Korea: Five things to know about ‘tactical nuclear’ strikes

North Korea announced on Monday that its recent ballistic missile launches were « tactical nuclear » strikes simulating attacks on airports or military bases to the south.

• Read also: Eight ballistic missiles in two weeks

Here are five things to know about tactical nukes.

What are tactical nuclear weapons?

They are designed to be used on a battlefield. Smaller than traditional « strategic » nuclear weapons, such as the warheads carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles, they are among the least regulated category of nuclear weapons in arms control agreements.

North Korea: Five things to know about 'tactical nuclear' strikes

There is no universally accepted definition, but experts believe they would have lower explosive yield and shorter range vector.

« That would make them more useful militarily and less reprehensible politically, » says a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But since they are « considered more ‘usable’, they increase the risk of nuclear war, » according to this June report.

Russia is said to have the largest stockpile of these weapons, which Vladimir Putin has implicitly threatened to use in Ukraine.

Does North Korea have any?

Pyongyang has been seeking it since at least January 2021, when leader Kim Jong-un made the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons his number one priority at the party congress.

North Korea: Five things to know about 'tactical nuclear' strikes

Tactical nuclear weapons « would be a logical addition to North Korea’s nuclear forces, given what we know about their nuclear strategy, » said US-based security analyst Ankit Panda.

Pyongyang on Monday linked its recent ballistic missile launches to tactical nuclear strikes, calling it a « simulation of real war ».

This indicates that the regime may have « nuclearized » many of its missiles and may be preparing to justify their use.

Has Pyongyang ever tested them?

No. But they might soon.

The regime has already conducted six nuclear tests, the most recent in 2017.

All these tests led to a giant explosion. But for a tactical nuclear weapon, we should see « several tests rather than just one », according to South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Shin Beom-chul.

Since Pyongyang hasn’t tested them, it’s hard to know what stage North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons technology really is at.

But with their recent launches, “they have achieved success” with missiles in general, according to Shin.

Why does North Korea want to have it?

A tactical nuclear weapon would give it « the edge on the Korean peninsula, » said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University.

Seoul does not possess nuclear weapons, although its conventional forces are better equipped than the North.

Kim Jong-un’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs also enabled him to threaten the mainland United States.

Pyongyang “came close to destroying a significant part of New York City,” according to Lankov.

But firing such a powerful nuclear weapon on the Korean peninsula – Seoul is only 195 km from Pyongyang – is unrealistic, experts say.

“They have to find something to occupy themselves [de la Corée] from the South, that’s why they insist on short-range ballistic missiles », according to Mr. Lankov.

Are there reasons to be afraid?

In South Korea, maybe. North Korea has long claimed that it is developing nuclear weapons to protect itself from the United States.

Recent exercises suggest « that North Korea’s nuclear weapons go beyond […] mere deterrence,” according to Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

« The latest exercises suggest that the possibility of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula is much higher than before, » said Kyungnam University professor Lim Eul-chul.

« There is now a great possibility that Kim could demonstrate nuclear strike operation capabilities beyond our imagination, if he believes an attack from South Korea and the United States is imminent. »


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