The Road to Pyongyang

CBR Weaponry

Let’s start with the basics: North Korea has much more than just nuclear weapons. Weapons of mass destruction are generally lumped into one of three categories: chemical, biological, or radiological. (Sometimes they’re called NBC, for nuclear, biological, and chemical.) While we’re focusing on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, we shouldn’t forget their estimated 2,500 tons of chemical weapons.

The Care And Feeding of ICBMs

Delivering weapons via ICBM is really hard. Not only does the weapon have to be tough enough to survive a rocket launch — high G-forces don’t play well with sensitive electronics — but it also has to survive re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high velocity. At a certain speed, air is no longer the pleasant and forgiving thing we experience it as here on Earth. At re-entry velocities, it’s sort of like a violent car crash. Manned spacecraft generally get around this by taking a very long, slow descent through atmosphere (aerobraking). When the Apollo astronauts took the short ride, they were careful to come in on angles that would allow them the gentlest possible entry under the circumstances.

So How Many Nukes Do They Have?

Hard to say. The current U.S. estimate, as reported by the Washington Post, says about sixty. The Institute for Science and International Security, a reputable outfit, in a report chaired by former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, estimated their stockpile at about thirty.

So Where Will Those Nukes Go, Anyway?

Good question. First, realize these nukes are not personally controlled by Kim Jong Un. Instead they’re in extremely secret facilities around North Korea. Odds are good the people at one facility have no idea the others exist. Kim Jong Un would never put all his weapons in one facility (it’s too easily targeted in an airstrike), and would want to keep his weaponkeepers in the dark about each other (otherwise he might risk creating a faction that could commit a coup).

The Perils of Diplomatic Solutions

I would love it if there were a diplomatic solution, but honestly, I’m not optimistic.

So It’s War, Then?

I hope not. Rekindling the Korean War would have the potential to be the worst civilian bloodshed in human history. North Korea has the mountains along their side of the demilitarized zone littered with artillery targeted on Seoul. The moment a war begins those howitzers begin firing. Under a minute later shells start landing in one of the most densely populated urban areas on the planet.

Is War Inevitable?

I don’t believe so. Diplomacy has a lot of opportunities for creative problem-solving, and I have great confidence in our Department of State. This is a spectacularly hard diplomatic problem, but we’ve been in hard diplomatic problems before. This is no harder than the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we came out of that one okay — a narrow escape, but we still escaped.

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Robert Hansen

Robert Hansen

In 1980 I discovered computers. The rest has been making history.