North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons expand deterrence, risk

North Korea appears to be well on its way to becoming a mature nuclear state despite longstanding United Nations sanctions, after Pyongyang’s tests in late March of cruise and ballistic missiles capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads.

North Korea’s nuclear development increased dramatically under leader Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2010 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, conducted 15 ballistic missile tests between 1983 and 1993, according to the database of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington think-tank.

Kim Jong Il oversaw two nuclear tests and 16 missile tests. Kim Jong Un has presided over four nuclear tests and 91 ballistic missile tests, as well as the launches of cruise missiles and the firing of rocket-propelled artillery.

“They clearly see this type of weapons development as a key to their survival, and they will not stop,” Eric Gomez, director of defence policy studies at the Cato Institute, told Al Jazeera, while at the same time suggesting there was a window through which the US could at least reduce the threat with greater efforts and compromise.

“If the US wants to find a diplomatic way out of this it’s going to be painful,” Gomez said.

North Korean missile development has continued even as the North has been subject to strict UN Security Council sanctions and through on-and-off talks on denuclearisation.

Negotiations have now been stalled for about two years and North Korea has rebuffed offers to resume discussions from the new US administration under Joe Biden.

Predictable pattern

The development of nuclear and missile programmes has followed a somewhat predictable pattern.

First, Pyongyang set about developing the delivery systems that could reach the US with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Then, it tested and modified the nuclear device that could be placed on such a missile and delivered to its target. North Korea crossed that threshold in 2017, possibly earlier.

While their more recent advancements and potential future capabilities are not what experts call revolutionary, North Korea still has some nuclear weapons technologies to master that will seriously increase its ability to deter adversaries and wage nuclear war.

The recent tests involved short-range missiles ideal for a tactical nuclear warhead, Ankit Panda, Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace, told Al Jazeera.

These tactical missiles are based on the Russian-designed Iskander, powered by solid fuel, and able to be manoeuvred mid-flight, making them more difficult to spot on the ground and more difficult to intercept in the air.

Whether or not the missile was developed with foreign assistance is disputed by analysts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Missile Defense Project.

Called KN-23 by North Korea, it is also meant to target US and South Korean troops and airfields on the Korean Peninsula, according to research fellow and North Korea specialist Shin Seung-gi of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

Kim’s wish list

Tactical nuclear weapons are one of the items on Kim’s wish list that elicit concern, because, despite Kim Jong Un’s assumed preference to maintain personal “assertive control” over any launch of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with tactical nuclear weapons that expectation changes.

“Tactical nuclear weapons are a big headache when it comes to command and control … as they lend themselves to pre-delegation to officers in the field,” explained Panda.

That means tactical nuclear weapons could be more widely distributed throughout the country, to more officials capable of launching them in the case of a perceived attack, which raises additional concerns, according to analysts.

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