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Analysis-N.Korea could ‘go small’ with tactical nukes if it resumes testing -Breaking


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO – People view a TV broadcasting news about North Korea’s latest tactical guided weapon testing, in Seoul (South Korea), April 17, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – If North Korea resumes nuclear testing, it could include development of smaller “tactical” warheads meant for battlefield use and designed to fit on short-range missiles such as the one tested last weekend, analysts said.

Officials from the U.S. and South Korea say that there is evidence suggesting North Korea may be looking to reopen operations at Punggye Ri Nuclear Test Site. The tunnel was closed in 2018 but remains open for use.

The North tested a short-range missile for efficiency. This was the first test of a North Korean system linked to nuclear weapons.

Analysts warn that the addition of small warheads to short-range ballistic missiles might be dangerous for North Korea’s plans and deployments. This means Pyongyang will be able to field more and could instead of only threatening certain cities in order to prevent an attack, use them against many military targets throughout the South.

“North Korea doesn’t need to test to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, but it looks like we should expect to see a seventh and perhaps more lower-yield nuclear tests as they go about developing these weapons,” said Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

North Korea’s previous six nuclear tests saw it detonate progressively larger weapons; the final one was viewed as likely to be a thermonuclear weapon.

“They don’t need to demonstrate that they have a nuclear warhead, but this time they could be demonstrating that they have one small enough to put on a relatively small missile,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general. This significantly increases dangers to the Korean peninsula, and more so the North Koreans capabilities.

The weekend missile test, its importance highlighted by the personal presence of leader Kim Jong Un, underscored recent warnings by the North that in a war, it would use nuclear weapons to wipe out the South’s military.

Concerns about North Korea’s latest tests and claims of “hypersonic weapons” have prompted Yoon Sukyel, the incoming South Korean president, to call for a strengthening of South Korea’s military defense system, as well as allowing preemptive strikes if there is an imminent attack.


Although there is not a universally agreed definition of a tactical nuke weapon, the term is often used to refer to land-based and airborne missiles that can be deployed on the battlefield with ranges less than 500km (300 miles).

Although their yield (or explosion size) is usually smaller than that of other nuclear weapons, warheads with smaller physical dimensions can still have large yields.

Tactical nuclear weapons were viewed by both the U.S.A. and Soviet Union as an effective way of resisting other enemies’ catastrophic advances on the battlefield during the Cold War. Some analysts believe leaders could be more willing to fire them because they are less damaging than larger, strategic-use weapons.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency already assessed in 2017 that North Korea might miniaturize nuclear weapons for its entire delivery system, including short-range missiles (SRBMs), and intercontinental missiles.

Kim Jong Un in January 2021 touted the country’s ability to assemble small nuclear warheads and listed making “nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses” as a core strategic task.

Panda said his research showed that the North has several options, including “gun-type” warheads of the sort used in the Little Boy bomb in 1945, and the plutonium-based linear implosion bomb, which has been used for especially small nuclear weapons such as the U.S. W48 artillery shell.

However, gun-type weapons contain too much high-enriched uranium fuel and plutonium based linear explosion bombs have too much plutonium. North Korea may continue using the standard spherical-implosion fission weapon it already has.

Panda claimed that North Korea’s warheads have been shown off and fit easily on its KN-23/KN-24 SRBMs. Analysts aren’t sure if these systems can be considered nuclear-capable.

He said that Saturday’s test revealed their ambitions to build smaller warheads.

Panda indicated that they suspect the enemy would test these as it is possible to design a warhead with a smaller size to fit into smaller spaces.

Such tests could be accompanied by a “show-and-tell” element where Kim visits the Nuclear Weapons Institute and inspects a mocked-up tactical nuclear warhead, he added.