North Korea's Nuclear Program: Are We Heading for a Showdown?

People walk by a screen showing the news reporting about an earthquake near North Korea's nuclear facility, in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
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Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

If North Korea didn't exist, it would be hard to imagine it except as some futuristic dystopia in a sci-fi thriller.

Marijuana is legal in North Korea. Indeed, its distribution is a government monopoly, while possession of pornography will get you shot or, worse yet, sentenced to a prison labor camp.

Haircuts are tightly controlled. All North Koreans must adhere to one of 28 approved haircuts. Failure to do so may result in having police give you an on-the-spot haircut -- or much worse. Women have a choice of 14 hair styles, while men can choose from between 10. Best strategy: sport whatever haircut the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has and you should be OK.

Judges, on the other hand, have free rein to decide how to execute prisoners, including using 50-caliber machine guns or having a pack of ravenous dogs tear apart and consume a victim. Moreover, criminals (a concept that has a rather expansive definition in North Korea) are subject to the "Three Generations of Punishment" rule. Commit a crime and not only will you go to prison, but so will grandma and your kids.

Pyongyang boasts the world's largest stadium, capable of seating 150,000 people and, at 105 stories, one of the world's tallest buildings. Little sport is played in the stadium, however, and the futuristic-looking skyscraper is unfinished inside and sits empty.

North Korea has also built a Potemkin-style, uninhabited village, Kijong-dong (Peace Village), along its border with South Korea to tempt defectors from the south with North Korea's idyllic lifestyle.

That idyllic lifestyle means that the average North Korean is two inches shorter than his southern counterpart. Much of the population suffers from a lack of food, and one-third of children are malnourished. Neither of which prevented Kim Jong-il from spending three quarters of a million dollars on imported French Hennessy Cognac every year, about 800 times the average per capita income of a North Korean.

North Korea claims 100 percent literacy, one of the few nations in the world to make that claim, although schoolchildren spend hundreds of hours learning the biographical history of the glorious Kim family. The country has its own calendar, year 1 being the birth of Kim Il-Sung in 1912, and its own time zone. We are currently in Juche (year) 105.

On a more serious note, North Korea boasts the world's fourth largest army. At 1.2 million soldiers, it is only slightly smaller than the 1.4 million personnel in the U.S. armed forces. The military reports directly to Kim Jong-un, who at 34 is the youngest leader of a state, and who also has no military training or experience.

Pyongyang has tested five nuclear devices between 2006 and 2016, and is rumored to be readying a sixth test. In addition, it has developed a range of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that it claims can carry a nuclear warhead, and boasts that it will soon have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

To be considered a credible nuclear power in the 21st century, you need three things: a nuclear device capable of being fitted onto a missile, sufficient range on that missile to carry it for some distance, and a guidance system that will allow you to deliver the warhead to its intended target.

Where does Pyongyang stand on each of these prerequisites?

Developing Nuclear Devices

North Korea exploded its first nuclear device on October 9, 2006. The test occurred underground in a tunnel complex at the Punggye-ri test site in North Hamgyong Province. It is tricky to assess the yield of the device since the depth at which it was detonated and the geology of the surrounding rock strata is not known. It's believed that the yield on the device was under one kiloton (kt). If so, it was what nuclear weapons designers call a fizzle -- a nuclear device that substantially fails to meet its expected yield.

Additional tests followed on May 25, 2009; Feb. 12, 2013; Jan. 6, 2016; and Sept. 9, 2016. The yields were measured at 5.4 kt, 14 kt, 12 kt to 16 kt, 10 kt and 20 kt to 25 kt. The tests show a steady increase in the yield of the nuclear devices tested.

Pyongyang announced that the January 2016 test was a hydrogen bomb. That's highly unlikely as there is no evidence that the North Koreans have mastered that technology. What is more likely is that the North Koreans have used Lithium 6 to enhance the yield of their nuclear devices.

Lithium 6 is used in the production of single-stage thermonuclear weapons and so-called boosted-fission weapons. Inside an atomic bomb, Lithium 6, a soft silvery-white metal, reacts with a neutron cascade to produce tritium, a key ingredient in thermonuclear weapons. When tritium fuses with deuterium, it produces additional explosive energy, as well as enhancing the neutron cascade to create more efficient fissioning of the weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in the weapon's core.

North Korea is believed to have recently brought online a Lithium 6 production facility at the Hungnam Chemical Complex outside of Hamhung.

Pyongyang also announced that the September 2016 test was that of a missile-ready warhead. North Korea subsequently released a picture of what it claimed was "a miniaturized spherical nuclear bomb" that could be mounted on its intermediate range missiles. It is unclear whether the picture simply depicts the outer casing that would surround a miniaturized nuclear warhead or an actual functioning prototype.

Several intelligence agencies, however, have indicated that it is highly likely that North Korea will have mastered the ability to fit a warhead onto a missile within the next two to five years.

Even if Pyongyang has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead, there is a big difference between detonating a warhead under test conditions and designing a warhead robust enough to withstand a missile flight and atmospheric re-entry. It's unlikely that North Korea has achieved this additional milestone, but it will likely do so in the next few years.

A yield of 20 kt to 25 kt is roughly comparable to the 21-kt atom bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Such a device would completely level everything within a one-third-mile radius from the epicenter and destroy most buildings in a one-mile radius from the explosion. There would be significant damage to buildings for an additional two miles from the one-mile radius zone. By comparison, a thermonuclear, 20 megaton bomb would have a damage zone roughly 10 times greater.

The initial test was from a plutonium-based weapon. The nuclear reactor facility at Yongbyon can produce enough plutonium to fuel roughly one atomic bomb a year. At Yongbyon, the North Koreans also operate a uranium enrichment facility. North Korea has large deposits of uranium ore, giving it the raw material from which to construct an enriched uranium bomb.

Naturally occurring uranium consists of the isotopes of uranium 238 (99.28%) and uranium 235 (.71%). A uranium bomb requires about 50 kg of at least 80 percent to 90 percent enriched U-235. Depending on the grade, you need between 5,000 and 10,000 tons of uranium ore to extract enough U-235 to make a bomb.

The separation of U-235 from U-238 is difficult, and there are several ways of doing it. The most common is to treat the uranium metal that is extracted from the ore with fluorine gas. The resulting uranium hexafluoride gas is then processed through a series of high-speed centrifuges to isolate the U-235 isotope. That's how Iran was creating the fuel to power its atomic bombs. North Korea is doing the same.

The extent of North Korea's uranium enrichment activity is unclear. Western intelligence agencies believe that North Korea operates between 2,000 and 3,000 centrifuges. This seems low, so it's possible there may be other uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere. It appears that it is adding to its nuclear arsenal at the rate of three to five bombs a year. Since it can produce about one plutonium bomb in that period, the balance must be of the enriched uranium type. In total, it is estimated that North Korea has between 20 and 25 nuclear bombs. Their reliability, however, is unknown.

It was widely expected that North Korea would conduct a sixth nuclear test in May to coincide with the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. To date, however, no test has occurred.

Missile Delivery System

The second critical requirement to be a bona fide nuclear power is a missile delivery system capable of reaching its intended target.

North Korea's missile development program is part of the Strategic Missile Forces (SMF), a division of the Korean's People Army tasked with overseeing and developing conventional and nuclear, tactical and strategic, missile forces.

Pyongyang's missile development program began, most likely, in the mid-1960s based on the transfer of Russian and Chinese surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship coastal defense missiles and their accompanying technology.

The program did not show significant progress until North Korea obtained Soviet Scud-B ballistic missiles (R-17 Elbrus). It appears that the Koreans reverse-engineered the Scud B, possibly from design plans obtained from Egypt, made small improvements to it and began mass producing it as the Hwasong-5.

The Hwasong-5 has a range of around 200 miles and can carry a 1000 kg payload. It's believed that North Korea developed a variety of payloads for the Hwasong-5, including high explosive, cluster munitions, chemical and possible biological warheads.

In 1985, Iran purchased about 100 Hwasong-5 missiles for $500 million. As part of the transaction, Pyongyang agreed to transfer missile technology and establish a production facility in Iran. The Iranian version of the Hwasong-5 was deployed as the Shahab-1. This marked the acceleration of Iran's missile development program and the start of a long-term cooperation with North Korea on sharing missile technology.

The Hwasong-5 went into mass production in 1987, and is still widely deployed throughout North Korea. Pyongyang tried to sell the missile system and its accompanying technology, but it's believed that only Iran ever purchased it.

Starting in the late 1980s, Pyongyang's development of medium- and intermediate-range missiles began to accelerate. The Hwasong-5 was followed by the Hwasong-6. This missile was comparable to the Soviet Era Scud-C/D. It carried a comparable payload and had a range of 300+ miles. It's not clear whether the North Koreans reverse-engineered a Scud C or independently developed a similar design. It's also possible that they obtained design plans from China. It's estimated that there are currently between 300 and 900 Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 missiles deployed.

The Hwasong-7 was a single-stage, mobile liquid propellant, medium-range ballistic missile. It was a scaled-up version of the original Hwasong design. It carried a similar payload, but with a vastly improved range of 600 to 900 miles. This range was sufficient to put Japan's principal cities at risk. The missile was deployed as the Rodong-1. The Koreans have also referred to it as the Nodong-1.

Under Pyongyang's missile technology sharing agreement with Tehran, it was introduced in Iran as the Shahab-3. It was also sold to Pakistan (Hatf 5 Ghauri), as well as to Egypt and Libya. It's unclear how many of Hwasong-7s have been deployed. Estimates range from less than 50 to more than 200.

Over the 1990s, North Korea introduced the Taepodong-1, also known as the Paektusan-1, an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Taepodong was a three-stage, liquid fuel-propelled rocket. It was used as a space launch vehicle on Aug. 31, 1998. It's believed that the third stage malfunctioned and the satellite it was carrying failed to achieve a stable orbit. North Korea has since then successfully put up two satellites, KMS-3 and KMS-4. These satellites orbit over the U.S. on trajectories that, according to James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, are "consistent with (a) surprise EMP attack."

It was followed by the Taepodong-2. The missile was also ostensibly designed to function as a space launch vehicle but was interpreted by intelligence analysts as a prototype for a longer- range ballistic missile. It's unclear if that was in fact its intended use.

The Taepodong-2 likely has a potential range of 2,500 to 3,000 miles but can carry a payload of only around 500 kg, insufficient, Western intelligence analysts maintain, for any current North Korean nuclear device.

In June 2016, North Korea successfully tested the Hwasong-10, also known as the BM-25 and Musudan. This is a mobile, liquid fueled, intermediate-range ballistic missile. It has a range of between 1,500 and 2,500 miles and carries a payload of between 1,000 kg and 1,250 kg.

The missile must be fueled at the launch site, limiting its effectiveness in a second-strike capability. Subsequent tests, including the most recent on Feb. 11, 2017, have proven to be either failures or inconclusive.

On May 14, 2017, Pyongyang successfully tested a Hwasong-12. The missile is a borderline intercontinental range ballistic missile with a range of about 3,600 miles. That range is sufficient to reach Guam and the westernmost fringe of the Alaska coast. Technically, this missile can reach the North American mainland, even if it is just a tiny sliver of Alaska. The missile can carry a warhead of between 500 kg and 650 kg.

In the meantime, North Korea has been developing the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) and KN-14. These are true ICBMs with a potential range of 6,000 to 7,000 miles, enough distance to reach Chicago and Toronto and, depending on the payload weight, as far as the East Coast of the United States.

It's believed by some intelligence agencies that Pyongyang conducted tests of the KN-08 on Oct. 15 and 20, 2016. Neither test appeared to be successful.

It is unclear whether the missiles rely on liquid fuel or a solid-fuel propulsion. The KN-14 has never been tested. At its maximum range, the KN missile could deliver a payload of between 500-700 kg.

North Korea has also developed a submarine-launched version of the Pukkuksong-1 missile (KN-11/Nodong-B), which it successfully tested on Aug. 24, 2016. A second, apparently successful test, was conducted on May 28, 2017. This is a solid-fuel rocket. The operational range is unknown and has been estimated at anywhere from 300 miles to 1,500 miles. Its payload is also unknown.

On Feb. 12, North Korea also successfully tested the Pukkuksong-2, a solid-fuel rocket mounted on a tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL). The missile is believed to be nuclear capable and can be launched in minutes. When fully deployed, sometime after 2020, it will effectively give North Korea, assuming it has the requisite nuclear warhead, a second-strike capability. A second test occurred on May 21, 2017.

Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea's missile development program has sharply accelerated. During his almost six-year tenure, Pyongyang has conducted a total of 78 missile tests, of which 61 appeared to have succeeded -- a failure rate of just 22 percent. By comparison, during his father's, Kim Jong-il's 17-year reign, North Korea tested only 16 missiles.

Guidance Systems

The final element to having a credible nuclear posture is to possess a guidance system that is sufficiently accurate to deliver a warhead to its intended target. Accuracy is far more important if the target is a small military objective, especially if it is reinforced to withstand blast damage. If a nuclear weapon is intended as a weapon of mass destruction launched against a city, accuracy is less important, though still relevant.

Not a lot is publicly disclosed about the guidance systems employed by North Korean missiles. What is known is highly classified.

We do know that their missiles rely primarily on inertial guidance systems. Such systems use measurement devices to adjust a missile's course based on the acceleration it undergoes after it is launched.

Modern aircraft use solid-state ring laser gyros that, over ranges of 6,000 miles, are accurate to 300 feet. Too inaccurate for a missile launched against most military targets, but adequate if you are targeting a large population center. The advantage of such systems is that they are self-contained and are not dependent on additional inputs that can be jammed or disrupted.

It's possible that North Korea has access or is hacking into China's Beidou satellite navigation system. If so, then it could significantly improve the accuracy of its missiles. That also means, however, that the missiles can be jammed or hacked in what is euphemistically called "left of launch" cyber-attacks on the missile's guidance system. It has been suggested that recent failures of North Korea's missile tests are attributable to cyber-attacks on the missile's guidance system by the U.S.

A second explanation for the malfunctions is that the international supply chain (an illegal operation that is flouting U.N.-mandated sanctions against aiding Pyongyang's nuclear development program) that North Korea is dependent on for the complex electronics of its missile guidance systems has been deliberately infected with malware that is causing the missiles to fail.

Re-Entry Vehicles

There is one additional consideration that must be weighed. North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it can build a vehicle capable of surviving re-entry into the atmosphere at ICBM speeds. Moreover, it's not clear that it is anywhere close to having a maneuverable re-entry vehicle. Both factors are essential if Pyongyang wants a credible strategic nuclear missile capability.

The Trump administration has already indicated that the potential use of military force "is on the table" and is under consideration. There have been consistent reports of the U.S. Air Force doing drills over South Korea and readiness preparations at U.S. military bases on Guam and elsewhere in East Asia. In late May, the U.S. government briefed civilian officials on Guam on civil defense procedures, terrorist threats and North Korea.

Currently, the U.S. has two carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan, and their battle groups in the Sea of Japan. A third carrier, the Nimitz, is scheduled to leave its homeport of Bremerton on June 1 and will be on station in a week. Such steps would precede any military strike and may be an indication that such an action is forthcoming. It may also be a false signal designed to intimidate Pyongyang into backing down or spur Beijing into putting more pressure on North Korea.

Based on the available evidence, admittedly incomplete, it does not appear that North Korea poses an immediate threat to the United States. It does pose a peril to Japan and South Korea, but that danger is no more acute today than it was a year ago. In the intermediate term however -- the next two to five years -- there is little doubt that the threat posed by North Korea to the U.S. and its east Asian allies will become far graver.

Pyongyang's progress in developing intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles, despite many failures, is impressive.

While its progress falls far short of having a strategic nuclear capability, it has made steady progress in improving the range and reliability of its missile forces. It has successfully demonstrated that it can make the transition to solid-fuel propellants, a development that, by the early 2020s, will give it a credible second strike capability. It has also demonstrated a clear ability to improve the explosive power of its atomic weapons, even if those weapons are relatively puny compared to the mega-tonnage arsenal of the world's nuclear powers.

It is simply not clear whether North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing an atomic weapon so that it can be carried in the nose cone of a missile. Intelligence agencies estimate that the latest atomic devices tested by Pyongyang weighed about 1,000 kgs. To fit on North Korea's missile arsenal, those atomic devices must be shrunk down to about 500 kg or less. That's not an easy thing to do but, given sufficient time, it's likely that the Koreans will get there.

North Korea still must demonstrate that it can reliably hit a target thousands of miles away, that it has a vehicle that can withstand the stresses of re-entry, and that it can field a missile force with an acceptable failure rate. A high failure rate means that it is far more likely that the U.S. would be able to intercept those few missiles that launched successfully.

Given the progress to date, it is hard to see how Pyongyang would have a credible, albeit still small, strategic nuclear capability against the U.S. before 2025 at the earliest. There is a lot we don't know, however, about North Korea's nuclear missile program. There is always the possibility that we will be surprised by an unexpected development. Moreover, it is also likely that North Korea will have a nuclear attack capability against South Korea and Japan much earlier, perhaps as soon as 2020-2022.

There is also a second consideration. Advances in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile technology will invariably get transferred to the Iranian and possibly the Pakistani nuclear programs. These three countries' nuclear programs are the most dangerous and regionally destabilizing of the world's incipient nuclear powers and, as they began to approach realization -- or in the case of Pakistan, undergo further expansion -- will have broad and far-reaching implications for the international politics of each of their surrounding regions.

Moreover, one of the inadvertent consequences of the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran is that Tehran got access to $100-$150 billion in frozen assets. It's likely that some of those funds will end up indirectly financing North Korea's nuclear weapons development program. Just because Iran is technically stymied for pursuing further development of its nuclear arsenal doesn't mean it can't finance a portion of the North Korean program in return for access to that technology later.

For the last half-century, we have taught Pyongyang that every time it bluffs, the West will back down. Not surprisingly, North Korea continues to pursue a strategy that has been shown to be a winning one. The risk is that one of these days the West will call Pyongyang's bluff and, when that happens, the likelihood of an all-out war on the Korean peninsula is very high.

It's very possible that the Trump administration is preparing to call Kim Jong-un's bluff. If so, we are heading for a showdown between two men whose political survival precludes either from backing down. Such dynamics invariably lead to a conflict that nobody wants but which neither side will back down to prevent.

A war would likely result in the end of the North Korean state, but it would also result in tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars of damage to South Korea and the deaths, potentially, of hundreds of thousands and conceivably millions of people.

Moreover, depending on North Korea's capabilities when such a conflict broke out, the violence could spill over into Japan as well, raising the cost, both in lives and property, commensurately higher.

North Korea cannot continue its present course of developing nuclear armed missiles. No American president will allow Pyongyang to develop a credible nuclear strategic capability to strike the continental United States. Barring North Korea's agreement to shut down its nuclear and missile program, a day of reckoning is coming. Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but it is coming.

If the signals from the Trump administration are to be believed, it may come a lot sooner than we want.