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North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons expand deterrence, risk

North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material for about 90 nuclear bombs [File: KCNA via AFP]

North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons expand deterrence, risk

Seoul, South Korea – 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.


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.


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