Monday, September 4, 2017

Analysis of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons, September 2017

Copyright 2017 by Michael H. Maggelet

4 September 2017


  I was wondering how long it would take North Korea to publish photographs of their claimed thermonuclear warhead, and was surprised at the press release of 3 September 2017, and nuclear test soon after. According to some estimates, the yield was approximately 120-150 kilotons.

  While I can’t comment on technical features of their warheads, it’s obvious that the fission warhead displayed in 2015 with an approximate diameter of 30 inches (76.2 cm) is a production device, and very likely uses manual insertion of nuclear components. The Defense Intelligence Agency stated on March 11, 2011 that the DPRK could deliver several plutonium based warheads.

North Korean fission implosion warhead, possible manual insertion design.

  I sincerely doubt the DPRK’s implosion warheads are one point safe, and thus present a safety problem when fully assembled for strike. “One point safe” is defined in US criteria as producing a nuclear yield less than a four pounds TNT equivalent when the high explosive sphere is initiated at any point, or by one detonator. A declassified Strategic Air Command safety study estimated that the accidental detonation of the HE on a solid capsule weapon (like Fat Man, or the early fission bombs fully assembled for a combat drop) had a fifteen percent chance of producing a 40 ton nuclear contribution. [1] 
  Modern US weapons, using sealed pits of hollow shells of active material, are inherently one point safe. [2]
  An unassembled open pit weapon, with the capsule stored in a storage container, is safe from accidental nuclear detonation.

  DPRK press release on the thermonuclear weapons progress, 9 March 2016.

  The thermonuclear warhead, below, obviously shows a reduced scale primary and thermonuclear secondary (and other features I won’t discuss), and in my opinion DPRK scientists received technical assistance from outside sources and friendly countries. Thus, given the advancements in N. Korean military hardware in the missile and nuclear fields, DPRK claims must be taken seriously (along with threats of EMP attacks via exoatmospheric nuclear bursts).


  That being said, while North Korea continues to threaten their neighbors and the US with nuclear annihilation, this is nothing new, and those of us who grew up during the Cold War were only six minutes away from Soviet SLBM’s, not to mention tactical rockets and missiles, and nuclear artillery at overseas locations. I personally never lost any sleep when I was stationed in Germany in the late '80's and early '90's despite Soviet grandstanding, Stasi trained terrorists, Warsaw Treaty Organization maneuvers, nor incessant propaganda from Pravda, Tass, and East German state media.

DPRK state media photo of two stage thermonuclear warhead.

DPRK photo showing firing set/X-unit and aft cap of primary, detonator cabling, and neutron generator.

  North Korea has achieved a threshold in the field of thermonuclear technology, and in years to come the world can only expect the DPRK to produce multi-megaton weapons for strategic use, and small diameter systems to include nuclear artillery, man portable atomic demolitions, and enhanced radiation warheads. 

1. SAC Historical Study 73, Jan-Jun 1958, pp. 78-79. Declassified from Top Secret Restricted Data.  
2. DOE Restricted Data Declassification Decision, pp. 74-75.

The content of this article is the personal opinion of the author.

Contact- mhmaggelet "at"