Over the last 30 years or so, North Korea has developed its rocketry capability from unguided rockets like those used by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the Second World War; the famous Katyusha rockets mounted on the backs of trucks. They were easy to mass produce, could be easily deployed and could deliver an enormous amount of firepower, with 14 to 48 rockets being installed on the back of each truck1. While such relatively primitive weapons sufficed for the Korean War, North Korea wished to develop long range guided missiles, and this began with the importing of Scud tactical missiles from the USSR via Egypt in the 1970s2.
Going forward a few decades: In July 2017, North Korea said it had carried out its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it said could hit anywhere on the planet. However, it was considered to be the equivalent of an intermediate range missile and is expected to have a range of about 6,700 km, which means that it could reach Alaska and northern Australia2. Longer range ballistic missiles are under development, with the range of the KN-08 expected to be of the order of 11,500km2. That is enough to reach most of the US and most of Australia.
In the last few decades, North Korea has been in the process of developing nuclear weapons, and states it has conducted 5 successful tests of a nuclear weapon (in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016). Each of these seems to have had a higher explosive yield than the preceding one, based on measurements of the earthquake magnitude. North Korea says that the first three tests were of an atomic, or fission bomb (like those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945), while the one in early 2016 was of a hydrogen bomb (a fusion bomb, where an atomic explosion is used to fuse hydrogen). Details of the last test from late 2016 have not been released. However, given the relatively small size of the yield of the late 2016 bomb, it is considered unlikely that it was a hydrogen bomb3.
While North Korea has stated for a while that it has the capability to miniaturise a nuclear weapon to allow it to be delivered by a missile, this has not been independently confirmed until recently. The Washington Post has seen an analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which concludes that North Korea now has this capability. In addition, while it has generally been assumed that North Korea has 20 nuclear weapons, it is now considered likely that the number is more like 604.
It almost goes without saying that Trump has been bellicose with his mangled English and has warned North Korea that if it makes any more threats against the US, it will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”. Soon after this stupid statement from Trump, North Korea itself issued a statement saying it was “examining the operational plan” to strike the area around the US territory of Guam, home of Andersen Air Force Base5. Some of Trump’s aides were surprised by the initial response, and it seems that the words were Trump’s own6, as he had no notes on the subject in front of him, and given his inability to retain anything like a speech in his memory, it is clear they were ‘off the cuff’.
Fortunately, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson attempted to decrease the temperature, by stating that the threat level from North Korea has not changed and that “Americans should sleep well at night”. Tillerson also chose to reinterpret what Trump said as sending a strong message to Kim Jong-un “because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language”. Trump also seemed to back off, noting that hopefully the US will never have to use its nuclear weapons5. I suspect there were frantic phonecalls between one or other of the few normal people at the White House and Trump telling him to pull his head in.
I am less concerned about Kim Jong-un than I am about Donald Trump. The former is a totalitarian nutter, but his country is surrounded by countries he perceives as enemies or unreliable neighbours, and I suspect all he wants to do is keep ruling his little pariah state. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a narcissistic, pathological liar, whose narcissism is so malignant that he cannot even face the simple fact that the crowd at his inauguration was far smaller than that of Barack Obama’s in 2008. It is not Kim Jong-un who has the power to destroy the planet, but Donald Trump. I cannot begin to imagine what his reaction would be if there were indications of serious wrongdoing uncovered by the Mueller investigation and leaked. I hope someone has taken the batteries out of the nuclear football.