- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2023

SEOUL, South KoreaNorth Korea released photos Tuesday of what appear to be its first lower-yield “tactical” nuclear warheads, sparking concern in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s widening arsenal and the rising likelihood that nuclear weapons may be used in a conflict on the divided peninsula.

The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has long claimed to have tactical nukes but has not previously shown them in public or released photos of them. 

Analysts say such weapons can be more dangerous precisely because they are less powerful and less deadly than conventional nuclear arms. Governments and commanders, the theory goes, would be more likely to detonate a smaller-yield bomb on a target without committing to full-scale nuclear war.

North Korea also is engaged in a string of missile tests to protest major U.S. and South Korean military exercises. The heavy publicity given to the nuclear arms also is heightening fears that the North is moving closer to its first field test of a nuclear weapon since 2017.

State-controlled media circulated photos of Mr. Kim inspecting a row of what appear to be small warheads at a nuclear weapons research institute. South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency reported that the photos “showed around 10 tactical nuclear warheads” called Hwasan-31.

The images apparently sought to show that North Korea “could put such warheads on super-large multiple rocket launchers or cruise missiles targeting South Korea,” the news agency reported.

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Although it has tested six strategic nuclear devices since 2006, Pyongyang is not known to have detonated a tactical-sized device. High-yield strategic nuclear weapons are used to destroy large targets, such as cities, while smaller tactical nuclear arms are designed for battlefield use.

North Korea has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying high-yield nuclear weapons to their targets and deployed plentiful delivery options for the tactical arms.

Long-range tube artillery is dug into mountain casements north of Seoul. Pyongyang has test-fired a multitude of devices — from short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to large-caliber multiple-launch rocket systems — that could mount tactical warheads.

Since 2022, the regime has been stress-testing command and control nets and missile units in the delivery of nuclear counterstrikes.

The BBC reported that it is impossible to verify whether the warheads shown in the photos “are the real deal.” North Korea has a history of publicly discussing or showing off dummy weapons that are subsequently proved to have real capabilities.

Officers from the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul that they were evaluating the pictures from North Korea and whether they posed a threat.

“You can say the North’s nuclear capability has been fully developed only when it has been successfully tested in real-world conditions,” a joint chiefs official said, according to The Korea Times. “But we have yet to confirm such things, so we are still evaluating whether the weapons are operational.”

Drills continue

The U.S. and South Korean militaries are holding a series of joint exercises that the Kim regime claims is a “rehearsal” for an invasion of North Korea.

The USS Nimitz, a nuclear aircraft carrier, docked Tuesday in South Korea, and U.S., British and South Korean marines are scheduled to conduct maritime landing drills on South Korea’s eastern coast on Wednesday.

The Kim regime often responds to exercises with missile tests and other provocations, which may explain the timing of the warhead reveal.

North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Monday. State media said Pyongyang successfully carried out a simulated “nuclear air explosion” 500 yards above an island in the Sea of Japan. On Friday, North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear-armed underwater unmanned vehicle.

In nuclear doctrine, tactical arms have two key uses: to deny the use of territory and to take out massed troops. The Korean theater, with its short horizons and limited strategic depth, is ideal for both, presenting problems for war planners in Seoul and Washington.

Experts say that the largest bases housing U.S. troops in South Korea, strung down the peninsula’s west coast, present concentrated targets for a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike. If war breaks out, the Pentagon would likely reinforce the peninsula through ports and airports that could feasibly be turned into hot zones.

“Tactical nukes would turn Kunsan and Osan aerial points of disembarkation into smoking craters,” said David Park, a retired U.S. Army major with experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea. “The same for Busan, Jinhae, Mokpo and Ulsan.”

The first two are U.S. air bases on the west coast. The other four are South Korean ports on the south and east coasts that would likely be used for U.S. troops and equipment arriving from Japan, Okinawa, Guam and further afield.

Guy Taylor reported from Washington.

• Andrew Salmon can be reached at asalmon@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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