Saturday, April 06, 2013

Does North Korea have a portable nuclear weapon?

Kim Jong-Un certainly speaks as if he's serious about war. He has no hope of winning and no real casus belli. Nevertheless, like a 13 year-old boy buying a ticket to the latest Michael Bay movie, Kim seems to have an overwhelming need to see things get "blowed up real good," even if the explosions serve no rational purpose.

Could he really do it? Conventional thinkers will tell you he can't mount a nuclear strike against the U.S., since he has no missiles with sufficient range. But if we apply a little unconventional thought, we can suggest an unconventional scenario.

Yes, there is a way for Asia's brat to make mushroom clouds loom over American territory. 

The North Korean situation is reminiscent of The Mouse That Roared, although Little Kimmy is much less lovable than Peter Sellers was. As I re-ran that film in my head, a disturbing possibility struck me: Could Kim have obtained a portable nuclear weapon -- the proverbial suitcase nuke?

Note the wording of this threat:
“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed” by “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK,” a spokesman for the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) declared this week, using the formal name for the North – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
"Suitcase nukes" aren't really small enough to fit in a suitcase. But some nuclear weapons are smaller and lighter than you may prefer to believe.

Of course, the usefulness of such devices remains a matter of debate; some have even questioned their very existence. Most sources concede that Russia and the United States have both manufactured "small" nuclear bombs capable of being transported by human carriers. The example in the accompanying photo looks like a backpack -- a really, really big backpack.

Any discussion of portable nuclear devices invariably includes reference to a Russian defector named Stanislav Lunev, who claimed that the former Soviet Union had come up with transportable bomb called the RA-115. By "transportable," we're talking about something that weighs roughly 60 pounds. I don't know the yield, but it is probably under a kiloton. (To give you a point of reference, the Hiroshima blast was 16 kilotons.)

Of course, defectors often stretch the truth, and the FBI concluded that Lunev engaged in at least some hyperbole. How much hyperbole? I don't know, and I'm not sure that the FBI knows either.

Lunev claimed that an unspecified number of the RA-115s exited Russian control after the fall of the USSR. In the 1990s, according to a number of published reports, Russian General Alexander Lebed said that 100 "small" nukes had gone missing. Boris Yeltsin fired Lebed when he (Lebed) tried to inventory the RA-115s. Russian legislator Sergey Sinchenko put the number of missing nuclear weapons as high as 250.

A few not-really-authoritative websites -- like this one -- claim that North Korea has tried to purchase Russian porta-nukes. We know that, in the Yeltsin era, the oligarchs cared about money a lot more than they cared about safety, morality or common sense.

This 2006 story from the Telegraph may be relevant to our present inquiry:
Russia is facing criticism after secretly offering to sell North Korea technology that could help the rogue state to protect its nuclear stockpiles and safeguard weapons secrets from international scrutiny.
In what appear to have been unguarded comments, Aleksei Grigoriev, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Information Technologies Agency, told a reporter that North Korea planned to buy equipment for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear materials, developed by a Russian government-controlled defence company.

The company, Atlas, also received interest from the North Koreans in their security systems and encryption technology - which were kept from display at the exhibition for security reasons.
In remarks made to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency - hastily retracted after publication - Mr Grigoriev said that the main aim of the June 28 exhibition was "establishing contacts with the Korean side and discussing future co-operation".
Officially, the Russian government has condemned North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Interestingly, the above news article is attributed to "a Special Correspondent in Pyongyang and Michael Hirst." This wording gives the impression that Hirst got the details from an anonymous North Korean informant.

Was this 2006 story disinformation? Possibly. Everyone knows that neo-cons of a certain stripe yearn to re-ignite the Cold War. But I don't think that nostalgia for the paranoia of yesteryear prompted this particular article.

If we presume that the Telegraph's information is on the level, we must ask the question: Did North Korea want "equipment for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear materials" (an irritatingly vague phrase) because it had acquired RA-115s?

Those things have been known to leak.

You may be wondering how the North Koreans could transport such a weapon, since a leak-prone 60 pound nuclear bomb is not an easy thing to smuggle. Adding to the difficulty is that fact that the RA-115 must be plugged into a power source. Although the device has a battery back-up, no battery lasts forever.

So how could the North Koreans get a thing like that into an American city? For one possible scenario, consult a long article by Bill Keller titled "Nuclear Nightmares," published on May 26, 2002 in The New York Times magazine:
To build a nuclear explosive you need material capable of explosive nuclear fission, you need expertise, you need some equipment, and you need a way to deliver it.

Delivering it to the target is, by most reckoning, the simplest part. People in the field generally scoff at the mythologized suitcase bomb; instead they talk of a "conex bomb," using the name of those shack-size steel containers that bring most cargo into the United States. Two thousand containers enter America every hour, on trucks and trains and especially on ships sailing into more than 300 American ports. Fewer than 2 percent are cracked open for inspection, and the great majority never pass through an X-ray machine. Containers delivered to upriver ports like St. Louis or Chicago pass many miles of potential targets before they even reach customs.

"How do you protect against that?" mused Habiger, the former chief of our nuclear arsenal. ''You can't. That's scary. That's very, very scary. You set one of those off in Philadelphia, in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and you're going to kill tens of thousands of people, if not more." Habiger's view is "It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when" -- which may explain why he now lives in San Antonio.
Human beings can live in such containers for a suprisingly long period of time. It's been done. A well-known writer once told me (circa 2005) that inspectors have found human scat and other indicators of recent human habitation within an empty cargo container in a New York port. People have used this method to enter the United States secretly.

A cargo container could a bomb, a couple of "minders," and a power source.

This WP story from last July tells us that this terrifying hole in our security has never been properly addressed:
The Obama administration has failed to meet a legal deadline for scanning all shipping containers for radioactive material before they reach the United States, a requirement aimed at strengthening maritime security and preventing terrorists from smuggling a nuclear device into any of the nation’s 300 sea and river ports.

The Department of Homeland Security was given until this month to ensure that 100 percent of inbound shipping containers are screened at foreign ports.

But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.
If a bomb goes off, that little-known decision will become instantly infamous -- and it may (fairly or unfairly) transform Obama into the most reviled president in history. Of course, Bush could have implemented the same program had he so chosen. (To put the price of port scanners into perspective, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program will set taxpayers back $400 billion -- at least.)

Incidentally, one of largest general cargo facilities in the country is in Dundalk, Maryland, not far from where I live. Dundalk would make for an excellent target, since it is 17 miles away from NSA headquarters. A breeze in the right direction could make the eavesdropper's nest uninhabitable.

Chicago is another possible target. Anyone who desires to mount a symbolic strike against the heartland would want to hit that town.

So...yeah. I think that Kim Jong-Un could do it. But will he?

All the news coming out of North Korea indicates war. The only thing that does not indicate war is the simple, obdurate fact that Kim's situation is hopeless. He cannot win. I doubt that he could keep the fight going for longer than a day. If he strikes, he dies, along with many of his countrymen (presuming he cares about them).

So the question comes down to this: Does Kim Jong-Un want to fulfill his sick, violent fantasies more than he wants to live?

Suddenly, I'm flashing on Adam Lanza...

Added fun fact: The United States used to adhere to a regulation prohibiting the development of nukes below 5 kilotons. In 2004, the Bush administration quietly dropped that rule. We may thus fairly presume that America has developed a new generation of elegantly-designed, state-of-the-art porta-nukes, with Android, 4G, USB ports, a headphone jack and a targeting system based on Angry Birds.
On backpack and container nukes, ssh! You'll reduce the scope for all those juicy contracts relating to ABM systems and ICBMs!

Those who are sceptical of official stories could envisage a great opportunity for a false-flag attack here. Sorry Chicago!

North Korea could keep the war going for much longer than a day. They could obliterate much of Seoul with conventional weapons, even if short-range nukes weren't used too, which they probably would be. They have got an enormous amount of artillery aimed at Seoul, 30 miles over the border. There'd only be bunkers left in that city.

Seoul keeps about $200bn in USD reserves, although they've been moving to gold and the yuan. Recall the 1987 Wall Street Crash, triggered by military trouble between the US and Iran.

US controllers would also have to figure with Beijing if they nuke the shit out of North Korea.

Fact of the day: the current presidents of both Korean states had fathers who were also presidents.

Prediction: if Korea blows, I would expect a nuclear attack on Iran within a short period of time, or even simultaneously.
That article in Salon by Tim Shorrock is crap. The Kaesong Industrial Region has not been shut down. Yet. All that's happened is that the border with South Korea has been closed. South Korean managers remain in the zone, and the tens of thousands of North Korean workers who work there are still working - for the South Korean interests which run the place.

And the following statement by Shorrock is infantile and stupid: "First, as anyone familiar with North Korea knows, any attack by the DPRK on the U.S. or its allies would be suicide for the country of 30 million: It would be met by a relentless counterattack by the most powerful military force the world has ever seen."

Any attack on any US ally, such maybe the many small attacks against South Korea that have taken place without a massive US response?

"Most powerful military force the world has ever seen" juvenile talk. The questions are what the military and political-economic aims would be, and what the military and political-economic risks would be.

"there is no evidence that North Korea has the means to lob a nuclear-armed missile at the United States or anyone else."

I stopped reading there...

Apart from searching on the word "April". Didn't find what I thought wouldn't be in Shorrock's article anyway: a reference to the Day of the Sun, the North Korean term for 15 April.
Another thing on Shorrock's contention that the US has "the most powerful military force the world has ever seen." He should take a look at a graph showing the change in the number of nuclear warheads that country has had at its disposal since it first got some. And then, if he doesn't get the point, at graphs for other countries. And next, if he's got himself a clue by then, at who outside of the US gets security contracts to look after nukes inside the US.

(I'm not saying the US couldn't nuke the shit out of North Korea. They could. I'm saying get some perspective.)
I'm not at all sure what you mean, b. The United States has 5,113 nuclear warheads (including the inactive ones) according to this page...

However, this source...

...holds that the US had "10,600 (7,982 deployed, 2,700 hedge/contingency stockpile)." The he Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty reduced the deployed weaponry to 2,200, with 4,900 warheads non-deployed. I don't think these numbers include the tactical nukes.

If Kim does launch an attack, April 15 would be a fitting date, since it is THE big holiday in North Korea. It's his grandfather's birthday.

A simultaneous attack on Iran? Come on. That's ridiculous.

I'm sure that a number of ICBMs or submarine-based missiles have been targeted at Pyongyang. A nuclear war between North Korea and the United States would last hours, maybe minutes. There's only one conceivable reason for delay: It might take some time to prove Kim's authorship, if a portable bomb were to go off in the US.

pt 1 of 2

Yes, the US in 2013 has got about 5000 nuclear warheads, including both strategic and tactical. This is far fewer than how many it had in 1967 (about 30000) or at the end of the 1980s (about 20000), and also far fewer than the USSR had in the 1980s. The Brookings 10,600 figure is for 2002; I think it does include tactical devices.

The US also has a far smaller total nuclear throw weight, in equivalent megatons, both in terms of total capability and in terms of ICBMs, than it had in the past, and than the USSR had.

I think it would be amazingly hard to argue that the US currently has "the most powerful force the world has ever seen".

Thorrocks didn't say that the gap between US military power and the next strongest country's military power is proportionally greater than any such gap has been since...since whenever...which at least would be a more sensible statement, even if abstracted from what war aims might be militarily achievable or political-economically feasible. When that question is asked, the sense of even the amended statement falls away fast.

And what is the second most powerful country, militarily, anyway? Is it Israel, a country with which the US will never in the foreseeable future come into military conflict? (If anyone
wanted to prepare for such an eventuality, they'd be well-advised to take the security contracts at US nuclear weapons facilities away from Israeli companies. And I wonder how one might start calling for that in the US?). Martin van Creveld puts Israel 'second or third'. If they get put third, I suppose second place goes to China. Russia keeps a lot of nuclear weapons (more than the US), but doesn't seem to be very effective at protecting Moscow theatres from its Chechen opponents.

BTW you mention General Lebed, the 'growling general', whom I've long viewed as a very interesting guy, and who ended up getting killed in a helicopter crash. The reason he gave for doing a deal with the Chechens was that the Russian military was incapable of protecting its nuclear installations from Chechen attack.

I've been trying to find out whether the Joseon dynasty in Korea had a Day of the Sun or equivalent, either in the 6 centuries before the short-lived empire of 1897-1910 or during it. Russian Tsars had soviets. They had "red corners" in the factories too. Then we've got the Castro-Marti connection. And the 'Mao suit' was introduced as national dress by Sun Yat-Sen. So I reckon I might be onto something! :-)

After exploding a nuclear fusion bomb in 2010, the DPRK authorities declared they'd made "an artificial sun on the Day of the Sun."

Kim adopted the name "il-Sung" because it means "become the Sun".

'Juche' means 'subject' in the philosophical sense.

The motto of the Korean Empire was "let the land be enlightened".

So we're talking solar - big brightness in the sky - all the way.

p2 follows
pt 2

The only foreign delegation reported to have evacuated so far is Mongolian. Maybe they understand some important stuff that the Brits and other foreign diplomats don't.

Some Brit official gave a quote saying the DPRK authorities have a responsibility under the Treaty of Vienna to protect foreign diplomatic missions. That sounds like an incredibly juvenile, ill-mannered and dimwitted response after receiving a completely friendly formal communication from those authorities, saying they can't guarantee foreign diplomats' safety after 10 April because of the state of war, and asking whether they need help to evacuate. That clearly means they may not be able to prevent harm being caused to diplomatic premises by enemy military action. That statement can reasonably be described in various ways, but an abdication of the hosts' responsibility under the Treaty of Vienna surely isn't one of them. What training does the Brit Foreign Office give to staff it puts on its Korean desk?

Then again, the Brit prime minister is saying North Korea could carry out against a nuclear attack against Britain. (For fuck's sake! You have got to wonder whether they really can fool all of the people all the time.)

A total US victory within hours of going nuclear would collapse the US and world economy.

Although I think economic collapse is coming anyway, as well as nuclear war, limited nuclear strikes on Korea might not have the same effect right away, and might possibly be preferred for that reason, and the war would last longer.

I can't get why a US-DPRK war wouldn't be a very convenient time for the Israelis to nuke Iran, either alone (Entebbe Goes Nuclear) or with assistance from their helpers in the US and possibly also Britain.

At least North Korea have actually got nuclear weapons, unlike Iran. The Korean story is highly useful in the narrative about the Iran 'danger'.

For the sheeple, the two 'problems solved' (ahem!) would stay merged into one.
You'll love this from the Guardian: In North Korea, nine is the magic number./i
Heres 2 cents worth.

North Korean has 35,000 conventional artillery pieces which can hit Seoul. There are 20k US soldiers in South Korea. There are tunnels under the border though which the NKorean army can completely outflank the South.

North Korea's main economic activities include agriculture (which they are poor at), dollar counterfeiting (which they are excellent at), drug smuggling, arms smuggling, and nuclear blackmail. My understanding is that they have nuclear weapons capacity.

I believe the food situation is bad again.

A nuclear war with North Korea would be an utter disaster for South Korea and bad for China and Japan. How much would you like it if a country with a beef with Canada decided to nuke the crap out of it? Fallout doesnt respect national boundaries.

Of course Im sure that the US would respond if there was a nuclear explosion in a US city. However Im not sure a nuclear response would achieve anything the US wants to achieve.

Other than to provide an example for others.

Here is someone's scenario in which 100 Hiroshima-scale 15-kiloton nukes get exploded, in a war between India and Pakistan. Global rainfall drops by 10%; 1-5 million tons of smoke goes up; it's too cold to grow wheat in most of Canada; the growing season shortens by up to 30 days, and widespread famine ensues. This seems to be based on the same research, and estimates a billion deaths.
Would Obama's Wall Street masters allow him to retaliate against a NK attack since it will affect trade relations with China?

The result of any action could be China "nationalizing" foreign investments, they've done it before. That, and the stock market is doing well only because of growth in the Asian market, anything that disturbs it will result in a crash the monied class won't stand for.

I look for Obama to go on TV after a nuclear detonation by 'Lil Kim to tell the survivors we wont retaliate because the cost of innocent lives will be to high.
There was a movie, black and white, about smuggling parts of a nuclear bomb into the US. It think it opened with a teenaged delinquent complete in black leather jacket wrecking his hot rod. Cops find part of a bomb in the wreckage and the movie goes from there. To prove life imitates art (Fast and Furious gun running sting) it turns out the operation is a study by the DOD or FBI to see if it's feasible. Then it turns out that the parts found aren't the ones used in the study and some is trying to bring a nuclear device in the US.
b's points are very interesting and somewhat disconcerting.

I say that because a while ago I was privy to some interesting briefing work on N.Korea. About 10 years ago to be fair but I doubt much has changed. The bottom line was that generally, the sabre rattling was an economic activity. However the hatred of Japan, and the US was absolutely genuine and perfectly rational. Many of the older generals might well prefer to go out in a blaze of glory rather than capitulate to the Americans and their Japanese lackeys. If pushed into a corner they would fight and with everything they have. And if the grip on power started slipping that might be enough to precipitate a fight. The elites in that country have been preparing for nuclear war for a while. There must be some very deep bunkers with a decent supply of sushi chefs and South Korean actresses.


I've had the wild speculation than KJU is starting a war in order to lose it, as a means of weakening the grip of the NK military on his country and cleverly setting himself up as the Gorbechov of North Korea.
Which has been leading me to wonder about the existance of space-based laser platforms, designed to take out missiles after launch. The Federation of American Scientists has a pretty extensive page on the development of these weapons, and the finding of the "U.S. Space Command" by British computer hacker Gary McKinnon raises more questions.
What if kim has a suit case nukes and there in more than one location ,if we attack he would say new york , flint dc what would we do . Kim is a nut job everyone knows his time is short even him if he puts them in the right places and I am sure he has we as a country has a problem 1000 times worce that 911. Just think what seven box cutters did
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