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What Would Happen if North Korea Fired Off a Nuclear Weapon?

Were North Korea to launch a nuclear-armed missile at a foreign enemy, the two countries most likely to find themselves in the cross hairs are South Korea and Japan, collectively home to roughly 180 million people and around 75,000 U.S. troops. In the event that North Korea decided to fire on either of these two countries, a decision which the North would not take lightly, the Korean People’s Army could strike military bases and strategic assets, densely-populated civilian targets, or both.

Particularly disconcerting is that “the North Koreans say both,” Lewis explained to TheDCNF. “They hope the shock will cause us to recoil, and if it does not, they hope the damage slows us down.”

Several years ago, Pyongyang vowed that Tokyo would be “consumed in nuclear flames,” and early last year, the North threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames.” Such threats are extremely common.

At the same time, North Korea has threatened, and even trained, to strike strategic assets, major ports, and critical military bases.

Days after the U.S. and South Korea announced plans to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield on South Korean soil, the North said it would turn Seongju, the deployment site, into a “sea of fire and a pile of ashes.”

When U.S. troops conduct joint military drills with allies for a possible conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea often drills as well, typically for a conventional or nuclear strike on allied troops, weapons, and defense systems.

During last year’s Foal Eagle drills, annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea for a contingency on the peninsula, North Korea launched two short-range missiles into waters off its east coast. “If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported at the time. Images of the maps from the launch and open source analysis indicate that the Korean People’s Army was rehearsing an attack on the port of Busan, where the USS Ohio, a nuclear-powered submarine, had just arrived for a port call.

North Korea fired four extended-range scuds into the Sea of Japan during this year’s drills. KCNA reported that the artillerymen of the KPA were “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.”

Open-source analysis of the maps shown in the North Korean propaganda videos following the launch suggested that North Korea was simulating a nuclear attack on U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan, where the only forward-deployed squadron of Marine Corps F-35s is stationed.

“The U.S. and South Korea are practicing invading North Korea. North Korea is practicing nuking those forces,” Lewis previously told TheDCNF, noting a distinct change in North Korean missile launches.

Weapons reliability, as well as possible reunification goals, could impact North Korea’s choice of target.

“North Korean missiles, while improved, are still not all that accurate. Thus, while Pyongyang may prefer to target U.S. military facilities in Japan with its limited nuclear arsenal, it may also choose to fire some missiles toward large population centers in an attempt to rapidly shift the political cost of conflict,” Baker told TheDCNF. “Pyongyang is less likely to use its nuclear arsenal in strikes on South Korea, but may use chemical weapons to disrupt and slow any U.S. advance,” he further commented.

Why Would North Korea Launch A Nuclear Missile?

North Korea believes that nuclear bombs are the only things that can guarantee the country’s survival.

North Korea asserts that it fears nothing and will obliterate the U.S. and its allies with its “treasured nuclear sword,” yet the reality is that Pyongyang is deeply concerned that it may one day cease to exist, that it will be destroyed by the U.S. and its strategic partners. As its future is perpetually uncertain, the North believes that the only viable long-term security option is the development of nuclear weaponry.

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