North Korea is a poor, dilapidated country. It is also the world’s most repressive, heavily armed nation, routinely practices diplomacy through spontaneous violence, kidnaps citizens of other nations, regularly threatens war and is technically still at war with the United States.
North Korea maintains a staggering arsenal, from tens of thousands of light infantry to heavy artillery all the way to nuclear weapons. North Korean weapons can be roughly divided into three categories: those that guarantee the survival of the regime, those that are useful for reunification, and those that are useful for provocation. The categories are often—but not always—mutually exclusive.
Nuclear weapons, for example, guarantee the survival of the regime but are not useful for much else. The Korean People’s Army tank fleet is good for reuniting the peninsula in a war, but isn’t much of a strategic deterrent, nor is it useful for provocation. North Korea’s gunboats are worthless in any situation except for a provocation at sea.
All are very concerning. Let’s take a look at the North Korean weapons South Korea fears most:
Nuclear weapons are the most important weapons in the North Korean arsenal. The express purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons is act as a deterrent to forced regime change. As long as North Korea has nukes, both the United States and South Korea are averse to directly threatening the Kim regime. The North Korean People’s Army, Navy and Air Force may be obsolescent and no match for U.S. and South Korean forces, but they’re increasingly irrelevant in the long term.
North Korea’s first nuclear test was in 2006 and was assessed by the U.S. intelligence community as having a yield of less than 1,000 tons TNT. (The Hiroshima bomb, for example, is estimated at 18,000-ton high-explosive yield, or 18 kilotons.) The yield was so small that the test was widely regarded to have been a failure.
A second test in 2009 was of a slightly larger yield and also considered a failure. A third test in 2013 is estimated to have had a yield of 6-40 kilotons and was considered a success.
The actual number of weapons North Korea has is unknown, but on June 16, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced it believed the country maintained a stockpile of 6-8 weapons.
North Korea is currently thought to lack the technology to place a nuclear weapon on an ICBM capable of hitting the United States. However, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses North Korea as likely being able to place a nuclear weapon on a Nodong missile. A road-mobile missile with a range of 1,300 kilometers, Nodong has enough range to hit all of Korea, all of Japan except for Hokkaido, and even Beijing.
Alternately, a North Korean nuclear weapon could be placed in a tunnel underneath South Korea, of which there are many, or an An-2 transport aircraft, or even smuggled into South Korean waters aboard a submarine or disguised fishing trawler.
South Korea fears Northern nuclear weapons not only because of their enormous destructive power, but because they make the regime more difficult to remove. They also make any sort of internally generated instability in North Korea more dangerous, because nukes could slip away from the relatively secure hands of the North Korean government into a rogue faction intent on using them.
North Korea’s midget submarines, of which it has several dozen, fall under the category of provocation weapons. Provocation weapons are actually used by the regime in violent incidents and are designed to draw attention to the regime during peacetime, while minimizing the potential for escalation.
A classic example of this was the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010 , in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed. While no submarine was ever detected at the scene, a Sang-O and a Yono class midget submarine were thought to be in the area prior to the attack. Debris retrieved from the site indicated the weapon used was a North Korean CHT-02D heavyweight acoustic/wake homing torpedo.
Up to 40 Sang-O class midget submarines have been produced. The Sang-O class displaces 325 tons submerged, is equipped with four torpedo tubes, and can carry up to 16 mines. A lengthened version, the K-300, was identified in 2011.
Some Sang-O class submarines are unarmed infiltration models designed to ferry North Korean spies and special forces. In 1996, a Sang-O submarine ran aground at Gangneung, South Korea while recovering a team of spies sent to reconnoiter a naval base. Of the 25-man crew, 11 were executed by other members of the crew, 13 were killed in shootouts with South Korean forces, and one was never found.
North Korea also operates up to 10 midget submarines of the Yono class. 130 tons submerged and featuring two torpedo tubes, they are the smallest submarines in North Korea’s arsenal capable of launching torpedoes.