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North Korea’s Atomic Archipelago

North Korea’s Atomic Archipelago

by Todd Crowell

If the United States seriously considered pre-emptively striking North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile assets, it would have plenty of targets to choose from. Maybe too many. Times have changed since former president Bill Clinton contemplated a surgical strike against the Yongbyon nuclear complex to put out of commission its five-megawatt reactor, then the North’s only source for plutonium. That strike might have crippled the nuclear program. Now targeting would have to take into account nearly a dozen nuclear weapons/ballistic missile sites that can be identified from open sources alone. Here is an overview of North Korea’s known atomic archipelago.

Punggye Nuclear Weapons Test Site: All six of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests have taken place at this one site on the northeast coast. They range from the “fizzile” yield of the inaugural test in 2006 through five-to-20-kiloton Hiroshima-size yields to the Sept. 3 test, some estimates for which are as high as 300 kilotons. That would put it in thermonuclear range. There is nothing secret about the location and purpose of this test facility. Dedicated North Korea watchers carefully scrutinize commercially available satellite photos for signs that the North is preparing a test. The site’s further potential may be limited. There were reports that the latest test collapsed walls and inflicted other interior damage.

Chanjin Missile Factory: Located only a few kilometers from Pyongyang, Chanjin, also known as the Taesong Machine Factory, is North Korea’s prime factory for making sophisticated ballistic missile components such as guidance and control systems. It is thought to be the location of a famous picture of Kim Jong-un looking at a spherical object, presumed to be an atomic bomb and known to North Korea watchers as the “disco ball.” It also has apparatus for static testing of missile components. It is thought to be the location of a 2016 test of re-entry of nose cones of potential intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Sohae, in the extreme northwest not far from the Chinese border, has become the premier launch site for long-distance rockets. Its location on the west coast gives it a due south pathway that obviates the need to overfly mainland Japan (although its launches do violate Japanese airspace in the southern Ryukyu islands, if only momentarily) before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Previous launches from the east coast had to traverse Japan before splashing down in the northern Pacific, not far from Alaska. The first long-range test from this site in 2012 failed, but a second and third in late 2012 and 2016 successfully put satellites in orbit. While the Unha rocket is not thought to have been designed as a prototype of a weapon, a rocket that can fly 6,000 kilometers or so is considered a potential ICBM.

Kusong: North of Pyongyang and also about 30 kilometers from the Yongbyon nuclear facility, Kusong is a significant military-industrial site with numerous munitions plants. It was the site for many high-explosive tests in the years before the first nuclear weapons test. Precisely machined explosives are needed to detonate a plutonium bomb, and much of the work was and presumably still is done here. Lately, Kusong has also been increasingly used for ballistic missile tests. The February launch of the Pukgiksong-2 missile was from nearby Banghyun air base. Launching from the west coast and traversing the country gives the missile greater range without unnecessarily violating any neighbor’s air space.

Sinpo Naval Base: Merely as a large east coast naval base/shipyard, Sinpo would not likely be included in this list. But it is here that the North is trying to develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The new ballistic missile sub is based on early Soviet technology and would carry possibly two launch tubes through the sail, instead of rows of launch tubes behind the sail as is the case with most ballistic missile submarines. Pyongyang successfully tested a naval missile from a submarine in 2016. If further developed it would give North Korea a reasonably secure second-strike capability. Sinpo would make a relatively easy target. Apparently there are no underground submarine pens. “A strike on Sinpo would be a tactician’s dream,” said one analyst.

Musudan-ri: The main east coast launch site for long range missiles, this facility is also known as he Tongae Satellite Launching Ground. The mid-range Musudan missile gets its name from the launch site. The Musudan-ri site was used extensively for testing reverse-engineered Scud missiles, and in 1998 fired off the North’s first rocket meant to launch a satellite. More missile testing seems to be moving to the west coast, which provides a better trajectory for long-range launches.

Yongbyon: The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, north of Pyongyang, is the granddaddy of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It was the purported target of a surgical strike that the Clinton administration considered in 1994 but rejected in favor of diplomatic negotiations that resulted in an eight-year freeze on the operation of the reactor. With its associated laboratories, Yongbyon is the main source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It is also the location of a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant with some 2,000 centrifuges, which probably gives Pyongyang’s weapon’s program a source of weapons’ grade uranium.

Pyongsan: While probably not a priority target, Pyongson is still an important link in the atomic archipelago. Located near one of the North’s sources of uranium, it has facilities for refining uranium ore and, more importantly, turning it into yellow cake. This is an important preliminary stage for making gaseous uranium that can be fed into uranium enrichment plant to operate nuclear rectors or produce weapons-grade uranium.

Factory 65: One of North Korea’s oldest weapons factories, close to the border with China, Factory 65 is not generally considered a missile base. Its main use in recent years has been converting Chinese and Japanese logging trucks into missile transporters. Even so, on July 28 the Hwasong-14 missile was launched from these premises. It is believed Pyongyang chose this site to demonstrate it can launch missiles from just about anywhere.

These are just the principal known locations. The South Korean government estimates that there are about 100 locations related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons/missile program. These include a breakdown of the many sites at Yongbyon plus uranium mines, laboratories and research facilities. The sites of many needed functions have yet to be located. They include centrifuge fabrication facilities, tritium production and uranium hexafloride production (necessary for enrichment purposes). Absolutely no public information exists as to the location of any of the roughly 25-60 nuclear weapons that North Korea may possess.

(This article originally appeared in Asia Times. Todd Crowell is a former United States Air Force intelligence officer.)

Published in: November 2017

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