With the successful nuclear test on September North Korea has very likely successfully tested a compact nuclear bomb. The test produced a 5.0 magnitude earthquake and equated to about 10-20 kilotons of explosive force; in the same range as the first American nuclear weapons. The warhead in question is very likely a functional version of the prototype they showed off in April of 2016.
Following the test, North Korean state television released a statement claiming that the warhead was “standardized” and “capable of loading(sic) on strategic ballistic rockets.”
The announcer went on to say that the DPRK will begin to produce warheads “of different kinds, minimized, light, diversified and more powerful.”
In other words; North Korea is claiming that it now has the capability and/or desire to expand it’s arsenal beyond the few primitive devices it currently has and mass produce these new weapons in different configurations.
Kim’s regime has already restarted plutonium production and with the successful Musudan and KN-11 SLBM launches they now have a base of reasonably advanced missile technology capable of delivering the bomb to all U.S allies in the region.
What we are now staring at is not a North Korea on the verge of developing a bomb, but one on the verge of mass producing a range of tactical and strategic weapons. If North Korea advances their nuclear technology further, they may be able to create even more compact weapons.
Further refinement to the design of the “Disco Ball” could produce a weapon akin to the American Mark 7, which uses a similar multi-point implosion mechanism and was light and small enough to mount on a jet fighter and short range missile.
Right now, the plan to counter the DPRK nuclear threat is for South Korea to blast Pyongyang into dust after they determine a nuclear strike is likely. The coordinated land, air and sea bombing campaign would be aimed at the killing North Korea’s leadership. The idea is that by preforming a decapitation strike, Kim’s ultra-centralized state will fall apart along with the ability to order a nuclear strike.
While, This strategy is already highly risky, but further North Korean advancements could raise the risk even more. Should the north Korean arsenal become more diversified, the weapons could move further from Kim’s direct control. Placing them on submarines for instance, would create a scenario where even a fully successful decapitation could leave nuclear weapons in the field.
If DPRK missile and nuclear technology continues to advance at the same pace, they may also be able to create smaller warheads, capable of fitting onto other platforms like cruise missiles and bombers. If these weapons are developed and deployed, several tactical nuclear bombs could potentially be left in the hands of scattered units with standing orders to use them, resulting in nuclear use even after Kim is blown to bits.
This is the realty the mass production of and diversification of the North Korean’s nuclear arsenal could bring. The window for South Korea and the United States is closing rapidly. If North Korea succeeds in creating a mass producing the “Disco Ball” design it could mean that a conventional strike may become insufficient to handle the threat and the the result would be the adoption of something more akin to nuclear counter force. In other words, we would talking about a nuclear first strike involving American weapons.