North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is flourishing.
The Kim regime has built a host of new facilities in the recent years and a new report from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies found that North Korea will have enough weapons-grade nuclear material for dozens or even scores of nuclear warheads by the end of this decade.
Just what this means for international security largely depends on two factors that aren’t necessarily connected to the quantity of bombs Pyongyang has on hand: miniaturization and explosive yield. North Korea needs bombs small enough to attach to long-range projectiles, and they need to pack a large explosive punch.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009, and 2013. As David Albright, a nuclear physicist and founder of ISIS told Business Insider, the fact that the tests were of relatively small yield suggests that North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons with miniaturization in mind.
“The first test was a dud but it was only intended to be a low-yield test,” Albright told Business Insider. “The second test wasn’t that high, which is another indicator that they’re working with miniaturized designs.”
But the explosions were still plenty big.
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, created the Nuke Map to visualise the size of various nuclear detonations through history. It gives users the option of detonating a bomb with the yield of any of the three North Korean nuclear tests over any spot on earth using either an airburst or surface detonation. It even calculates injuries and fatalities.
The Nuke Map shows that the effects of North Korea’s “small” nuclear detonation would be horrifying to behold.
For reference’s sake we used Business Insider’s offices at 20th st and 5th Ave in Manhattan as nuclear ground zero for nuclear detonations with the same explosive yeild as North Korea’s three tests. The gaudy casualty numbers owe partly to the fact that Manhattan is one of the most densely populated places in the world — although Seoul, the South Korean capital and a prime North Korean nuclear strike candidate, is even denser than New York City.
Here’s the Nuke Map for North Korea’s 2006 test, which had a yield equal to 500 tons of TNT — roughly 1/30th the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima:
The fireball of North Korea’s first nuclear test was the width of a single Manhattan block while the area in which there was a 100% probability of third-degree burns (the second yellow circle) would stretch from the middle of Union Square to the mid-20s. The blast would create enough air pressure to collapse “most residential buildings” over an even larger radius than that (the blue circle).
If detonated over BI’s offices North Korea’s “dud” nuke would kill an estimated 56,860 people, according to the Nuke Map.
The next test in 2009 had a yield equivalent to 6,000 tons of TNT, meaning it was 30 times more powerful than the device Pyongyang detonated just three years earlier:
The fireball was 240 meters in width, or just a shade under 3 Manhattan blocks. If detonated over our offices there’d be deadly radiation all the way from Penn Station to the edge of Washington Square. An estimated 219,530 people would die.
The weapon North Korea detonated in 2013 had a 10 kiloton yield, a 4,000-tons-of-TNT improvement over the test 4 years earlier:
The entire width of Manhattan would be subject to deadly radiation with buildings collapsed from the mid-30s to the East Village.
The fireball alone would have the width of nearly four Manhattan blocks (see left) and 244,990 people would die in the blast.
North Korea isn’t about to nuke New York, or anywhere else for that matter. There’s no smoking gun proving nuclear miniaturization. North Korea’s intercontinental missile test in 2009 was a failure, and there’s no evidence that Pyongyang has managed to attach anything resembling a nuclear warhead to its more reliable No Dong (basically scud-type) missiles.
And while North Korea hardly behaves like a constructive member of the international community it’s a huge leap to think that it would consider tossing around nuclear missiles even if it did definitely have them.
But Pyongyang possess nuclear weapons nevertheless. And as these maps show, the fact that North Korea’s nukes are small or cut-rate compared to the rest of the nuclear nations’ arsenals is beside the point.
Even a tiny nuke emits a blast that the mind can’t grasp even with the aid of a Nuke Map-style graphic abstraction. And even a very poor, isolated, and widely scorned country like North Korea can build a lot of them if it’s dedicated enough — and if the rest of the world isn’t vigilant enough in stopping it.
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