Target Rich – North Korea's Atomic Archipelago
If the United States ever seriously considered making a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile assets, it would have plenty of targets to choose from; perhaps too many. Times have changed since former President Bill Clinton contemplated a surgical strike against the Yongbyon nuclear complex to put out of commission the North’s 5MWe reactor, then its only source of plutonium. That one strike might have crippled the nuclear program. Now a targeteer would have to take into account nearly a dozen known nuclear weapons/ballistic missile sites, their locations drawn from open sources. Here is an overview of North Korea’s atomic archipelago:
Punggye Nuclear Weapons Test Site - All five of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests have taken place at this one site on the northeast coast. They range from the “fissile” yield inaugural test in 2006 to the two in 2016 that approached 15-20 kilotons, or Hiroshima-size yields. There is nothing secret about the location and purpose of this test facility. A cadre of dedicated North Korea watchers carefully scrutinize commercially available satellite photos and can often see what they believe to be signs that the North is preparing a test. The source of most stories that Pyongyang is about to set another one off. It is hard to visualize what kind of damage an attacker could do, even with “bunker buster” bombs, on a facility that is designed to contain a nuclear explosion. The site is said to accommodate much larger tests, up to more than 200 kilotons.
Chanjin Missile Factory - Located only a few kilometers from Pyongyang, Chanjin, also known as the Taesong Machine Factory, is North Korea’s primary factory for making sophisticated ballistic missile components, such as guidance and control systems. It is thought to be the location of the famous picture of Kim Jong-un looking at a spiracle 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 test in 2016 of nose cone re-entry technology for potential ICBMs.
Sohae Satellite Launching Station - is located in the extreme Northwest not far from the Chinese border. It 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 (though it does 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 a satellite in orbit. The Unha rocket is not thought to be a prototype of an ICBM, but of course any missile that can fly 6,000 kilometers or so is a potential ICBN.
Kusong - Located north of Pyongyang and also about 30 km from the Yongbyon nuclear facility Kusong is a significant military/industrial complex with munitions plants standing “roof to roof,” according to a Global Strategy report. 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 Pukguksong-2 missile was from nearby Banghyun air base. Being on he west coast and traversing the country gives the missile greater range without violating any neighbor’s air space.
Sinpo Naval Base - This is North Korea’s largest east coast naval base and shipyard located on the east coast. If it were just a naval base, it 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 for a relatively easy target. Apparently, there are no underground submarine pens. “A strike on Sinpo would be a tactician’s dream,” said one analyst.
Musadan-ri - It is the main east coast launch site for long-range missiles, and is also known as the Tongae Satellite Launching Ground. The mid-range Musadan missile gets its name from the launch site. The Musadan-ri site was used extensively for testing reverse engineered Scud missiles, and in 1998 fired off the North’s first long range missile 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 located north of Pyongyang is the grand daddy 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 diplomacy. Resulting in an eight-year freeze on the operation of the reactor, which, with associated laboratories, 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 likely gives Pyongyang a source of weapons’ grade uranium.
Pyongson - While probably not a priority target, Pyongson is still an important link in the atomic archipelago. Located south of Pyongyang near one of the North’s sources of uranium, it has facilities for refining uranium ore and more importantly turning it into yellow cake. An important preliminary stage for turning it into gaseous uranium that can then be fed into uranium enrichment plants to operate nuclear reactors or produce weapons’ grade weapons uranium.
Not all the targets an attacker might choose in North Korea are nuclear or missile sites. Any successful attacker would have to put a large section of the North Korean air force out of action before attacking the other targets. It comprises about 1,300 aircraft in total. Many are near Korean War vintage, but Pyongyang does boast some more modern fighters such as the MiG-23, MiG-29, and the Su-15. The latter are based at North Korea’s most important airbase at Sunchon, North of Pyongyang. Many are stored in underground bunkers, making them very difficult to take out.
Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War Between China and Japan, available as an Amazon Single Kindle.