Three reasons you should be worried about North Korea — and one small consolation

Three reasons you should be worried about North Korea — and one small consolation

Three reasons you should be worried about North Korea — and one small consolation

Updated 23 October 2017, 20:45 AEDT

With the current climate of military threats emanating from the Trump administration, should we be worried?

North Korea has sent an open letter to a number of parliaments, including Australia's, to announce itself as a fully fledged nuclear power, and say any attempt by the US to destroy it could lead to "horrible nuclear disaster".

The regime's first successful tests this year of intercontinental ballistic missiles, in theory, give the rogue state the ability to strike the continental United States and even Australia.

With the current climate of military threats emanating from the Trump administration, should we be worried? The answer is complicated.

Here are three reasons why you should worry, and one why you shouldn't.

1. North Korea is testing more

North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as it is officially known, was created following World War II from the Soviet-occupied territory on the Korean peninsula, with Kim Il-sung as leader.

It began producing and testing missiles under his tenure in 1984, a practice the country has continued on and off throughout the rein of his son, Kim Jong-il, and his grandson, the current leader Kim Jong-un.

Comparing the three leaders, the youngest Kim has already tested more missiles than both his father and grandfather combined.

The eldest Kim tested a total of 15 missiles.

Eleven of these were short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) — Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs with a maximum range of 500km.

In one test, the type of missile launched remains unknown.

It also tested three medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) — Nodongs with a maximum range of about 1,500km.

After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, his son took over, and tested a further 16 missiles.

The regime leapt forward with the testing of space launch vehicles (SLVs).

In 1998, North Korea tested its first such vehicle, a Taepedong-1, which failed while flying over Japan, producing a major diplomatic incident.

While the north maintained the rocket was for peacefully launching a satellite into orbit, experts say it could be reconfigured to house a missile, and the move signalled the development of longer-range technology.

The incident led to a moratorium on testing, which the regime ceased in 2006 with the testing of another SLV, the Taepedong-2, which also failed.

The moratorium had ceased as it had begun, and was followed by the testing of seven more SRBMs. Six MRBMs were also tested during the middle Kim's tenure.

The regime also tested its first atomic bomb in 2006, followed by another in 2009, which were both met with international condemnation.

When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, his third son, Kim Jong-un, took over.

Under the youngest Kim, 85 missiles have been tested so far.

2. The pace of technological advancement has quickened

Kim Jong-un's forebears tested mostly SRBMs and MRBMs, which were really only capable of striking near neighbours.

Since 2012, the regime has expanded its arsenal into farther-reaching intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The regime has also sought to develop the capacity to launch a missile from a submarine — a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

While the youngest Kim has tested a large amount of short and medium-range missiles, a large amount of testing has been devoted to longer-range missile technology.

North Korea's SLBMs have a range of about 1,200km, while the submarine that can fire them, known as the Sinpo class, has a range of 2,800km, giving the missile a total range of 4,000km.

IRBMs have a maximum range of 4,500km, while the 2017 tests of North Korea's ICBMs yielded estimated ranges of 8,500km and 10,000km — enough to strike the mainland US and even Australia.

But this technology has come relatively recently.

The regime has also tested four more atomic bombs of increasing power since 2012.

The latest dwarfs the strength of the bombs that the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.

3. Preparing for war?

Not only have the number of tests rapidly proliferated, so have the number of test sites.

The elder Kim used only two test sites to conduct launches — and 14 out of 15 tests took place at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground.

Under Kim Jong-il, 13 of 16 tests were conducted at Kittaeryong Military Base, with the other three at Tonghae.

But the current leader has test sites dotted all around the country and has abandoned Tonghae as a test site.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, this represents a dramatic shift from development of missiles to operational training.

"These trends make the clear and disturbing point that North Korea has been conducting launch exercises, consistent with the regime's probable intent to deploy nuclear weapons to missile units throughout the country," an analysis on the NTI website says.

In short, the regime is training its troops for possible nuclear war.

4. A small consolation

All of this seems pretty terrifying, but we'll offer you a small consolation.

While tests of missiles as a whole have become more and more successful over the years, the shorter-range missiles are doing far better than the longer-range.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, older variants of missiles with underlying technology developed under his forebears have been far more successful in tests than newer, longer-range missiles developed under his tenure.

So while North Korea seems to be training for war, the largest threat currently exists towards its closest neighbours, Japan and South Korea.

The threat is especially present for these countries, as experts believe the nuclear weapons that the regime currently possesses could be attached to one of their shorter-range missiles.

Co-director and senior scientist at the Global Security Program, David Wright, says "North Korea's shorter-range missiles ... are believed to be capable of carrying the nuclear warheads that NK probably has".

Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Andrew Davies, says "it would be prudent to assume that they can do what the US and Soviets managed in the early '60s".

He added that nuclear warheads could even be fitted into 155mm artillery shells if the north wanted.

The regime's latest test, on September 15, appears to put US military bases on Guam into operational range, but missiles that could reach the mainland US or Australia have not yet been widely tested.

However, the pace and enthusiasm of testing indicates it won't be long before the world has to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can strike anywhere.

"I expect it will be five or more years before it will have a missile capable of reaching all of US territory with a nuclear warhead, although I think it either has or is close to having the capability to reach cities on the US west coast," Dr Davies said.

But both experts said they would be surprised if the regime didn't possess a nuclear device small enough to attach to an ICBM.

"It may have one already. If not I expect it will have one within a year or so," Dr Davies said.