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Five Things You Need to Know about Kim Jong Un’s Photo Op with the Bomb

11 March 2016

(Photo: Rodong Sinmun)

(Photo: Rodong Sinmun)

On March 9, KCNA and Rodong Sinmun announced that Kim Jong Un had visited a facility where he learned about North Korea’s progress in mating nuclear weapons to ballistic missiles. A subsequent television broadcast included more than dozen still images from the visit. Not only did Kim Jong Un pose with a number of missiles, including the KN-08, but he also posed with a model of compact nuclear weapon and modern reentry body.

Here are the five things you need to know about Kim’s visit.

  1. Kim might have been visiting the Chamjin Missile Factory outside of Pyongyang.

North Korea did not announce the location of the visit, but a likely location is the North’s main missile production facility outside of Pyongyang, the Tae-sung Machine Factory (also known as the Chamjin Missile Factory). Michael Madden has matched the ceiling lights to the lone picture believed to have been taken at the site. The Tae-sung Machine Factory is located at: 38.951517°N, 125.568482°E.

  1. The room is filled with a number of North Korean ballistic missiles.

Although attention has understandably focused on the nuclear weapon sitting in front of Kim, the factory room contains two known modifications of the KN-08, unpainted Nodong missiles and what may be Musudan missiles. While most of the press reporting has focused on North Korea’s ICBM, the official announcement said that the North’s nuclear warheads “have been standardized to be fit for ballistic rockets by miniaturizing them.” That, along with the variety of missiles in the room, suggests North Korea plans to arm several types of missiles with nuclear warheads.

  1. We know a lot more about the KN-08, including that it uses two Nodong engines.

Since North Korea displayed the KN-08 ICBM during parades in 2012 and 2013, followed by a substantially modified version in 2015, analysts have attempted to estimate the missile’s design and performance. In 2013, John Schilling argued that the first stage of the KN-08 was most likely a pair of Nodong engines. Although the images do not provide quite enough detail to determine the type of engine, for the first time we can confirm that the first stage of the KN-08 Mod 1 comprises two engines. That increases our confidence in our estimates of the KN-08’s range and payload. The fact that both missiles are displayed, along with an analysis of the serial numbers, suggests that North Korea intends to deploy both variants of the KN-08.

  1. North Korea has a more plausible reentry body.

One of the big questions about North Korea’s nuclear program is whether or not North Korea can design a reentry vehicle that will protect the warhead during its journey from launch to target. The KN-08 missiles that North Korea paraded in 2012 and 2013 were almost certainly mock-ups. Although the quality of the mock-ups improved between parades, the nosecones were particularly unconvincing. North Korea has now shown a reentry body that looks like early US and Soviet ones. The reentry body still hasn’t been tested, but this is the first credible reentry vehicle design that North Korea has displayed.

  1. The nuclear weapon—a compact fission device—would be small enough for a missile.

There has long been a debate about whether to take the DPRK’s claims to have “miniaturized” its nuclear weapons seriously. As I have argued previously, there is enough open source evidence to take seriously the possibility that North Korea has developed a compact fission device that is approximately 60 cm in diameter and weighs between 200-300 kilograms.  It is hard to make precise measurements at this size, but we assume the warheads fit inside the reentry body next to it. This would be similar to a Pakistani nuclear design that surfaced in Switzerland after the break-up of the A.Q. Khan network. The size of the object is consistent with these expectations. The device is not a classical two-stage thermonuclear weapon, but North Korean designers may use deuterium-tritium gas to “boost” the yield of the nuclear explosion. The object is probably a mockup, since nuclear weapons are filled with conventional explosives and would be very dangerous. Some US experts are skeptical—they don’t think the object looks right. It does not look like US devices, to be sure, but it is hard to know if aspects of the model are truly implausible or simply that North Korean nuclear weapons look different than their Soviet and American cousins. The size, however, is consistent with my expectations for North Korea. And it is hard to believe that, after four nuclear tests, the North Koreans can’t make a plausible mock-up.

Kim Jong Un’s decision to pose with a nuclear weapon is not surprising. For several years now, North Korean officials have asserted that they have the capability to strike targets in the United States. North Korea has paraded variants of the KN-08 ICBM on three occasions, announced that previous nuclear tests were for the purpose of “miniaturizing” the North’s nuclear weapons, and published a map of the targets in the United States including Washington, DC. In response to these threats, US officials have consistently stated that North Korea has yet to demonstrate the full range of technologies necessary to target the United States. The images released on March 9 are intended to bolster the North’s deterrent in the face of such skepticism.


Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a frequent contributor to 38 North.

Reader Feedback

12 Responses to “Five Things You Need to Know about Kim Jong Un’s Photo Op with the Bomb”

  1. Bob says:

    Dyan, did I read that right, you want to be reassured nothing bad is going to happen?
    Yes, I believe that is too much to ask…

  2. Clay Ramsey says:

    One thing is for sure, that’s an expensive whatever it is. I know if I were designing the shell for an implosion bomb, it wouldn’t look like that. I don’t see a seam anywhere in the shell, and therefore, no way to get the actual core or implosion charges through those little access ports. It looks kind of flimsy too, the bomb would be very heavy and that aluminum shell looks kind of weak to me. I guess there’s a hundred ways to make a bomb, and that could be one of them, but it looks like an assembly and maintenance nightmare. Flashy but not very practical. The mouse that roared.

  3. Steven Hayden says:

    The DPRK likely has secondary underground missile production center. Above ground centers are easy targets and the production is easy to monitor.The DPRK has extensive tunnel network and logically would have at least some underground secret production capacity available .The German V2 rocket center above ground Peenemundo was bombed and moved underground. In a protracted war the DPRK goal would be to prevent direct invasion with missiles and ATGM antipersonnel missiles similar to Yemen.Hence the DPRK boast of longest laser guided ATGM in the world. Unlike Yemen which uses at least a 100 ballistic missiles annually against the Saudis , the DPRK could potentially produce long range ballistic missiles with nuclear capacity even during war.

  4. Eric says:

    By having 92 explosives surrounding the tamper, I believe they don’t need to use the slow/fast explosive combination, thus they have one less layer of explosives reducing the diameter, a sort of miniaturization. They could get yields of up to 400 kilotons if they use a sloika method which is alternating layers of fusion and fission fuel. That was the yield of the first hydrogen bomb exploded, a Soviet bomb. The US didn’t call it a true hydrogen bomb because it was not a teller/ulam configuration in which a fission primary was used to compress a fission/fusion secondary, and the fusion yield was not as great. I think North Korea will be OK with a 400kt yield and won’t go through the trouble of developing two point implosion and teller/ulam H-bombs.

  5. CARLOS Lizarraga says:

    Michael, I certainly agree with you about the cancer analogy.Besides N.Korea,we have allowed a couple of nascent tumors to develop into full blown tumors.Pakistan,and ready to go full bloom,Iran.Next will follow very shortly some other M.East countries like the Saudis.Our intelligence has been wrong on some major significant intelligence.Let us hope they do not under estimate this egomaniac that believes he is god on earth.

  6. Steven Hayden says:

    The head of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command stated that Kwangmyongsong-4 was almost twice as large as Kwangmyongsong-3, and South Korean officials estimated the mass as 200 kilograms (440 lb).”Compact fission device” is approximately 60 cm in diameter and weighs between 200-300 kilograms. Just a coincidence?

  7. Steven Hayden says:

    For ten years after 2006 nuclear test , the US did not put a carrier in Foal Eagle exercise.This was to prevent nuclear attack on carrier group. Now in 2016 when the nuclear arsenal is dozen times larger USA includes a carrier in its decapitation exercise .This is ten years after DPRK first nuclear explosion. The prevailing strategy controlling US policy is that DPRK has entered phase of rapid upstroke of nuclear development in numbers accuracy and throw weight just like USA from 1945 to 1955. Now the US policy has changed to provoking nuclear war before the DPRK stockpile doubles in 12 months. The impending threat of cruise and ballistic attack allows less than 30 minute warning .This has cause DPRK to prepare the liquid filled missiles with fuel in “preemptive strike mode” by fueling missiles in DPRK. The DPRK requested a peace treaty but will not accept a nuclear US with surrender of their nukes. The US administration will claim that nuclear war delayed would only be worse in casualties and damage since DPRK stockpile is now growing so rapidly. Reasonable men would have entered a peace treaty long ago. The rejection of DPRK peace treaty means nuclear war is inevitable .Those who sacrifice justice for security will have neither.

  8. Eric says:

    Why would this be a mockup? It is sitting next to real missiles that are being fitted for warheads. If you count the number of sides it looks like it has 92 sides, mostly hexagons with some pentagons. This probably allows for an explosive lens that only uses one type of explosive as opposed to a fat man soccer ball that requires a combination of slow/fast explosives.

  9. Dyan says:

    I’ve been following this story for awhile now. I’ve learned a great deal,none of which I am happy about. Along with everything else that’s going on in the world, I admit, this dictator scares me far more than some others. Yet, I don’t feel that the US is taking this as seriously has they should. I realize that we surly don’t know what goes on behind the scenes but it sure would make a lot of people feel safer if we did know. The fact that the man is Cleary not sane, makes me worry even more. Please relieve our minds a little here and give us some positive information that might a sure us a bit more. I don’t think that’s to much to ask for. Do you?

  10. Chris C says:

    There are two additional possibilities that need to be factored into expectations for DKRP nuclear weapons:

    1) It is very easy and takes virtually no expertise to make a “dirty” nuclear weapon that uses only high-level nuclear waste and conventional explosives. Such a weapon can contaminate large areas that makes them uninhabitable for decades. The area around Chernobyl is an example.
    2) Much of the size and weight of a nuclear weapon is in the shielding that allows it to be stored and handled safely. But that shielding can be omitted. Technicians would practice with a mockup such as the one shown, but would mount a real weapon as their last act. Events ar Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown that people will give their lives for “the greater good.” This decision would be even more easily made if family members were held as hostages.

    Add both of these to the likely fission weapon and chemical weapons and you have a significant capability to destroy a great deal of South Korea.

  11. Allen Thomson says:

    I’d be slightly surprised if the Norks went with a multipoint design like that shown for a bomb intended for missile warheads. Two-point systems have a number of advantages, date back a half a century, and seem to be understood by, e.g., Iran.

    Pero, ¿quién sabe?

  12. michael says:

    US officials have consistently stated that North Korea has yet to demonstrate the full range of technologies necessary to target the United States.

    well well , lets let the cancer grow and see if it kills us

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.