North Korea's October Surprise: A Nuclear Weapons Test?


May 31, 2024

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversees a tactical missile weapons system at an unknown location, May 14, 2024, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversees a tactical missile weapons system at an unknown location, May 14, 2024

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on May 31, 2024.

Some in the United States worry that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could carry out an October surprise by doing a nuclear weapon test just before the U.S. presidential election this year. Could Kim do that? We don't know, but he certainly has a number of reasons for doing so.

The North Korea Nuclear Test October Surprise

North Korea's last nuclear weapon test was in September 2017. Many have wondered why he has gone almost seven years without another such test. Undoubtedly China's open opposition to North Korean nuclear weapon tests plays a major role in the North's decision. The North knows that it must use nuclear weapon tests very sparingly or risk China's wrath. Indeed, China has recently offended the North by agreeing with South Korea and Japan to seek North Korean denuclearization.

It is curious that when Kim introduced his “tactical nuclear weapon” design in March last year, he did not do a nuclear weapon test to confirm that design. But maybe those weapons were purely mock-ups, or maybe they were not yet the design Kim was seeking.

After all, Kim has announced plans to target airfields, ports, and military command and control facilities with tactical nuclear weapons. These are generally large, hardened facilities. Most would be partially damaged but not destroyed by 10 kiloton tactical nuclear weapons, like those that Kim might currently possess. Kim has probably been hoping to get a more advanced design for his tactical nuclear weapons that would produce an explosion of 100 kilotons or so.

Why Nuclear Weapons Testing Matters for North Korea

To put this into context, Kim has talked about a weapon that would fit on missiles like his KN-25 that has a 600 mm diameter. For comparison purposes, the U.S. Minuteman III warhead has a 541 mm diameter including the reentry shield on the warhead, and it has about a 350 kiloton yield. Kim is unlikely to get a warhead that powerful—the United States carried out hundreds and hundreds of nuclear weapon tests trying to master not only the science but also the art of making efficient nuclear weapons. But if Kim had a nuclear weapon with a 100 kiloton yield that would fit on his KN-25 and related missiles, that would allow him to do pretty serious damage to individual airfield, port, and military command control targets. Kim would likely consider such nuclear weapons as being tactical because he would plan to use them in the Korean theater and not because they have small nuclear weapon yields.…

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Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.