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Rising Tensions Raise Questions About North Korea's Military Capability


To learn more about what North Korea is actually capable of Frank Aum now joins us in the studio. He was a senior adviser on North Korea at the Defense Department, and he's now a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks for being here.

FRANK AUM: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: We've mentioned North Korea has tested nuclear weapons in the past. What do we know they are capable of?

AUM: Well, first of all, we know that they have a very advanced and comprehensive nuclear program as well as a ballistic missile program. Experts estimate that they have anywhere from 25 to 50 nuclear weapons based on their fissile material line and potential weapons inventory.

They have conducted five nuclear tests in the past before, each with increasing magnitude and yield. The last one in September 2016 had a yield of about 20 to 30 kilotons, which is almost double the yield of the Hiroshima bomb.

SHAPIRO: If they wanted to get one of those weapons to the U.S., do we know if they're capable of it?

AUM: Right. So they do, again, have an extensive ballistic missile program. They have anywhere in the range of several hundred to up to a thousand short and medium-range ballistic missiles that could range all of South Korea and Japan. They also have intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could range Guam.

They haven't tested a long-range capability just yet. In Kim Jong-un's New Year's speech, he said that they're making final preparations to conduct a long-range test. But until they conduct a test, we don't know for sure.

SHAPIRO: So a pretty substantial arsenal. If the U.S. wanted to target that arsenal, how much does the United States know about where those weapons are kept?

AUM: We know where some of their facilities and missile garrisons are. This is just based on, you know, satellite imagery, defector accounts, other sources. So we know some, but again, we don't know the full extent.

Part of the problem is that North Korea has a very extensive underground network of facilities. So they could hide a lot of stuff, and we just don't simply know where it is. And also, in terms of the missiles that they have in their garrisons, they have mobile missile launchers which they can disperse at the first sign of crisis. And it will be hard for us to find out where they are.

SHAPIRO: If the U.S. did attack North Korea, what would you expect the North Korean response to be?

AUM: I mean, it would depend on what our strike is against North Korea. If it's very limited, I think they would probably do something that's reciprocal. It could be something to the extent of what we've seen in the past, which is, for example, the sinking of the ROK naval corvette, the Cheonan, in 2010 or the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

Both of those were in 2010, and they had casualties in the tens to hundreds. So we could see something on that level. I don't think we would be expecting something that's more escalatory than that. But again, it's hard to talk in these terms because I don't want to sound like I'm raising alarm too much.

SHAPIRO: You've watched and studied North Korea for a long time. How worried do you think people should be right now?

AUM: It's hard to say because these sorts of provocations cycles have happened in the past. And so even something like the carrier strike group going into the region...

SHAPIRO: This is the American Armada - the battleships.

AUM: Right. The Carl Vinson that came in there in recent weeks - we've had demonstrations of force like that in the past, so it's not uncommon. And even if - just talking to colleagues and friends on the ground in South Korea, I get a sense that they're not too concerned. No one's hoarding, you know, ramen and soju. No one's...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Soju is the local alcohol.

AUM: (Laughter) Right. No one's heading to the bunkers. That being said, I feel like President Trump is a - sort of a different beast altogether together, and no one thought he would have done the Syria strike or the bomb in Afghanistan. So it's hard to say with certainty, but I just feel like it's very unlikely that something would happen.

SHAPIRO: My impression as somebody who's not an expert here is that if things accelerate, they could accelerate very, very fast.

AUM: Yes. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Is that how this would go down if it goes down?

AUM: Right. It's a situation where nothing can happen. But when it does, it escalates very quickly. Again, you have all the conventional artillery that North Korea has in the mountainous region right north of the DMZ border. And then they have their chemical biological weapons. They have their nuclear weapons. A lot of these things - ballistic missiles - they happen in a matter of seconds. So things could escalate very quickly.

SHAPIRO: Frank Aum is a former senior adviser on North Korea at the Defense Department, and he's currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks for coming into the studio.

AUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.