Pentagon officials have long warned about the human cost of a war in the Korean peninsula, but a new report details the different scenarios and related damage of a North Korean nuclear strike on its neighbors Japan and South Korea.
Analysis published on the North Korea monitoring group 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, calculates the amount of casualties that would result from a nuclear attack, taking into account North Korea’s estimated capabilities.
The report author, Michael J. Zagurek Jr., an independent consultant specializing in database management systems, ran a series of scenarios based on the assumption that North Korea has 25 operational nuclear weapons with a warhead yield ranging from 15 kilotons (the same yield as the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima) to 250 kilotons (the estimated strength of the nuclear device tested on September 3).
According to the report, the number of casualties caused would depend on the detonation reliability of the North Korean missile warhead. “Multiple nuclear weapon detonations on both Seoul and Tokyo based on the current North Korea yield estimates could result in anywhere from 400,000 to 2 million deaths,” Zagurek wrote, adding, “With possible thermonuclear yields with the same number of weapons, the number of deaths could range between 1.3 and 3.8 million.”
The possibility of North Korea actually initiating an attack remains remote, as the goal of the regime appears to be self-preservation rather than world domination. But the credibility of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is a key factor in understanding how to deal with the so-called rogue nation diplomatically and economically.
Multiple articles in the state-controlled North Korean media have said that the need to develop nuclear weapons came from the threat of U.S. aggression and the desire to acquire a greater stance on the world stage.
The top U.S. military commander deployed in South Korea agrees North Korea seeks a nuclear deterrent to increase its international influence. “The regime seeks to be in a position to dictate its own terms internationally if it can sufficiently hold at risk the Republic of Korea, Japan, the full geography of the United States, and other countries in the region and well beyond the region,” General Vincent K. Brooks of the United States Forces Korea said in July.
But North Korea also profits financially from its weapons production endeavor, as the sale of conventional weapons and military hardware—prohibited under a 2009 U.N. resolution—provides significant revenue for the regime, as the Washington Post reported Sunday.
Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has accelerated—the young ruler has performed more nuclear tests in the past six years than his father and grandfather combined. In the past two months, Kim also launched the first missiles that flew over Japan before landing in the Pacific, clearly intending to step up the level of provocation.
Japanese and American intelligence expect a new provocation next week, as the regime often coincides test launches with significant events. Next week marks major events within and outside North Korea: Pyognyang celebrated the anniversary of the foundation of the ruling party on October 10, just a day after Colombus Day, and the Communist Party Congress in China begins on October 18.