Nuclear Sites | A breakdown of North Korea’s nuclear, missile archipelago
She's a beauty. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Kim's Bombs

An overview of what's been identified as North Korea’s main nuclear weapon and missile sites

May 18, 2017 1:32 PM (UTC+8)

If the United States ever seriously considered a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear center and missile bases, it would have plenty of targets to choose from. Maybe too many. Times have changed since former president Bill Clinton contemplated a strike against the Yongbyon nuclear complex to put the reactor out of commission. At the time it was Pyongyang’s only source for plutonium.

That might have crippled the nuclear program, but now the North has nearly a dozen nuclear weapon/ballistic missile sites, at least according to what’s known from open sources. Here’s an overview of North Korea’s atomic archipelago:

Punggye nuclear weapons test site

All five of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests have taken place at this one site on the northeast coast. They range from the “fissile” yield inaugural test in 2006 to the two in 2016 that approached 15-20 kilotons, or Hiroshima-size yields.

There is nothing secret about the location and purpose of this test facility. A cadre of dedicated North Korea watchers carefully scrutinize commercially available satellite photos and can often see what they believe to be signs that the North is preparing a test.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

This is the source of stories that Pyongyang is about to set another one off. It is hard to visualize what kind of damage an attacker could do, even with “bunker buster” bombs, on a facility that is designed to contain a nuclear explosion.

The site is said to accommodate much larger tests up to more than 200 kilotons.

Chanjin missile factory

Located only a few kilometers from Pyongyang, Chanjin, also known as the Taesong Machine Factory, is North Korea’s prime factory for making sophisticated ballistic missile components such as guidance and control systems.

It is thought to be the location of famous picture of Kim Jong-un looking at a spiracle object, presumed to be an atomic bomb and known to North Korea watchers as the “disco ball.”

It also has apparatus for static testing of missile components. It is thought to be the location of a test in 2016 nose cone re-entry on potential ICBM missiles.

Sohae satellite launching station

This is located in the extreme northwest not far from the Chinese border and has become the premier launch site for long-distance rockets.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test
The US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors have been installed in South Korea to bring down North Korean missiles. Photo: US Department of Defense via Reuters

Its location on the west coast gives it a due south pathway that obviates the need to overfly mainland Japan (though it does violate Japanese airspace in the southern Ryukyu islands if only momentarily) before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Previous launches from the east coast had to traverse Japan before splashing down in the northern Pacific. The first long-range test from this site in 2012 failed, but a second and third in late 2012 and 2016 successfully put a satellite in orbit.

The Unha rocket is not thought to be a prototype of an ICBM, but of course any missile that can fly 6,000 kilometers or so is a potential ICBN.

Kusong

Located north of Pyongyang and about 30 kilometers from the Yongbyon nuclear facility, Kusong is a significant military/industrial complex with numerous munitions plants standing “roof to roof,” according to a Global Strategy report.

It was the site for many high-explosive tests in the years before the first nuclear weapon test.

Precisely machined explosives are needed to detonate a plutonium bomb, and much of the work was and presumably still is done here.

A view of the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 guided by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the spot, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 13, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters
A view of the test-fire of the Pukguksong-2. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Lately, Kusong has also been increasingly used for ballistic missile tests. The February launch of the Pukguksong-2 missile was from nearby Banghyun air base. Being on the west coast and traversing the country gives the missile greater range without violating any neighbor’s air space.

Sinpo Naval Base

This is North Korea’s largest naval base and shipyard located on the east coast.

If it were just a naval base, it would not likely be included in this list. But it is here that the North is trying to develop a submarine launched ballistic missile.

The new ballistic missile sub is based on early Soviet technology and would carry possibly two launch tubes through the sail, instead of rows of launch tubes behind the sail as is the case with most ballistic missile submarines.

Estimated ranges of known North Korean missiles.
Estimated ranges of known North Korean missiles.

Pyongyang successfully tested a naval missile from a submarine in 2016. If further developed it would give North Korea a reasonably secure second-strike capability.

Sinpo would make for a relatively easy target. Apparently there are no underground submarine pens. “A strike on Sinpo would be a tactician’s dream,” said one analyst.

Musadan-ri

This is the main east coast launch site for long range missiles and is also known as the Tongae Satellite Launching Ground.

The mid-range Musadan missile gets its name from the launch site. The Musadan-ri site was used extensively for testing reverse engineered Scud missiles, and in 1998 fired off the North’s first long range missile meant to launch a satellite.

More missile testing seems to be moving to the west coast, which provide a better trajectory for long-range launches.

Yongbyon

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center located north of Pyongyang is the granddaddy of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It was the purported target of a strike that the Clinton administration considered in 1994, but later rejected in favor of diplomacy.

This resulted in an eight-year freeze on the operation of the reactor, which with associated laboratories, is the main source of plutonium for North Korea’ nuclear weapons program.

It is also the location of a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant with some 2,000 centrifuges, which probably gives Pyongyang’s nuclear bomb program a source of weapons grade uranium.

Pyongsan

While probably not a priority target, Pyongsan is still an important link in the atomic archipelago.

Located near one of the North’s sources of uranium, it has facilities for refining uranium ore and more important turning it into yellow cake.

This is important preliminary stage for turning it into gaseous uranium that can be fed into uranium enrichment plant to operate nuclear reactors or produce weapons’ grade uranium.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the defence detachment on Jangjae Islet and the Hero Defence Detachment on Mu Islet located in the southernmost part of the waters off the southwest front, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 5, 2017. KCNA/ via REUTERSATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
Kim Jong-un inspects defence detachments. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Not all the targets an attacker might choose in North Korea are nuclear or missile sites.

Any successful attacker would have to put a large section of the North Korean air force out of action before taking on other targets.

It comprises about 1,300 aircraft in total. Many are near Korean War vintage, but Pyongyang does boasts some more modern fighters such as the MiG-23, MiG -29 and the Sukhoi 25.

The latter are based at North Korea’s most important airbase at Sunchon, north of Pyongyang. Many are stored in underground bunkers, making them difficult to destroy.

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