North Korea on Wednesday planted a bomb among some defense pundits by threatening to use "precision nuclear strikes" that can turn Seoul and Washington into a "sea of fire."
While most experts dismissed the threat as the usual North Korean grandstanding, a handful are taking it more seriously, speculating that perhaps North Korea’s weapons technology is vastly more advanced than the evidence suggests.
One member of a state-run research institute pointed out that North Korea in principle has the technology to hit the U.S. mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile. "Through the successful rocket launch in December, North Korea is believed to have developed an ICBM with a maximum range of more than 10,000 km," he said.
The expert, who asked to remain anonymous, speculated this could be used to deliver a so-called electromagnetic pulse bomb.
One way of delivering a destructive electromagnetic pulse could be to detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitude in an effort to incapacitate all electric systems and electronic devices.
An official with the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses here told a National Assembly hearing in 2009, "North Korea is capable of using a small nuclear warhead in the form of an EMP bomb." The official added, "If a 20 kt nuclear weapon explodes 40 to 60 km above the East Sea, all weapons equipped with electronic equipment on the Korean Peninsula could become incapacitated."
Another fear among some experts is that North Korea may test mobile ICBM launchers. Their mobility makes them difficult to detect, and they are highly likely to survive a retaliatory attack since they can scurry off quickly after launching their weapons. North Korea's experimental ICBMs as well as its shorter-range missiles were so far all launched on stationary platforms.
Last month, North Korea apparently conducted an engine ignition test at its launch facility in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, for what appears to be the KN-08 missile. It was shown at a North Korean military parade in April of last year mounted atop a Chinese-made mobile launch platform but has not yet been tested, and the device at the parade may have been a mock-up.
Military authorities here estimate the KN-08 to be eventually capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii 5,000 km to 6,000 km away, and their reach could be extended if the engine is improved.