from Vantage Point September, 2011 News Follow-Up
Although estimates on North Korea's nuclear capabilities vary, most experts agree that it is now a 'fully fledged nuclear power.'
Even as North Korean First-vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan visited New
York at the end of July for a meeting with U.S. State Department officials in a
rare bilateral engagement between the two countries, fears continue to grow in the
international community that North Korea has made significant progress in expanding
its nuclear arsenal. With the promise of renewed six-party talks on the horizon,
North Korea has recently attempted to downplay its nuclear capabilities, with Kim’s
remarks that the socialist country possesses only its publicly revealed uranium
enrichment facilities in Yongbyon and no covert nuclear facilities.
However, the South Korean government and other independent organizations
maintain that the North’s nuclear capacity is much further developed than it officially
lets on, with a high likelihood that additional covert facilities and enhanced
technologies have been pursued since or even before its first nuclear test in 2006.
As indications emerge of the North’s growing interest in nuclear arms and its stateof-
the-art facilities, it appears likely that North Korea has succeeded in converting
its domestic uranium enrichment project into a viable tactical arsenal.
Nuclear Weapons Capability
Some analysts fear that the scale of North Korea’s nuclear development project is
an indication that the North no longer views its nuclear arsenal as a mere leverage
point to blackmail the international community, but as means to an end as they
seek the realization of the regime’s goal to become a powerful nation by 2012. The
North has pressed on with its nuclear progress at considerable financial cost and in
the face of tightened economic sanctions.
While the U.S. has officially avoided recognizing North Korea as a nuclear armed
state -- fearing that acknowledgement itself would lend legitimacy to its illegal
development -- various estimates place North Korea’s current nuclear arsenal at
around five to 12 warheads. Given the current state of exacerbated tensions on the
Korean Peninsula and the North’s long history of shady association with “rogue
nations,” speculation surrounding North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is drawing
Due to the secretive nature of the socialist country, very few concrete details
behind its current nuclear weapons capability can be independently confirmed.
However, the North Korean atomic program has been closely scrutinized since the
days of the first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, when evidence first emerged that
the North was intentionally violating its commitments under the Non-Proliferation
Treaty. Although the North had publically shut down its plutonium-based program
with its ratification of the Geneva Agreed Framework between two countries in
October 1994, evidence uncovered during the height of the Second North Korean
nuclear crisis in 2002 revealed that North Korea had in fact been developing a clandestine
domestic program based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) for several
years, with heavy foreign assistance.
Given the North’s vast natural uranium reserves, the Pyongyang regime had a
strong incentive to develop an alternative HEU project while its plutonium extraction
facilities were under close scrutiny. Both processes can be used to build
nuclear weapons, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a
minimum of either eight kilograms of plutonium or 25kg of HEU for a single functioning
North Korea’s HEU technology was developed in close cooperation with
Pakistan at some of the highest levels. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, reportedly visited North Korea 13 times in
return for Pakistan’s access to advanced ballistic missile technology. On July 6, The
Washington Post reported that North Korea had transferred more than US$3 million
in bribes to Pakistani officials in order to secure nuclear weapons technology in the
Pyongyang’s Nuclear Ambitions
North Korean officials acknowledged the HEU development effort officially
when Stanford professor Siegfried Hecker visited the uranium enrichment facility in
Yongbyon on Nov. 20, 2010. With Pakistani assistance, North Korea’s current HEU
production has become the current method of choice for nuclear weapons development,
with approximately 40kg produced annually in state-of-the-art facilities.
According to Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general of the IAEA, “We can
expect its HEU stocks to exceed its current plutonium stockpile after three years.”
With two separate tests confirming the realization of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions
in 2006 and 2009, a myriad of questions behind Pyongyang’s current nuclear
capabilities remain unresolved. Back in 2006, the low explosive yield of the first
North Korean nuclear test was seen by many as an indication of its failure, with the
former French Minister of Defense Michele Alliot-Marie commenting, “If this was a
nuclear explosion, it would be a case of a failed explosion.” It was widely believed
at the time that North Korea largely lacked the advanced precision industries essential
in fabricating a deployable warhead.
However, recent evaluations of North Korea present indications of a significantly
evolved nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang now sees its nuclear arsenal as a viable alternative
to its aging and cost-prohibitive conventional armed forces, seeking official
recognition as a nuclear armed state from the U.S. in a manner similar to India and
Although estimates on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities vary, most experts
agree that it is now a “fully fledged nuclear power.” Hecker estimates that North
Korea possesses “four to eight” nuclear weapons with a yield of 20 kilotons, similar
to the atomic weapon deployed on Nagasaki in 1945.
According to a statement released by South Korean Minister of Defense Kim
Kwan-jin this June, he said that it was highly likely that the North has succeeded in
manufacturing smaller and lighter warheads capable of tactical deployment, “as a
number of years have passed since the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.” Japan’s
defense white paper, published in early August, said that North Korea is believed
to have secured the technology to miniaturize its nuclear weapons, a development
that could theoretically enable it to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
It is probable that North Korea has begun research into the development of a
significantly more powerful thermonuclear “hydrogen bomb,” given the three- to
nine-year timeframe it took the first four world nuclear powers to transition from
fission to fusion based weaponry.
Also, in terms of its deployment capability, North Korea’s new ballistic missile
launch site in Tongchang-ri, located in North Pyongan Province, is nearing its final
stages of completion, fueling speculation that the North has succeeded in fabricating
a nuclear warhead sophisticated enough to be deployed on a long-range missile.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned in January 2011 that
North Korea “was within five years” of building a missile capable of striking the
A few, such as Peter Vincent Pry, a former CIA nuclear weapons analyst, believe
that the international community may be underestimating North Korea’s nuclear
arsenal. He sees North Korea’s first low-yield tests not as an indication of their failure,
but their success as Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons capable of disrupting
electric power grids and communications hundreds of miles within their blast
This would be particularly effective against the North’s densely populated neigh-
bors South Korea and Japan. Experts also maintain that a North Korean nuclear
device does not require any real degree of advanced sophistication to do enormous
damage, as a radioactive “dirty bomb” can be easily designed for maximum
With North Korea’s demonstrated nuclear capabilities, fears of international WMD
proliferation are also on the rise. While the U.S. has officially removed North Korea
from the list of countries that support terrorism in 2008, there are growing concerns
that financially strapped, diplomatically isolated North Korea could see its nuclear
technology as a potential bread basket.
According to a U.N. report released last year, North Korea had at least offered
the sale of nuclear-related technologies to Syria and Myanmar, and there are concerns
that given the North’s long history of black market commercial activities, that
they may offer fissile material to known terrorist organizations. It has been estimated
that North Korea sold over 500 ballistic missiles worldwide between 1987 and
2009, and a recent report from Japan’s Sankei Shimbun suggested that the North
sent more than 150 nuclear- and missile-related experts to Iran in May this year.
(By Bradley Cho)