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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
This week 20 years ago the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was signed, which suspended Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for aid from Washington.
This deal, however, would collapse in the early part of the next decade, and North Korea has since conducted three nuclear tests, making them a de facto nuclear state despite a lack of international recognition. On the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework, experts on the North’s nuclear program thus see little reason to celebrate.
In part 4 of an NK News specialist opinion survey, a panel of North Korea watchers surveyed by NK News largely consider the North’s third nuclear test, conducted in early 2013 against the wishes of its long-time ally China, the most significant event on this front in recent years. There have also been, however, suspicious developments at the Yongbyon reactor – whose cooling tower was destroyed after an agreement with Washington in 2008, but whose activities were evidently relaunched in 2013 following an announcement from Pyongyang.
However, North Korea watchers are convinced that the odds of a nuclear attack by the rogue state against its antagonists – Seoul, Tokyo and Washington – remains unlikely even if the North develops the ability to do so. The risk, they said, remains in the potential for miscalculation given the North’s tense relationship with those states, particularly Seoul.
And the panel spoke with one voice in declaring that the North cannot be recognized as a nuclear state, as this would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and encourage other states to do the same. Long term, nuclear disarmament remains the goal, they said, even if the chances of achieving this in the short (or even medium) term remain very, very slim.
Additional Reporting: Phebe Kim & Chad O’Carroll
There is still much we don’t know about North Korea’s nuclear program, but two events stand out.
The first is the most recent nuclear test in 2013, if it in fact was conducted using a device made of highly enriched uranium (HEU). If it was an HEU test, this means North Korea has succeeded in creating another source of weapons grade material – a very difficult thing to do. North Korea’s known stockpile of nuclear weapons material is limited to an estimated six to 10 bombs worth of plutonium, which decreases with each test. However, with both plutonium and HEU production at its disposal, the equation changes. The DPRK will have more flexibility and capacity to make nuclear weapons. To make matters worse, unlike North Korea’s plutonium facilities, we have few clues where the HEU is being produced.
The second is the restarting of the 5 MWe plutonium reactor at Yongbyon last year. As part of a 2005 agreement, North Korea disabled this reactor and destroyed its cooling tower to much international media fanfare. But with the DPRK’s saber-rattling, weapons tests and intrigue surrounding Kim Jong Un over the past 18 months, the North’s declaration and subsequent activity to revive its only confirmed source of fissile material slipped under the radar. This all may be a ploy to create another “bargaining chip.” But if this plant becomes fully operational again, it’s bad news – the North resurrects its original path to nuclear weapons with a facility able to produce one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year.
…dangerous materials could fall into the hands of terrorists or other hostile parties
These developments mean North Korea is able to produce more types of weapons grade material and in greater quantities – and with this capability, a greater chance that by design or accident dangerous materials could fall into the hands of terrorists or other hostile parties.
North Korea’s February 12, 2013 nuclear weapons test explosion – its third – has been the single most worrisome development in recent years. The test blast was conducted in defiance of Pyongyang’s lone remaining ally, China, and the rest of the international community. The explosion was also the first under the reign of Kim Jong Un, and a signal that he was doubling down on a more confrontational approach vis-à-vis the rest of the world rather than seeking a more moderate path.
Although one more test does not fundamentally change the security threat North Korea poses, this test, unlike the two previous ones, produced a significant yield of about six to seven kilotons and undoubtedly put Pyongyang one step closer to possessing a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead. It also is likely that North Korea used highly enriched uranium (HEU) rather than plutonium for this test. This is significant because its plutonium supply is limited, perhaps enough for fewer than 10 bombs, but its HEU production capacity is probably expanding.
If its nuclear and missile programs continue unchecked, North Korea could pose a much more significant threat to the region
If its nuclear and missile programs continue unchecked, North Korea could pose a much more significant threat to the region, embolden Pyongyang to take greater risks, prompt counteractions by South Korea and Japan, and increase the risk that Pyongyang sells fissile material to another country or to terrorists in exchange for much-needed hard currency.
It can also combine the HEU with plutonium to build more sophisticated, powerful nuclear weapons. The deployment of centrifuge plants is also worrying because verification of the absence of such a program is very difficult, greatly complicating any denuclearization process.
The concrete manifestation of a production-scale centrifuge program creates many additional challenges in negotiating an interim and long-term nuclear agreement.
Technically, the biggest developments were the 2009 and 2013 successful nuclear tests. While North Korea had tested before in 2006, most of the evidence suggests this was a “fizzle” and unsuccessful. The 2009 and 2013 tests, however, were higher yield and suggest development not only in the stockpile of nuclear material, but also in nuclear knowledge and sophistication. This is the bigger concern as it suggests North Korea will now shift its focus to improving missile technology, which will be increasingly worrying.
The bigger development, however, is likely the political one and the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. Prior to the death of Kim Jong Il, many outside observers and experts were hopeful that upon his death there would be a shift in government in Pyongyang to one that was more open, promoted human rights and relinquished its nuclear program. After a year and a half with Kim Jong Un, we can conclude that the succession did not produce a more amenable and peaceful government in Pyongyang.
We can conclude that the succession did not produce a more amenable and peaceful government in Pyongyang
On its current trajectory, North Korea will continue to be antagonistic towards its neighbors, continue to defy the international community with its nuclear program, and remain a serious threat to regional and international security. Of particular concern is what appears to be a growing schism between North Korea and China since Kim Jong Un’s accession, as demonstrated in the February 2013 nuclear test that defied Chinese advice and pressure. This is perhaps the most concerning of all developments in the past five years as it will deprive the international community of any insight into and leverage against North Korea.
There has been steady progress in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. After the third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, North Korea proclaimed that it achieved weapon diversification and miniaturization and that the nuclear test confirmed this fact. While it is believed that the previous two tests used plutonium as the fissile material, it is also thought that the third test involved a uranium device. It is still unclear because monitoring efforts to detect radioactive isotopes have failed.
Miniaturization of a nuclear warhead and the ability to mount it on a missile is one of the deep concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear capability. Successful miniaturization of a nuclear device will enhance North Korea’s capacity to deploy nuclear weapons. Moreover, if they are able to mount a miniaturized device onto a ballistic missile, this may cause serious regional and global security problems.
it can be assumed that a country can succeed in miniaturization within 10-20 years
The nuclear capability of North Korea is believed to have reached a certain level of technological achievement through a series of nuclear tests over seven years. Examining other countries’ nuclear weapons program trajectories, it can be assumed that a country can succeed in miniaturization within 10-20 years and North Korea is also believed to have made progress in its miniaturization technology.
The long-term strategy must remain nuclear denuclearization.
In the 1980s, many said that South Africa would never denuclearize, the Berlin Wall would never fall. Major changes can occur that were not anticipated by the policy elite. There is no reason to give up on achieving denuclearization.
Moreover, giving up risks further legitimizing nuclear weapons in the region. A steadfast policy aimed at nuclear denuclearization is thus essential.
There is not enough space to discuss a comprehensive strategy to respond to North Korea, but it should include creating more effective financial and trade sanctions on North Korea and continuing the slow process of drawing China into more international efforts to pressure North Korea.
At the same time, the United States has to work to ensure that additional countries do not go nuclear and work to limit their sensitive nuclear activities, including plutonium separation and uranium enrichment.
Many experts criticize current approaches to North Korea as “containment” and implicitly accepting it as a nuclear weapon state, and advocate a more hawkish approach. Still others do actually suggest accepting it as a nuclear weapon state and dealing with the “reality” of the situation. My views fall somewhere in between and I would instead suggest a policy of “stonewalling.”
Above all, the West cannot recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. This would set a dangerous international precedent and undermine the NPT. At the same time, however, it must resist North Korean provocations and attempts to use its nuclear program as a bargaining chip, as it has in the past. This will require continued cooperation and coordination between the U.S., Japan, ROK, Russia and, above all, China. The U.S. and ROK have a unique opportunity right now to reach out to China as North Korea seems to be pulling away.
One option is to provide food aid and heavy fuel, regardless of North Korea’s nuclear behavior (or misbehavior). This will admittedly give North Korea exactly what it wants, but in the process it will reduce North Korea’s need to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. What is really needed is something to change the dynamic. At the same time, the option will contribute to alleviating the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. I dread to think of what will happen five, 10, 50 or 100 years from now when the West enters North Korea either due to its opening up or collapse, and what we will find.
What is really needed is something to change the dynamic
We are constantly learning about new atrocities, concentration camps and starvation, and when we find out its scale, how can we, the West, international security experts, forgive ourselves for not doing more? We can no longer say, “I didn’t know how bad it was.” One priority must be human rights in North Korea.
Denuclearization should remain the goal, and is still possible in the long-term, but for now it should not be the precondition for resuming diplomatic efforts to halt further North Korean nuclear and missile advances. Although it is important not to reward irresponsible behavior, it is also irresponsible for the United States to maintain a policy of “strategic patience” while the North’s capabilities grow. “Naming and shaming” and further sanctions on the North through the UN Security Council are certainly justified in the wake of the latest nuclear test, but by themselves, such responses will not produce adequate results.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile work is not just a rebuke of the international community’s call for nuclear restraint, but an embarrassment for China and a test of leadership for Xi Jinping. Beijing’s influence is sometimes overestimated; China must recognize that Pyongyang’s continued nuclear pursuits represent a direct threat to China’s long-term interests and security, and its leaders must take stronger steps to implement existing UN sanctions.
The North Korean nuclear weapons horse is out of the barn, but it still matters how far away it wanders and to keep some fences around it
As difficult as Pyongyang’s leaders are, the United States and the ROK must renew efforts to engage in serious negotiations designed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, with the long-term goal of achieving verifiable and complete nuclear disarmament. Although North Korea’s leaders might not, for now, be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program altogether, they still appear to be willing to abandon portions of it in exchange for improved relations with the United States, a formal end to the Korean War, and the possibility of much-needed energy and economic support. U.S. and ROK-led negotiations, combined with stronger Chinese pressure on the North, could effectively halt further nuclear and missile tests – and that would constitute a limited but important success.
The North Korean nuclear weapons horse is out of the barn, but it still matters how far away it wanders and to keep some fences around it.
North Korea would have joyous celebrations if the U.S. and South Korea recognize and accept the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state. However, U.S. and South Korean action of this kind is not going to happen, nor should it. Our overall policy goal must steadfastly remain doing what we can to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.
But this is going to take some time. While there was a good chance that North Korea was willing to give up its nuclear weapons program 15 years ago (the DPRK did not have a working device back then, so it was easy to bargain away something that did not exist), I agree that there is no way in the immediate future or even medium-term that North Korea will give up this program – there are simply too many vested interests in Pyongyang now.
The most prudent policy therefore means doing two things: doing what we can to slow down the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and contain(ing) its activity. Along with these efforts, the U.S. needs to take steps that speed up and facilitate change within North Korean society so the regime either transforms or collapses. Admittedly, seeking transformation or collapse is a wholly unsatisfactory approach because it carries significant risks and may not work; but through years of inaction, there are few other options – short of a war or complete acceptance of North Korea’s demands. “Contain and change” is currently the least worst alternative.
Seeking transformation or collapse is a wholly unsatisfactory approach because it carries significant risks
To maximize success for this policy approach, the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia must to be on the same page. To this point they have not been, and so North Korea has taken advantages of the “gaps.” Closing these gaps will require compromise among all parties, but it will not be easy.
If North Korea’s nuclear program is close to achieving its goal of nuclear capability, there appears to be no further way to stop it. We should pay close attention to the direction of North Korea’s nuclear development. It can be the most effective means of negotiation with the U.S. to reduce the military threat and maintain levels of economic assistance from the international community. In any case, it is clear that North Korea has no interest in giving up its nuclear program in the near future.
North Korea has no interest in giving up its nuclear program in the near future.
Given this situation, the best long-term strategy is to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem as a part of the North Korean problem while putting efforts into delaying North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. The first thing is to block North Korea from another nuclear test. The international community should keep sending strong signals towards North Korea that they will have to pay a harsh penalty for another nuclear test. The second thing is to employ and continue deploying smart sanctions so that they cannot focus on developing nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un and his cabal know that if they used a nuclear weapon – via missile or a shipping container – against South Korea, Japan or the U.S., North Korea would cease to exist. Deterrence on the Korean Peninsula is alive and well, and the balance of forces are clearly in favor of the South.
Without a doubt, North Korea is idiosyncratic, and the regime acts in ways that are strange and inexplicable to the outside. It doesn’t help when their leader elevates himself to cult-figure status, prances with a bootlegged Mickey Mouse or summarily executes an uncle. But whatever one may think, the DPRK’s leaders are not crazy nor are they suicidal – up to a point.
Instead, the greatest danger comes from miscalculation. North Korea’s leadership could mistakenly view ROK or U.S. action or response to a DPRK provocation as the start of a preemptive attack on the North. In this case, all bets are off.
The balance of forces are clearly in favor of the South…[but] the greatest danger comes from miscalculation
Last year we saw an escalating “tit-for-tat” on the Korean Peninsula, culminating in superheated DPRK threats of nuclear annihilation and the U.S. sending of nuclear capable B-2 and B-52 bombers. Against a backdrop where deadly skirmishes between the two Koreas are commonplace, as are potentially fatal incidents along the DMZ, one could easily foresee a situation in which an altercation with the North or an accident (one that would have been relatively minor in prior years) has a small, but real chance of spinning out of control. In what could be perceived by a hunkered-down and insecure North Korean leadership as a “use or lose” situation, there is a big incentive to use all available firepower – in either a desperate attempt to repel an “enemy” or inflict as much damage as possible before being destroyed.
Even North Korea’s leaders must understand that, as President (Ronald) Reagan once said, “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” For now, North Korea does not have, and will not have for many years, the means to strike with nuclear weapons beyond the peninsula – and if it did it would be suicide. Combined U.S. and ROK conventional forces would overwhelm the North and effectively end the Kim dynasty and much of the country. Therefore, there is a near zero chance of a premeditated North Korean nuclear attack.
…there is a near zero chance of a premeditated North Korean nuclear attack
On the flip side, North Korea clearly believes that its nuclear arsenal is an added deterrent against attack from U.S.-ROK forces. Therefore, so long as the North has nuclear weapons, and so long as there is a risk of a border dispute, there is a very serious risk that the miscalculations by either side could trigger a nuclear response from the North. These risks may increase over time if North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities become more sophisticated or if leaders in Seoul make the mistake of trying to develop their own independent nuclear weapons capability – which is all the more reason to renew efforts to freeze, and then later reverse, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The probability of actual use of nuclear weapons against any country is considered to be close to zero in a normal condition. A first nuclear strike would certainly lead to an end of North Korea’s current regime at the hands of the international community and no leadership would take the risk. However, instability in the North Korean regime might worsen the nuclear crisis. Kim Jong Un has been evaluated to be more unpredictable and unstable than his father or grandfather. Any internal or external attempt at regime change might increase the probability (of a nuclear calamity).
North Korea is not capable of delivering its nuclear weapons over a long distance
In the meanwhile, if we consider delivery capability, North Korea is not capable of delivering its nuclear weapons over a long distance, and the U.S. is not within the threat boundary. ROK and Japan are within the boundary of short- and medium-range missiles or aircraft delivery. However considering that North Korea has not conducted any test of a nuclear warhead and aircraft delivery can be easily detected and shot down, the probability of success in a nuclear strike would be very low.
The only scenario I can imagine, and even this is a stretch, would be crisis escalation with South Korea. For example, something similar to the shelling of Yeonpyeong in 2010, in which either side perceived it as an existential threat, or military leaders took matters into their own hands, or a slew of other possible judgments.
In such scenarios, I can imagine tensions escalating, conventional movements and clashes, and increased threat perception for both sides. Deterrence logic argues that the presence of nuclear weapons would reduce tensions rather than risk escalation to full-scale nuclear war, but this is a delicate balance and should not be taken for granted. In the midst of these crises, when tensions and emotions are high, we rely more heavily on the prudent judgment of individuals than at other times, especially when nuclear weapons come into play.
We must remember that it is human beings in charge of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal
As difficult as it is at times, we must remember that it is human beings in charge of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. They may have a different threat perception than we do, but they will face the same decisions as Americans and Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Indians and Pakistanis in Kargil. We should not assume that they will always make similarly prudent decisions to stand down.
Nonetheless, North Korea can deploy nuclear tipped missiles on the Nodong today. There is no evidence it has done so but over the next several years, we may learn that it has deployed a nuclear arsenal.
With nuclear tipped missiles, North Korea would have a capability to strike its neighbors with nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the chance of nuclear weapons being used will likely remain very low.
However, there is always the possibility for miscalculation, for example a small conventional exchange growing out of control and leading North Korea to feel cornered and desperate enough to threaten and even use nuclear weapons.
Daryl Kimball – Executive Director of the Washington, D.C. based Arms Control Association
David Albright – Founder and President of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security
Heather Williams – Research fellow on nuclear weapons policy in the Chatham House International Security Department
Park Ji-young – Research Fellow and the Director of the Science & Technology Policy Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Philip Yun – Executive Director & COO of the Ploughshares Fund, former high-level diplomat who has also worked extensively in academia, business, nonprofits and government