In September, North Korea tested its fifth nuclear device, its second this year and its most powerful so far. The move left the international community nervous and divided how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear progress.
When nuclear weapons come to the forefront of the news, we’ve become accustomed to hearing from the usual suspects: politicians, journalists, and analysts. But we’re less used to hearing from nuclear scientists – something that the Union of Concerned Scientists, since the late 1960’s, has been trying to change.
A think tank that provides more technical perspectives on policy issues, the group pushed the U.S. Senate to approve New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the 2011 agreement between Russia and the U.S. to reduce nuclear stockpiles.
“We work on a number of issues that have technical components and try to be experts on both the technical aspects and the policy aspects,” says David Wright, co-director of their Global Security Program and an expert on arms control and missile defense systems.
Wright started working on North Korea in the early 90’s when not much was known about their missile programs.
“Based on pictures of the Nodong missile that gave us a sense of the size and shape, I could figure out how it was built, what it was made out of, and what next steps North Korea would be following to increase the range of those things,” Wright tells NK News. “I think that’s a good example of how we take what’s out there and add in technical work to understand things better.”
NK News called Wright to get his take on North Korea’s ongoing nuclear development – and what the international community’s response should be.
NK News: What was your response to September’s test? Had you thought they’d do another nuclear test quite so soon after the last?
David Wright: I think everybody was surprised they tested so quickly, and it’s a bit hard to know what it means.
They are in a hurry to show the world that they have these capabilities, and that this was a chance at an unambiguous success by having a larger yield. This idea of having something that the world cannot dismiss seems to be one of their concerns.
NK News: What does the country’s new rocket engine mean for the country’s capabilities?
David Wright: North Korea has been using 1950’s-era rocket engine components and fuels since the 1990’s. It’s basically the kind of thing that the Soviets used when they built their SCUD missiles, meaning a liquid propellant and a fairly straightforward engine. It works, it’s robust, but it’s not very state of the art and you can’t get a very high thrust.
The new engine that we saw tested in September appears to use new technology – or it’s actually quite an old technology that China used when it started developing its missiles and space launchers in the 1970’s – but it’s one of the first times that we’ve seen North Korea use it and scale it up to an even larger engine with more thrust.
I think everybody was surprised they tested so quickly
We still don’t understand why it took so long. I would say that it’s because these missiles carry a hundred of more tons of propellant, which means you have to be able to produce it at an industrial scale. It may simply be that while North Korea had the ability to do that with the older generation of propellants, it took a while to develop that capability for the newer types.
With this new engine they’ve clearly shown us that they have a component that they could use to make the next logical step in missile and satellite launch capability.
NK News: Might there be other tests this year?
David Wright: I would be surprised if there is another nuclear test this year. Every test eats up a lot of fissile material, which they have some of, but it’s not clear exactly how much. When it comes to missiles, we have seen them do 27 launches this year, most of which have been short-range.
I expect that we will see additional ground tests of missile engines and some tests of longer-range missiles at about a 3,000 km range. What we haven’t seen an indication of yet, is that they are gearing up to launch another satellite. Those satellite launch rockets are big enough for us to usually see activity around the launch pads when they try to get them assembled and fuelled, and as far as I know nobody’s seen that yet from satellite images.
“I would be surprised if there is another nuclear test this year”
NK News: What are the implications of North Korea’s increasingly proactive nuclear program on international cooperation on nonproliferation?
David Wright: North Korea now has the ability to build a nuclear weapon at 20 to 30 kilotonnes – around the size of the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. They have also shown the ability to build multi-stage rockets and bigger engines.
A lot of people see this development as a reason to develop missile defense, but my own sense is that there is no real technical solution to this from the West’s point of view. We’ve done a lot of work looking at U.S. missile defense systems and, currently, the capability is not there. Even if they improved, a country like North Korea that can build long-range missiles and nuclear weapons could do a lot to fool the sensors of a missile defense system.
The question is – what do you do? I think the world is in very difficult situation, and I don’t see a technical way to stop this. What is going to have to happen is some kind of negotiation, including the United States and China.
In the meantime, I think that the U.S. and South Korea are going to have to rethink their strategy of holding these big exercises off the coast of the Koreas, which North Korea sees as threatening. These exercises make it look like they might invade.
It’s hard to see exactly where this is going to go, and maybe it’s distasteful to think that we’re going to have to follow diplomacy, but I simply don’t see an alternative at this point. I’m hoping that the next administration, whoever it is, takes seriously this idea of trying to look at what has and hasn’t worked, and moves forward.
NK News: More and more voices in South Korea are calling for a change in strategy, saying that a nuclear deterrent should be developed. What are your thoughts on this?
David Wright: South Korea was working on a nuclear program a number of years ago. They stopped it under U.S pressure, which was one of the arguments for having U.S. troops and a nuclear umbrella over South Korea.
Hopefully this continues, because legitimizing the idea of having more countries with nuclear weapons is problematic for the international community.
The North Koreans are not suicidal and the idea that they would somehow use nuclear weapons when they know that they would be destroying themselves doesn’t seem very credible. Unless they were being invaded, and they felt they would have very little to lose because they’re going to be overrun anyway.
I don’t think that’s what South Korea has in mind, and so I don’t see a scenario where nuclear weapons would be the lynchpin of South Korean security.
NK News: What can the international community do to prevent further proliferation?
David Wright: The United States has a lot of influence on Japan and South Korea and I think they will continue using that influence to keep them from developing nuclear weapons, by maintaining good relationships and cooperating militarily.
I think this has to be done in a way that doesn’t make North Korea feel like they are preparing to invade. I also think it would be easier for individual countries to feel that they don’t need to rely on a nuclear option if they felt the international community was serious about creative diplomatic approaches to North Korea.
“The North Koreans are not suicidal and the idea that they would somehow use nuclear weapons when they know that they would be destroying themselves doesn’t seem very credible”
A recent report by John Park of Harvard and Jim Walsh of MIT showed that North Korea is getting some of the materials it needs to continue both of its programs from Chinese middlemen. Just like everybody else, China doesn’t like that their companies are helping a state that they recognize as a potential menace to the world order.
Putting a stranglehold on North Korean military ability to get hold of this stuff could be quite effective. Actually, without them doing something like that, it’s going to be very hard to stop the progress of some of these programs.
NK News: James Clapper, Director of U.S. National Intelligence, recently said that the idea of North Korea giving up nuclear weapons is a “lost cause.” What is your response to these comments?
David Wright: Unfortunately, I agree. Back in the late Clinton era, it appeared North Korea decided that they were willing to open up to the outside world and that they didn’t need these systems.
It’s pretty clear that this has changed, and that they now feel nuclear weapons are important for their security. If they are going to get rid of them, it’ll happen a long time in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun