This is part of NK News’ series of opinion and analysis of the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.
When it comes to North Korea, nothing has quite dominated headlines like the nuclear issue. For all of the country’s eccentricities and troubling human rights record, it’s Pyongyang’s nuke tests, and the triumphant rhetoric that follows them, which most alarms the world about North Korea. Could this small nation on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula really have the power to unleash an apocalyptic war on its enemies?
Five years since the death of Kim Jong Il and the rise of his son, Kim Jong Un, the answer is now a very concrete yes. Since Kim the younger took over, there have been three nuclear tests of increasing magnitude, and in September the country claimed they had successfully tested a warhead which could be mounted on a rocket.
Can Pyongyang be stopped? And how does the world deal with a nuclear North Korea? In the fourth part of a six-part series examining how Kim Jong Un has spent his first half-decade in power, NK News reached out to experts from across the world with three key questions on how North Korea’s nuclear program has developed.
The following North Korea specialists responded in time for our deadline:
- Daniel Pinkston, lecturer at Troy University
- Daryl Kimball, Executive Director at the Arms Control Association
- Andrea Berger, Deputy Director, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
- Cha du-hyeogn, Former intelligence secretary to President Lee Myung-bak
- Joshua Pollack, Editor of the Nonproliferation Review
1. How would you assess North Korea’s nuclear weapons development over the past five years?
Daniel Pinkston: I would say that the regime puts a very high priority on nuclear weapons and they continue to make progress on their nuclear capabilities. They have conducted five nuclear tests, and I think we have to assume that the KPA Strategic Force could deliver a nuclear device with a Nodong missile.
Daryl Kimball: North Korea has increased the reliability and range of its ballistic missiles, pursued new missile systems, and produced more fissile material that could be used for nuclear weapons — all while the international community has missed efforts to negotiate constraints on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
Although North Korea has had genuine technological accomplishments in its development of nuclear weapons, it has also greatly exaggerated its own military capabilities to intimidate its potential enemies and for internal propaganda purposes.
It is not clear how successful North Korea has been in designing nuclear warheads for delivery on ballistic missiles or how reliable those capabilities are today. Although North Korea deploys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, it does not yet have the ability to field a reliable longer-range missile.
It is unlikely that North Korea has been able to develop a larger-yield hydrogen bomb, as claimed by Kim Jong Un. The conventional strength of the North Korean army continues to decline relative to the forces arrayed against it.
While expert assessments may differ on how many weapons may be deployed and how reliable the North’s missiles may be, it is clear that with additional nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang could have an operational arsenal of several dozen nuclear-armed, medium-range ballistic missiles by the end of Donald Trump’s first term.
Such a capability would be qualitatively more dangerous for the region. This means that what is or is not done to cap and freeze the program in the next five years is critical.
Andrea Berger: Judging by the pace and type of testing, North Korea has hit the gas pedal on its nuclear and missile programs. It seems likely that Kim Jong Un has now set a time-bound technical objective for the North Korean defense complex – possibly the ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear device.
Cha du-hyeogn: During Kim Jong Il’s era, Pyongyang’s goal was to successfully “develop” nuclear weapons. However, Kim Jong Un has succeeded in weaponizing and acquiring various kinds of delivery systems for its nuclear arms. For Kim Jong Il, the North Korean nuclear weapons program was a matter for “negotiation,” depending on the environment. But for Kim Jong Un, it seems that he is trying to show his firm will to first turn North Korea into a nuclear state, even if he might have to engage in the negotiation in the future.
Joshua Pollock: Over the last few years, North Korea has had a free hand to advance its nuclear, missile, and space programs. Since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011, North Korea has conducted three of its five nuclear tests to date.
It has also successfully launched its first two satellites into low-earth orbit and displayed progress toward a declared goal of reaching high-earth orbit. These efforts have clear implications for the country’s ability to deliver military payloads at long distances.
In 2016 alone, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and showed off a nuclear warhead designed to fit into the nosecones of its missiles. It also performed operationally realistic theater missile tests, its first successful flight-test of a road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile, and its first successful flight-test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
North Korea has not yet flight-tested a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but it has displayed ground tests of a heat shield and a first-stage rocket engine that appear to be important components of this weapon system.
2. Assuming denuclearization is now impossible, what’s the next-best goal that policy-makers should pursue, in your opinion?
Daniel Pinkston: The next best goal is to maintain robust deterrence and containment. As for arms control, I think the international community should push for North Korea to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.
There might be a shot at convincing Pyongyang to sign the treaty and abandon any chemical weapons stocks after signing a confidentiality agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons like South Korea did.
Daryl Kimball: Denuclearization is not impossible, but it’s clearly a long way off. Demanding a formal recommitment to denuclearization as a precondition for talks is not going to make it any more likely and will only provide Pyongyang with more time to increase its capabilities.
With the transition to a new presidential administration in Washington and, later next year in Seoul, there is a window of opportunity to shift tactics and forge a more effective and better coordinated regional approach, led by Washington and Beijing, with advice from Seoul and Tokyo.
The U.S. is, of course, the key player. Unfortunately, it is yet clear whether or what the Trump team’s approach will be or whether it will be coherent. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he would be willing to talk with North Korea’s leader, but he also suggested the problem could be outsourced to China.
In reality, Beijing will not exert what influence it has without clear U.S. support for a renewed and wide-ranging dialogue with Pyongyang.
Shortly after Inauguration Day, Trump should direct a personal representative to communicate the United States’ interest in a deal leading to denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean conflict. As a first step, the parties should agree to a verifiable halt of further North Korean longer-range missile and nuclear tests and fissile material production and a temporary cessation of major U.S. military exercises in the region.
Such a freeze-for-freeze approach involving security matters could provide the time and the basis for ongoing talks on a more robust, comprehensive arrangement to verifiably roll back the North’s program and seek a formal end to hostilities. This approach does not guarantee success, but maintaining the current and divergent U.S.-ROK-Japan-China policies assures failure.
Andrea Berger: Crisis management with North Korea should be an interim priority. Whatever size or shape the North Korean nuclear program takes in the next few years, mitigating the prospect of rapid crisis escalation or miscalculation is in everyone’s interest.
Our goal should be focused on freezing and disabling its future development. The North already has many nuclear arms; we will have to give some time to resolve them step by step in the future. Yes, we should keep on pressuring the North with sanctions, but it has to be combined with the negotiation as well.
Would military intervention be a solution? Maybe, but conducting surgical strikes just for having a nuclear weapon would not be possible unless they show signs of aiming the systems at us.
Joshua Pollock: Policymakers should not assume that denuclearization is impossible, and need not give up on this goal. Neither should they assume it is imminent or readily achievable.
They could give fresh thought to how best to advance national interests in the meantime. North Korea’s leaders want certain things from Washington and Seoul, have shown a willingness to freeze their strategic programs in the past, are likely to try their hand at talking with future administrations if they see any genuine opportunities.
Careful thought is needed about what sort of interim agreement or agreements could be negotiated and – crucially – made to stick. The chance to freeze North Korea’s missile programs before it starts flight-testing mobile ICBMs would be especially valuable.
3. What impact have sanctions had on the country’s pursuit of nukes?
Daniel Pinkston: It has raised the costs for North Korea, and it has sent a signal to third-party observers that nuclear breakout comes with a high economic cost and it does not necessarily enhance national security.
Daryl Kimball: Let’s face the facts. Tough international sanctions and condemnation have failed to prevent North Korea from conducting nuclear tests and producing more fissile material, and it has failed to adequately constrain its ballistic missile program. The sanctions regime against North Korea has evolved slowly and has made China the primary trade and finance pathway for North Korea.
Over time, North Korea’s ability to evade sanctions has become very sophisticated, and China’s ability and willingness to enforce existing sanctions has remained wanting. While the new UNSC-imposed sanctions on coal imports from the DPRK may have a more significant impact, it will not likely be a decisive factor.
Some sanctions focused on punishing individuals in the DPRK leadership may have the effect of emboldening noncompliant behavior by the regime. A sanctions-only approach is inadequate to the tremendous challenge of capping North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities.
Andrea Berger: While sanctions may not have coerced North Korea back to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearization, they have had some practical effect. Sanctions have been essential in getting countries to help prevent proliferation-sensitive shipments.
Many would otherwise lack the legal grounds to act on their own information, or on intelligence shared by others. Without sanctions, North Korea would be able to get some of the goods it needs for prohibited programs even more easily, and could arm other foreign partners relatively unhindered.
Cha du-hyeogn: I do believe the sanctions have been considerably effective in slowing the North’s development process. Some people might say that the sanctions were affectless, but the North would have reached today’s status far faster without any sanctions. However, we have to remember, while it might have slowed down Pyongyang, it still has not resolved the fundamental problem yet.
Joshua Pollock: The short-term effects of sanctions on North Korea’s strategic weapons programs are much harder to assess than the long-term effects, which are nil. North Korea has put great effort into beating sanctions, in many cases simply bypassing them by developing indigenous production lines for key components and materials.
Sanctions have imposed costs and have probably introduced delays, but this is only a guess. What is clear is that North Korea has attained a great number of milestones in developing nuclear weapons and missiles. There is no reason to believe it will not achieve all of its goals if given enough time.
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll, Oliver Hotham, Hamish Macdonald, JH Ahn, Dagyum Ji
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Featured Image: "Ivy Mike" atmospheric nuclear test - November 1952 by The Official CTBTO Photostream on 2011-12-08 12:18:52