Pyongyang continues to improve nuclear tech unfettered

By Daniele Pestilli on November 9, 2014
North Korean propaganda showing missiles headed towards the United States.

On April 25th, the BBC published an article entitled, “How advanced is North Korea's nuclear programme?” The verdict was: despite some uncertainty, it is advanced, but their nuclear warhead technology is probably not small enough to fit onto a missile.

At the time, it also remained unclear whether these tests had been carried out using plutonium or enriched uranium. If the latter had been used, the report continued, it would pose a grave problem for South Korea, Japan as well as the U.S. because “while North Korea has depleted its stocks of 'reactor-grade' plutonium needed to make the weapons-grade variety, the country has plentiful reserves of uranium ore.”

On the same day, the South Korean daily, Chosun Ilbo, wrote that the Institute for Science and International Security – a nuclear security think-tank in Washington – believed that Pyongyang was installing equipment and centrifuges inside the Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility in North Pyongan Province. This would boost the North's capacity to generate fuel that could be used to make atomic weapons. Pyongyang retorted, the plant is dedicated to producing low-enriched uranium for a Light Water Reactor. However, there is enough reason to believe its true goal is to produce military grade uranium.

About six months later, on October 27th, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-goo confirmed at a parliament audit that North Korea’s capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon has reached “a significant level,” Voice of America reported. What's more, Mr. Han stated Pyongyang is likely able to build uranium-based nuclear weapons – 40kgs of highly enriched uranium to be exact – which would be enough for two nuclear warheads a year.

This announcement came just days after U.S. army general Curtis Scaparrotti delivered a speech at the Pentagon that North Korea's relations with Iran and Pakistan have probably conferred them the expertise needed to miniaturize the nuclear warhead. Scaparrotti did not rule out the possibility that their technology is advanced enough to be placed within a delivery system such as a bomb or a missile. In other words: it would be wise to operate under the assumption that they do have this capability.

U.S. and South Korean top brass are currently engaging in diplomatic discussions regarding the hermit kingdom. The U.S. State Department's website indicated on October 24th that Special Envoy for six-party talks, Sydney Seiler, traveled to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo to discuss North Korea policy.
South Korean news agency, Yonhap News wrote on October 31st that Seoul's chief nuclear envoy Hwang Joon-kook, also made a rare three-day visit to China's northeastern provinces and visited his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, in Beijing, to discuss the North Korean situation.

Given the dramatic improvement of technological know-how in just a handful of years, the question is why have past talks only lead to appeasement and soft-containment of the Hermit Kingdom?Why have the U.N.'s sanctions utterly failed to deliver? Why has the fear of North Korea's demise enabled us to reach a point where we can now say with a degree of certainty that Pyongyang can produce nuclear warheads and – most likely – place them on missiles?

On November 8th, North Korea released two detained U.S. citizens: Matthew Todd Miller (sentenced to 6 years' hard labor in September this year) and Kenneth Bae (sentenced to 15 years' in May 2013). This occurred less than three weeks after Pyongyang freed Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was arrested in May 2014. According to Sue Mi Terry, a former senior intelligence analyst turned research scholar at Columbia University, these moves are an indication that “North Korea seems worried that Kim could be accused in the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” Asahi News reports. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence's website claims the two were “allowed to depart the DPRK,” and one U.S. official told the Associated Press that nothing was offered in return for the releases. But the BBC remarks that denial that a deal was struck has raised eyebrows in the region. What's more, the BBC continues, North Korea's nuclear program “looks as intractable as ever.”

This is not the first time Pyongyang has had the upper hand in such diplomatic relations. During President Obama's first term in office, Bill Clinton went to secure the release of two American women seized along the Chinese border with the North: Euna Lee and Laura Ling. This lead to no fundamental changes in North Korea's nuclear strategy. In fact, this issue was “handled separately from America’s dispute with North Korea over its nuclear program.”

Han Min-goo's recent confirmation that Pyongyang has the know-how required to miniaturize a nuclear weapon is disconcerting. The threat is not only that of a direct nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan. The problem is broader, because North Korea could sell off nuclear material to smaller terrorist groups. It is broader because the more time goes by, the more Pyongyang's sophistication with nuclear material improves, and the larger its arsenal becomes. It is broader because North Korea keeps being the sole victor in diplomatic games, where sanctions appear to have little effect and deals are devised to appease the unfettered communist dictatorship.

As Sue Mi Terry writes in an op-ed article in the New York Times the solution is to put an end to the United States', South Korea's, Japan's and China's “soft-containment policy,” which has only provided oxygen to this conflagration. The hope that the Kim regime would fall on its own has not materialized – it has only made the reigns of power cascade into the hands of an even more unhinged despot: the 31-year-old Kim Jong-un.