7 January 2015

The real threat from North Korea is the nuclear arsenal built over the last decade

Siegfried S. Hecker

Siegfried S. Hecker

Siegfried Hecker is a senior fellow and affiliated faculty member at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the Freeman Spogli Institute for...


Editor's note: This piece originally ran in 2015, in the wake of the release of the movie The Interview. We are re-posting it now because it provides history valuable to the assessment of the North Korean Nuclear test in January 2016.

The threats, turmoil, and media circus surrounding the Hollywood satire The Interview, in which bungling American journalists assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have put the country in the international spotlight again. Often forgotten amid all this comedy, though, is the very unfunny fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been relentlessly expanding for a decade, and poses a real and deadly threat to the rest of Northeast Asia.

During my first visit to North Korea in January 2004, North Korean officials were eager to show my Stanford University colleagues and me the plutonium bomb fuel they produced following a diplomatic breakdown with the George W. Bush administration. Four years ago, during my seventh visit to the country and two years into the Obama administration, they surprised us with a tour through an ultra-modern centrifuge facility, demonstrating that they were capable of producing highly enriched uranium, the alternate route to the bomb.

Pyongyang likely had no nuclear weapons in January 2003 when it walked away from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The plutonium produced in the early 1990s had been tied up for almost a decade in spent fuel, which was stored safely with US assistance and kept under international inspection. Today, North Korea may possess a nuclear arsenal of roughly 12 nuclear weapons, half likely fueled by plutonium and half by highly enriched uranium. How did things go so wrong?

I will briefly trace North Korea’s nuclear developments spanning 30 years and five US administrations to underscore that blame for the immensity of this policy failure does not lie solely with one party’s leadership or the other. Nor was it a failure of US policy alone—South Korea’s policies vacillated greatly during this time, none of them proving successful. China placed peace and stability ahead of denuclearization, and along with the United Nations it was slow to appreciate the seriousness of the problem and typically reacted with too little, too late.

The North, for its part, has remained focused on its nuclear program through three generations of Kim family leadership, beginning under the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Unlike South Korea’s leaders, the Kims chose bombs over electricity to secure the regime’s survival at the expense of the well-being of its people.

During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Pyongyang quietly laid the foundation for a nuclear weapon option by starting construction of indigenous plutonium production reactors and a reprocessing facility capable of extracting bomb-grade plutonium.

North Korea’s nuclear program first made international headlines during the George H.W. Bush administration, when satellite imagery of the reactors and reprocessing facility was aired. Pyongyang produced its first plutonium in the 5 megawatt-electric gas-graphite reactor and demonstrated the ability to extract plutonium by reprocessing the spent fuel. North Korea also likely explored uranium centrifuge technologies as a parallel route to the bomb at this time.

The Clinton administration faced the first serious North Korean nuclear crisis, but was able to negotiate a freeze of the North’s plutonium program with the Agreed Framework in 1994. During the second Clinton term, Pyongyang attempted its first long-range rocket launch, then followed it with a missile-testing moratorium. It also appeared to keep its weapon option open by clandestinely pursuing uranium centrifuge technologies. Pyongyang stepped up its missile and nuclear import-export business with Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and possibly Iran. Nevertheless, no more plutonium was produced and the two large reactors under construction deteriorated over the years beyond repair. Pyongyang retained a hedge by keeping the spent fuel in storage under international safeguards. 

The George W. Bush administration confronted North Korea about its apparent clandestine centrifuge program and effectively killed the Agreed Framework, leading Pyongyang to restart its plutonium production reactor, reprocess plutonium from the stored spent fuel, and build a bomb. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, a year after it signed a joint statement with the United States, China and others in which it committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. Although the test was only partially successful, it marked a turning point in the North’s nuclear program. The regime dropped all peaceful nuclear pretenses and declared itself a nuclear weapon state. It accelerated its uranium centrifuge program, while agreeing once again to freeze the plutonium production reactor. It also covertly shipped uranium hexafluoride, the precursor to enriched uranium, to Libya. And in spite of being closely watched internationally, it built a plutonium production reactor for Syria, which Israel destroyed in September 2007. President George W. Bush left office with Pyongyang likely possessing five or so nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration was greeted by a long-range rocket test, followed by a second nuclear test in May 2009—this one apparently successful. The centrifuge program matured sufficiently that in November 2010, North Korea declared it operational and revealed it to us during our visit. It coincided with Pyongyang’s decision to build its own experimental light water reactor, which requires low-enriched uranium fuel. Concurrently, North Korea completed the new Sohae rocket launch site in the northwest to complement the older and smaller Tonghae site in the northeast.

Nuclear expansion continued apace through the leadership transition to Kim Jong-un upon the December 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-il. One year later, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit aboard the Unha-3 long-range rocket. It was followed by a third nuclear test in February 2013. Construction of the experimental reactor continued at a good pace. In addition, the fuel fabrication complex at the Yongbyon site expanded enormously, including doubling of the centrifuge hall we saw in 2010. Construction at the Sohae rocket launch site has been equally massive and indications are that the engines of the rocket motor used in the KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were tested there recently. Kim Jong-un also managed to have the new constitution declare North Korea a “nuclear-armed state.” The only good news is that nuclear exports to other states likely dried up, not for lack of trying on Pyongyang’s part, but rather for lack of customers—statehood has been virtually destroyed in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and Iran is pursuing nuclear negotiations.

So, with two years left in the Obama administration, Pyongyang likely has roughly 12 nuclear weapons with an annual manufacturing capacity of possibly four to six bombs.  By the time the president leaves office, North Korea may conduct another nuclear test and have an arsenal of 20. Five US administrations determined to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapon state through various combinations of diplomacy, threats, ultimatums, and sanctions all failed. The George W. Bush administration failed miserably and, to date, the Obama administration has done as badly.

Why does an expanding North Korean nuclear program matter? The progression from developing the nuclear weapon option, to having a few bombs, to fielding a nuclear arsenal has made Pyongyang increasingly reliant on its nuclear weapons for regime survival and has dimmed the prospect of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. More bombs and better bombs matter—these may instill Pyongyang’s leadership with a false sense of confidence and almost certainly expands what it may think are its tactical and strategic options. The potential for miscalculations and accidents increases, and the consequences will be greater if it has more bombs and more sophisticated bombs with greater reach. In case of turmoil or a chaotic transition in the North, rendering the nuclear weapons and the enterprise safe and secure becomes more difficult. And, a financially desperate leadership may risk the sale of fissile materials or other nuclear assets, perhaps to non-state actors if the state market remains dormant.

What to do? The North Korean nuclear crisis cannot be solved in isolation; it requires addressing the fundamental security, economic, social, and human rights issues. Whether we like it or not, Pyongyang will retain its nuclear weapons in the near term as a hedge to provide security, but with time it may recognize that these weapons will never lead to prosperity. The road to resolution and eventual prosperity for the North Korean people requires a comprehensive strategy that first halts the steady expansion, then rolls it back, and eventually eliminates nuclear weapons as called for in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. All this will take creative leadership by the United States, South Korea and China.

The absurdities in The Interview, North Korea’s alleged retaliatory cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and US counter-threats and sanctions may be worthy of analysis, but when it comes to the real threat that Pyongyang poses to the world, they amount to no more than a giant distraction.