Nuclear Weapons

Better Understanding North Korea: Q&A with Seven East Asian Experts, Part 2

04.17.13 | 21 min read | Text by Amir Bagherpour

North Korea flag nuclearEditor’s Note: This is the second of two postings of a Q&A conducted primarily by the Federation of American Scientists regarding the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. Developed and edited by Charles P. BlairMark Jansson, and Devin H. Ellis, the authors’ responses have not been edited; all views expressed by these subject-matter experts are their own. Please note that additional terms are used to refer to North Korea and South Korea, i.e., the DPRK and ROK respectively.

Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked seven individuals who are experts in East Asia about the the recent escalation in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Is North Korea’s recent success with its nuclear test and satellite launch evidence that it is maturing? Is there trepidation in Japan over the perceived threat of North Korea attacking Japan with a nuclear weapon? Has North Korea mastered re-entry vehicle (RV) technology?  Is there any plausible way to de-nuclearize North Korea?

This is the second part of the Q&A, featuring Dr. Yousaf Butt, Dr. Jacques Hymans and Ms. Masako Toki. Read the first part here.

Dr. Yousaf Butt

Research Professor and Scientist-in-Residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies

Q: Does North Korea have the capability to use its missiles to strike the United States with nuclear weapons? How serious is that threat?

A: There are three main technical hurdles for North Korea in this respect: one is making and testing powerful enough — and sufficiently reliable — long range rockets to be able to send a heavy (~1000 kg) payload to the U.S. mainland. North Korea has not embarked on such a testing program yet. Another is miniaturizing their nuclear devices to be able to mount them on missiles and making the warheads robust enough to withstand the stresses of rocket flight. An ICBM nuclear delivery system also requires a re-entry vehicle (RV) to protect the nuclear device as it re-enters the atmosphere close to its target: during re-entry the RV will heat up tremendously due to the high speed. It is unlikely North Korea has mastered this technology yet.

These are very challenging problems and, in my view, North Korea is many years from being able to hurl a nuclear device to the U.S. mainland.

To be perfectly clear: my point isn’t that we don’t need to worry about North Korean nuclear devices for some years, but – to the contrary —  that we ought to be concerned already. If the North Koreans wanted to carry out a nuclear first strike they could already do so using small boats containing clunky (un-miniaturized) devices. This delivery method has the benefit – from the North Korean perspective – of being far less attributable, and substantially reduces the chances of an immediate devastating retaliatory strike on their nation.

Returning to the issue of the missiles: miniaturizing a nuclear device implies both volume and mass constraints: the nuclear device must be both light enough and small enough to fit on a missile.  It also needs to withstand the rigors (high g-forces, vibration, temperature excursions, vacuum etc.) of missile flight. Reports from last week indicate that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has “moderate confidence” that North Korea could perhaps miniaturize nuclear warheads sufficiently to mount them on some missiles –  but that, even so, in their judgment any such delivery system would have “low reliability”. It should also be noted that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., released a statement saying that the DIA assessment did not represent a consensus of the nation’s intelligence community and that “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.” The State Dept also contested the DIA’s “moderate confidence” finding, with Secretary of State Kerry saying that Pyongyang still hadn’t developed or fully tested the nuclear capacities needed for such a step.

In any case, those are just some of the technical aspects of the problem, but one must also ask if the North Koreans would be foolish enough to launch a nuclear tipped missile at the United States given the fact that the U.S. can trace the origin of long-range missiles using infra-red sensors on our surveillance satellites. Any such attack would invite massive retaliation, and would likely mean the end of the regime.  Reuters reported that Kim Jong Un recently stated that North Korean nuclear devices are for deterring war.

Right now, I worry more about the already existing and less attributable delivery methods such as boats rather than the missiles.

Q: But the Daily Beast broke a story on Monday [April 15] saying that the United States recovered the wreckage of the nosecone of the North Korean satellite launch rocket from December and that it indicated that the North Koreans “had figured out the warhead piece.” Do you have any insight into how credible or important this development is? Has North Korea really mastered re-entry vehicle (RV) technology?

A: Unfortunately, the Daily Beast story does not have any meaningful technical details so it is hard to assess how important a development it is – it would be very useful if the government analysts would release some further information. The article states that the “front of the satellite rocket, according to three U.S. officials who work closely on North Korean proliferation, gave tangible proof that North Korea was building the missile’s cone at dimensions for a nuclear warhead, durable enough to be placed on a long-range missile that could reenter the earth’s atmosphere from space.” This seems to be merely a consistency argument based on spatial dimensions and definitely does not mean North Korea has mastered RV technology. In fact, the Unha rocket’s upper-stage, to which the North Korean satellite was attached, is still in orbit cataloged as NORAD-39027.

What seems to have been recovered is the upper-stage nosecone fairing;  its size seems to be consistent with that needed for a nuclear device. But it may also be consistent with the satellite it contained. The fairing may also have been designed prior to the satellite and may have been bigger than it needed to be, but this does not imply the satellite launch was really a weapons test. In fact, Markus Schiller has convincingly argued why the launcher seemed more consistent with a space launch vehicle rather than an ICBM.

Michael Elleman also has an excellent technical and historical brief on the North Korean rocket which is worth reading in its entirety and argues that although such launches may be troubling they are no “substitute for ballistic missile testing”. So while developing and testing the rocket certainly gives North Korea experience with technology that can be used for a ballistic missiles, it appears that the launch wasn’t really a ballistic missile test masquerading as a satellite launch.

Besides the spatial dimensions of the upper-stage fairing which prove little in themselves, there is the mention of “durable” in the Daily Beast piece.  This could refer to simply over-engineering the nose fairing – something a fledgling space launch state would be apt to do, just to be on the safe side. A nosecone fairing would also not be very useful as an RV test during the fairing’s re-entry because it does not have the right ballistic coefficient (ratio of an object’s mass relative to its cross-sectional area). Also, it does not appear that North Korea even attempted to recover the fairing to check on any such test.

With the information that has been released so far, I do not see any clear connection to RV testing, and no indication that North Korea has mastered RV technology. For that, they would need to conduct real RV tests of objects with the correct ballistic coefficients and materials. Until the North Koreans have mastered RV technology and made miniaturized nuclear weapons that are resistant to high-g’s and vibration etc., and tested the ICBMs’ precision targeting they cannot reliably hurl a functioning nuclear weapon to a given target on the U.S. mainland.

On the other hand, if a sneaky first strike is what they wanted to do all along, a large clunky boat-borne nuclear device is not only sufficient, it may be preferable since it is less attributable than a missile-borne device. Much of the preoccupation with missile-borne devices seems to be a hangover in the media and some analysts still thinking along the lines of the Cold War. If one really believes North Korea is irrational and not susceptible to retaliatory deterrence, then one should worry more about the boat-borne nuclear weapons already accessible to the North Koreans. Their declared policy – for what it is worth – appears to be of retaliatory deterrence, not of a first strike.

Q: What about the possibility of the North striking South Korea or Japan with nuclear weapons?

A: Although North Korea has missiles — their Nodong and Scuds — which could target Japan and South Korea, there remains the technical challenge of miniaturizing and mounting the nuclear warheads on these missiles and bringing the system up to a reasonable level of reliability, both in terms of a functional robust warhead and a high targeting accuracy. But again, the main issue is not technical: why would the Pyongyang invite national suicide by launching such an attack?   As I mentioned earlier, if the North Koreans really wanted to do such a strike, they may have done so already using more primitive delivery vehicles. They do not need to develop a complicated and (at least, initially) unreliable missile-borne delivery system to carry out a nuclear strike.

Q: Does the Aegis midcourse missile defense system provide an effective defense against such missiles?

A: The Aegis sea-based midcourse missile defense system would not be suitable for defense of South Korea since the attacking North Korean missiles would not reach into space for any substantial length of time if at all — the Aegis SM-3 defense interceptors attempt to strike the incoming missiles in space. The time-line for a North Korean missile to reach South Korea is also very short, on the order of a few minutes so there is very little time to generate a firing solution. South Korea and Japan do have Patriot terminal missile defenses which attempt to intercept the warhead during descent or re-entry phase.

The Achilles’ Heel of the Aegis SM-3 system — indeed of “midcourse” missile defense, in general, is that it is straightforward to defeat the system using cheap decoy warheads. The system simply does not have a robust ability to discriminate a genuine warhead from decoys and other countermeasures.   Because the intercepts take place in the vacuum of space, the heavy warhead and light decoys travel together, confusing the system’s sensors. The Pentagon’s own scientists at the Defense Science Board said as much in 2011, as did the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

Additionally, the system has never been successfully tested in realistic conditions stressed by the presence of decoys or other countermeasures. The Aegis system is ship-based and is known to not work beyond a certain sea-state: as you might imagine, it becomes too risky to launch the interceptors if the ship is pitching wildly.

The enormous funds wasted on midcourse missile defense systems could have been much better spent on the coast-guard and port-security.

Q: But is there a missile defense system that could provide an effective defense against such missiles?

A: A missile defense system that would work better than the current systems being fielded – but still imperfectly – would be a surface-based boost-phase system. This system attempts to intercept the burning missile on its way up, before any decoys or warheads have been released.  Strangely, we are not developing it! We appear to be deliberately ignoring the one architecture of missile defense that has good chance of working against the North Korean threat  The recent National Academy of Sciences report came out against surface-based boost-phase missile defense – but only because they considered a “strawman” set of boost-phase interceptors that would not have the capability to work well. Other surface-based boost-phase interceptors would be more capable, and would provide a better defense than the midcourse system that is now being irrationally fielded.

However, no matter which missile defense system exists one must consider whether it makes sense to create incentives for our enemy to take their nuclear devices off of missiles and mate them to other delivery systems. e.g. A “functional” missile defense to counter North Korea’s missiles (e.g. a surface-based boost-phase system) could encourage Pyongyang to more urgently develop a ship-borne nuclear device instead. Since such a weapon is more difficult to detect and attribute to a given country, our adversaries may be less inhibited in using it as compared to an easily detected missile, which has a clear point of origin. (U.S. satellites continually monitor the globe for missile launches.) So if a missile defense encouraged our adversaries to exchange even a single missile-borne nuclear weapon for a ship-borne one, our security may actually decrease, overall. Of course, an adversary might develop these alternate delivery methods in any case, but creating incentives for them to do so is probably not in our interest.

The smartest course of action, of course, is to discourage and dissuade our adversaries from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place. (Once they obtain nuclear weapons we will be deterred, no matter the type of missiles defenses in play.)

As outlined by Joel Wit, it seems the administration’s policy of “strategic patience” may have failed in this regard.

Q: But is there any plausible way to de-nuclearize North Korea?

A: It may well be too late already: it is unlikely that the North Koreans would willingly give up their nuclear weapons when they feel threatened, and are under increasingly heavy sanctions which in their eyes amount to economic warfare. As Mike Elleman argues, the US and allied nations could consider scaling back “their collective reaction to North Korean provocations that do not pose an immediate or significant threat and instead preserve their punitive responses for those activities that are most threatening, such as the February 12 nuclear test or future flight tests of long-range ballistic missiles.” Any future space launches probably ought not be met with further punitive sanctions, because such measures corner the regime and may lead, as we’ve seen, to an escalating spiral of provocations.

The North Koreans may also be reading from our own playbook: for instance, the 1995 US STRATCOM report “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” states: “it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.” It appears that the North Korean leadership may have taken that particular paragraph to heart.

Also, in my view, it may not have been helpful that our latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) — from 2010 — implicitly qualified states like North Korea and Iran as possible targets of our nuclear weapons. In fact, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was rather explicit: “I actually think that the NPR has a very strong message for both Iran and North Korea, because whether it’s in declaratory policy or in other elements of the NPR, we essentially carve out states like Iran and North Korea that are not in compliance with NPT. And basically, all options are on the table when it comes to countries in that category.”

Lastly, former Director of Los Alamos National Labs, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, who has visited North Korea seven times over the last decade, including North Korean nuclear facilities, explains how the 1994 Agreed Framework deal with North Korea fell apart: “… the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning. … [In 2002,] the Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor. … We found that Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.” [emphasis added]

In crafting future policy to address the North Korean nuclear threat it may be worth heeding Dr. Hecker’s advice.

Dr. Jacques Hymans

Jacques E.C. Hymans is associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California

Q: Your explanation as to why North Korea decided to pursue nuclear weapons is rooted in the emotional and psychological – that the perceived need for nuclear weapons is not the result of a cost-benefit analysis of the security environment but follows from the kind of national identity to which North Korean leadership ascribes. As North Korea’s “key comparison other,” isn’t there a unique potential for the United States to change North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons, even with the Kim Dynasty remaining for some time? If so, what would this require from the United States?

A: The decision by any state’s leaders to seek nuclear weapons is an emotional decision rooted in the fear of foreign enemies and in nationalist pride. The rulers of North Korea since its founding—father, son, and now grandson—have been under the influence of that explosive psychological cocktail. As a result, they have never given up on their pursuit of the bomb for the past half-century, albeit sometimes pressing the pause button for one reason or another.

The United States is certainly an enemy in Pyongyang’s eyes. But my analysis of North Korean leaders’ rhetoric over the decades indicates that they actually see the entire outside world as a more or less undifferentiated mass of antagonists. For instance, although it is often said that China is North Korea’s “best friend,” you wouldn’t know it from North Korean utterances. For instance, Kim Jong Un’s recent New Year’s Address, more than 4,000 words, did not mention China even once. Since the North Korean leadership is so standoffish toward all foreign countries, I find it doubtful that bilateral US-DPRK talks can bring about anything beyond a temporary reduction in North Korean saber-rattling. Kim Jong Un might yet surprise us, but I’m not holding my breath.

Q: You have argued that sometimes a state’s inability to organize its resources effectively impedes its ability to fulfill its nuclear weapons aspirations. Is North Korea’s recent success with its nuclear test and satellite launch evidence that it is maturing in this regard, a testament to its determination to overcome its challenges, or something else?

A: Despite the general progress of technology around the world, there has been a major fall-off in the efficiency of nuclear weapons projects since the 1970s. The most important cause of this is the poor organizational and management cultures of the states that have been trying to join the nuclear weapon state club. North Korea is a great example of this general trend. It has had tremendous trouble overcoming various technical hurdles that US experts assumed would not pose any serious difficulties at all. Indeed, it’s quite stunning that a country that the US believed probably already had nuclear weapons way back in the early 1990s still apparently doesn’t have a genuine nuclear military arsenal.

This is not to say that North Korea is incapable of making any technical progress toward its ultimate goal. Its nuclear and missile programs are not as pathetic as, say, Libya’s were. But even its recent tests can be said to have been “successful” only relative to the ridiculously low bar that Pyongyang had set with its prior disastrous test failures. For instance, although the North Koreans succeeded in putting a satellite into space last December, they broke the satellite in the process. And as former NASA engineer James Oberg has explained, this failure would likely be repeated if they tried to send up a nuclear warhead instead. In short, it’s important not to forget whom we’re dealing with here. This is a state that still hasn’t been able to open the monstrous Ryugyong Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the project over a quarter-century to fulfill the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s personal wish. When it comes to North Korean nukes, too, there is no doubt in my mind that we still have time—and probably quite a lot of time—before they are a real military threat.


Ms. Masako Toki

Masako Toki is the Education Project Manager and a Research Associate for the Nonproliferation Education Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey, CA

Q: In what ways has the recent situation on the Korean Peninsula affected public sentiment in Japan? Specifically, has there been an increase in perceived political support for reconsideration of Japan’s “virtual” nuclear status in favor of moving forward with weaponization of fissile materials – a de facto nuclear-weapon-state status? Or is Japan’s domestic political “nuclear allergy” intact?

A: North Korea’s provocative and belligerent actions have inevitably pushed Japanese defense policy in the direction of a more hardline posture. Responding to North Korea’s nuclear weapon tests and missile launches, the Japanese government continues to try to make its missile defense more robust and sophisticated.

Also, the United States reiterated its security assurance for its allies with extended deterrence. U.S. extended deterrence has been the cornerstone of Japan’s security, even in the aftermath of the Cold War. The Japanese government is trying to complement extended deterrence with missile defense, which is widely viewed as consistent with Japan’s “exclusively defensive defense” policy.

At the same time, anti-nuclear sentiment among the general public in Japan has always outweighed support for developing Japan’s independent nuclear deterrence capability. Of course, Japan’s nuclearization debates once in a while resurface, especially in response to security threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as China’s military modernization.

Nevertheless, anti-nuclear sentiment and nuclear allergy among the public is deep-rooted in Japan’s national identity and culture, and this is, to some extent, beyond political debates. However, the threshold of Japan’s nuclearization debate taboo seems to have been lowered as North Korea continues to develop and improve its nuclear and missile capability.

Having said that, in my opinion both external considerations (international treaties, the U.S.-Japan security alliance) and domestic restrictions (the three-non-nuclear principles, asserted by Parliament, that Japan will not possess or manufacture nuclear weapons or allow them on its territory; public opinion against nuclear weapons; and the atomic energy basic law, which limits nuclear activity to peaceful purposes) will keep Japan from ever developing its own nuclear deterrent. The only circumstance under which  Japan would really consider going nuclear is a decision to end the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which will not happen at least for the foreseeable future.

In sum, in my view, Japan will not develop its own nuclear weapons, it will continue to rely on the U.S. extended deterrence, and it will spend its resources improving its missile defense for long time, while advocating nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation as national policy. Even so, Japan will maintain its “moderate” nuclear disarmament policy, which actually does not push hard toward a world free of nuclear weapons, beyond the rhetorical.

Q: To what degree, if at all, is there trepidation in Japan over the perceived threat of North Korea attacking Japan with a nuclear weapon?

A: Very few people actually believe that North Korea will attack Japan with a nuclear weapon. Japan has quite strong faith in U.S. extended nuclear deterrence and perceives that North Korea understands the potential consequences if it attacks a U.S. ally with a nuclear weapon.

Therefore, instead of feeling trepidation, the public is more annoyed and upset by North Korea’s repeated and increasing provocative statements. The government cannot take any chances, and the defense minister has announced that the self-defense forces are at their highest level of readiness. Japan has lifted its self-imposed pacifist restrictions gradually, but steadily, to allow for more robust missile defense. So perhaps one of the direct, significant impacts on Japan’s security policy of North Korea’s nuclear threats would be a change in the interpretation of the constitution so that Japan can be allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense.

The government of Japan needs to demonstrate its intention to protect its people. At this stage, deploying its missile defense is the most obvious such demonstration. However, the credibility of the country’s missile defense system is not clear, and the Japanese people’s trust in it is less than complete. So it is unclear whether deployment of missile defenses actually is mitigating civilians concern or fear. Beyond the issue of public support, missile defense opponents think a robust Japanese missile defense capability is not conducive to sustainable peace in East Asia.

Q: Does the Japanese public and/or government express concern (and, if so, to what degree) about perceived terrorism and general social strife perpetrated by ethnic Koreans living in Japan?

A: Generally speaking, the issue that the Japanese public most abhor about North Korea is the abductions of Japanese citizens from Japan by North Korean government agents that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It is believed that the victims were abducted to teach Japanese language and culture at North Korean spy schools.  While the North Korean government officially admitted the abductions in 2002 and insists that the issue has been resolved with the return of the five victims, the Japanese government adamantly claims that the issue has not been properly resolve. The Japanese government considers the abductions acts of terrorism that inflicted serious danger on Japanese citizens.  Therefore, Tokyo felt uneasy when the United States removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in October 2008 without seeing any improvement in the abduction issues. Tokyo has continued insisting that the abduction issue should not be left out from the Six-Party Talks. At the same time, there are opinions that abduction issues should be separated from nuclear and missile talks.

In addition, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chosen Soren), an organization with sympathetic ties to North Korea, has been involved in the illegal export of proliferation and missile-related goods and technologies from Japan to North Korea. However, due to Japan’s strengthened export controls and sanctions against North Korea, this activity has decreased significantly. Still, some Chosen Soren members are likely to be involved in procurement networks. Even so, it seems that the recent provocations by the North Korean government is generating discomfort and concerns among Korean people living in Japan.  In fact, some news media have reported that many Korean people in Japan (both South and North Koreans) are disgusted by the series of belligerent actions and statements taken and made by the North Korean government.

As Japanese animosity against North Korea continues to increase, Korean people in Japan are of course affected, directly and indirectly. Some ultra-right-wing Japanese groups express extreme levels of animosity toward both North and South Korea. In my opinion, the ultra-right-wing’s animosity against Korean people living in Japan does not generally relate to the general Japanese public’s fear of nuclear threats issued by the North Korean government.


Expert Biographies

Yousaf Butt is a Research Professor and Scientist-in-Residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Previously, Dr. Butt was a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists and a physicist in the High-Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He was on the instrument operations team responsible for the main focal plane instrument aboard NASA’s orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory from 1999-2004. He has also been a fellow in the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the National Academy of Sciences and a research fellow in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For more, visit the CNS staff website.

Jacques E.C. Hymans is Associate Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on international security affairs and on national identity. Hymans’ The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2006) received the Edgar S. Furniss Book Award for best first book in national and international security, and the Alexander L. George Book Award for best book in political psychology. His second book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. Hymans has also published journal articles in such outlets as Foreign Affairs, International Security, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, the Journal of East Asian Studies, and the Nonproliferation Review. He is an editorial board member of the Nonproliferation Review. He has wide-ranging geographical interests and has conducted in-depth case study research in Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. For more information on Professor Hymans, please consult his website.

Masako Toki is Education Project Manager and Research Associate in the Nonproliferation Education Program at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey, CA.

Her responsibilities include managing the Critical Issues Forum (CIF), nonproliferation education program for high school students and teachers in the United States and Russia. She develops online educational resources, including the NPT tutorial.

She is also a member of the Japan Association of Disarmament Studies and the US-Japan Leadership Program (US-Japan Foundation). For more, visit the CNS staff website.