How to Read the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat

By Greg Thielmann

North Korea parades a KN-08 in an April 2012 parade.

North Korea parades a KN-08 in April 2012. Experts believe it is a mock-up.

Enduring the continuous barrage of nuclear missile threats coming out of North Korea in recent days is not for the faint-hearted. But seeking to separate the real from the rhetorical is an essential task for policy-makers, pundits, and the public.

What is clear is that North Korea is not likely to have nuclear-tipped missile capable of threatening the U.S. mainland for quite some time. However, North Korea can launch on short notice a devastating artillery attack on the ten million inhabitants of Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

North Korea could also launch missile attacks on cities in both the South Korea and Japan. Although it is possible that these missiles may already or could soon have a capability to deliver a few nuclear weapons, they almost certainly do not have a reliable capability to do so today.

If North Korea ever develops a credible threat to launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missile warheads against the United States and its allies, it will be the certain prospect of retaliation rather than the uncertain prospect of successful interception by missile defenses that will stay the hands of the leadership in Pyongyang.

Having spent some years in government seeking to answer policy-makers’ questions about complicated technical issues when critically relevant information is unavailable, I wanted to suggest a couple of tips to readers. Following this guide will lead one to some reassuring conclusions as well as some continuing reasons for concern:

Start with what is known

  • In this case, we know that North Korea has processed plutonium from its now inoperative Yongbyon reactor that could be used as fissile fuel for nuclear weapons and we know what that amount was.  Plutonium was used in at least the first two of North Korea’s three underground nuclear tests.  This would leave North Korea with sufficient plutonium to build 4-8 nuclear weapons, depending on the sophistication of the design.
  • North Korea has centrifuges to enrich uranium to the high level necessary to be used as fuel for nuclear weapons. We do not know about the amount of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium stockpiles. We do not know whether a uranium device was used in the third nuclear test.
  • We do not know whether North Korea has created a warhead small enough and sophisticated enough to put on the tip of a ballistic missile. North Korea claimed its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013 was a miniaturized warhead, but there has been no independent verification of that claim.
  • We know that North Korea has several hundred operational short-range ballistic missiles based on variants of the Soviet “Scud,” a Cold War weapon Moscow used for both nuclear and conventional weapons delivery.
  • North Korea has some dozens of Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles, a single-stage, Scud-derived missile with a range of around 1,300 kilometers.
  • What appear to be longer-range systems, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles or BM-25, with a range of around 3,000 kilometers, and the 5,000+ km-range KN-08 intercontinental-range ballistic missile have been paraded in Pyongyang, but some suspect these missiles may be mock-ups.
  • Missiles that have never been flight-tested are not operational weapons. In the case of the Musudan and the KN-08, experts have raised good reasons to doubt the capabilities the North Koreans have sought to convey.

Read carefully (and between the lines of) intelligence community reports

  • When intelligence agencies deliver pronouncements that generate headlines, such as in the cherry-picked disclosure of Rep. Doug Lamborn in yesterday’s House Armed Services Committee budget hearing, it should be read slowly and taken in context.
  • When the intelligence community wants to communicate something it knows, you will see “high confidence” attached to the judgment. The line generating headlines from an unclassified paragraph of the report was: “D.I.A. assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles…”  “Moderate” suggests a best guess, but also implies there are reasons for doubt.
  • The qualifier attached to the headline assessment was: “…however the reliability will be low.” “Low reliability” suggests that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assesses North Korea would not be confident that its system would be able to successfully actualize a potential capability.
  • Quoting from a classified report, even from an unclassified paragraph, should raise warning flags. The unwillingness of Gen. Martin Dempsey to discuss the matter in an open hearing made clear that the context for the judgment was absent (and raises questions about the ethics of Rep. Lamborn’s gambit).
  • It is important to understand the context in which an intelligence agency judgment is rendered and whether it represents a coordinated view of the intelligence community. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper quickly disassociated himself from the DIA statement Lamborn quoted, adding that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully developed and test the kinds of nuclear weapons referenced in the passage.”
  • Subsequent statements by Secretary of State Kerry on April 12 cast further doubt on the conclusion reflected in the headlines coming out of the hearing. Kerry said  in Seoul: “We do not operate on the presumption that [the North Koreans] have that fully tested and available capacities.”

We are left with a lack of certainty about North Korean intentions and capabilities, but we know enough to conclude that there is still time to diplomatically engage North Korea on missile and nuclear testing before Pyongyang acquires a credible nuclear arsenal that would threaten the United States and its allies.

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2 Responses to How to Read the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat

  1. Pingback: Saturday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva

  2. robgoldston says:

    I am not advocating a preemptive conventional strike against North Korea’s deployed and ready missiles, since they seem to want this – and the missiles with nuclear warheads, if they exist, are probably now underground. But let us be very clear about what we are doing and not doing, rather than implying that the lack of tested credibility of their weapons assures their incredibility. Suppose that there is a 10% chance that NK will launch a missile with a 10 kt warhead towards Tokyo if we stay on our present course, because of NK’s clear and stated perception that we are preparing to invade them. Even with the large circular error probable of the Nodong, it would likely kill in the range of 100,000 Japanese, not beloved of the North Koreans, without dumping significant fallout on Korea. Now if the warhead’s chance of working is 1/3, and our chance of missing it in flight is 1/3, we have 1% chance of that devastating outcome. Of course NK’s military and political infrastructure would be obliterated after this, hopefully with conventional weapons, which would send a message – at great human cost – to other potential proliferators. Alternatively, if we destroyed the current missiles in their launchers, it would be accurately perceived as an attempt at disarming NK, which would increase the odds of their firing at Tokyo and – with conventional weapons – at Seoul. A key question is whether we could pick off the remaining potentially nuclear-tipped missiles before they were launched. The track record in Iraq for this was dismal. How well the conventional armaments of NK would work against Seoul is another problem. So, I agree, we need to try to get NK to the negotiating table ASAP. If that is our goal, it does not help to say that our precondition is that the topic of the negotiation is their disarmament, and we need some first steps before the negotiations to have confidence in this.

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