Jeffrey Lewis

Calgary Sun - - COMMENT - I think the best in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the avail­able ev­i­dence is that North Korea ac­cepted some tech­ni­cal risk early in its pro­gram to move more quickly to­ward mis­sile-de­liv­er­able nu­clear weapons.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Wed­nes­day that North Korea has a large stock­pile of com­pact nu­clear weapons that can arm the coun­try’s mis­siles, in­clud­ing its new in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles that are ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the United States. That’s an­other way of say­ing: Game over. Also: I told you so. There are re­ally two as­sess­ments in The Post’s re­port. One, dated July 28, is that the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity — not just the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, con­trary to what you may have heard — “as­sesses North Korea has pro­duced nu­clear weapons for bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­liv­ery, to in­clude de­liv­ery by ICBM-class mis­siles.” The other as­sess­ment, pub­lished ear­lier in July, stated that North Korea had 60 nu­clear weapons — higher than the es­ti­mates usu­ally given in the press. Put them to­gether, though, and its pretty clear that the win­dow for de­nu­cle­ariz­ing North Korea, by diplo­macy or by force, has closed.

These judg­ments are front­page news, but only be­cause we’ve been liv­ing in col­lec­tive de­nial. Both in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments are con­sis­tent with what the North Kore­ans have been say­ing for some time, for rea­sons I out­lined in a col­umn for For­eign Pol­icy im­me­di­ately after the Septem­ber 2016 nu­clear test ti­tled, North Korea’s Nuke Pro­gram Is Way More So­phis­ti­cated Than You Think: This is now a se­ri­ous nu­clear ar­se­nal that threat­ens the re­gion and, soon, the con­ti­nen­tal United States.

Au­thors rarely get to pick ti­tles, and al­most never like them, but I think the ed­i­tors at FP got this one about right. It is about as sub­tle as a jack­ham­mer, al­though even so the mes­sage didn’t seem to sink in.

Let’s walk through the ev­i­dence.

North Korea has con­ducted five nu­clear tests. That is re­ally quite a lot. Look­ing at other coun­tries that have con­ducted five nu­clear tests, our base­line ex­pec­ta­tion for North Korea should be that it has a nu­clear weapon small enough to arm a bal­lis­tic mis­sile and is well on its way to­ward test­ing a ther­monu­clear — yes, ther­monu­clear — weapon.

Wrong idea

A lot of peo­ple got the wrong idea after North Korea’s first nu­clear test failed, and sub­se­quent nu­clear tests seemed smaller than they should be. There was a com­mon view that the North Kore­ans, well, kind of sucked at mak­ing nu­clear weapons. That was cer­tainly my first im­pres­sion. But there was al­ways an­other pos­si­bil­ity, one that dawned on me grad­u­ally. Ac­cord­ing to a de­fec­tor ac­count, North Korea tried to skip right to­ward rel­a­tively ad­vanced nu­clear weapons that were com­pact enough to arm bal­lis­tic mis­siles and made use of rel­a­tively small amounts of plu­to­nium. That should not have been sur­pris­ing; both Iraq and Pak­istan sim­i­larly skipped de­sign­ing and test­ing a more cum­ber­some Fat Man-style im­plo­sion de­vice. The dis­ap­point­ing yields of North Korea’s first few nu­clear tests were not the re­sult of in­com­pe­tence, but am­bi­tion. So, while the world was laugh­ing at North Korea’s first few nu­clear tests, they were learn­ing — a lot.

And then there is the is­sue of North Korea’s nu­clear test site. North Korea tests its nu­clear weapons in tun­nels be­neath very large moun­tains. When my re­search in­sti­tute used to­pog­ra­phy data col­lected from space to build a 3-D model of the site, we re­al­ized that the moun­tains are so tall that they may be hid­ing how big the nu­clear ex­plo­sions are. Some of the “dis­ap­point­ments” may not have been dis­ap­point­ments at all, and the suc­cesses were big­ger than we re­al­ized. I think the best in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the avail­able ev­i­dence is that North Korea ac­cepted some tech­ni­cal risk early in its pro­gram to move more quickly to­ward mis­sile-de­liv­er­able nu­clear weapons.

The fact that North Korea’s nu­clear weapons used less fis­sile ma­te­rial than we ex­pected helps ex­plain the se­cond judg­ment that North Korea has more bombs than is usu­ally re­ported. The de­fec­tor claimed that North Korea’s first nu­clear weapon con­tained only 4 kilo­grams of the lim­ited sup­ply of plu­to­nium North Korea made, and con­tin­ues to make, at its re­ac­tor at Yong­byon. (For a long while, experts claimed the re­ac­tor was not oper­at­ing when ther­mal im­ages plainly showed that it was.) The North Kore­ans them­selves claimed the first test used only 2 kilo­grams of plu­to­nium. Those claims struck many peo­ple, in­clud­ing me, as im­plau­si­ble at first. But they were only im­plau­si­ble in the sense that such a de­vice would prob­a­bly fail when tested — and the first North Korean test did fail. The prob­lem is North Korea kept try­ing, and its later tests suc­ceeded.

We also must take se­ri­ously that North Korea has per­haps stretched its sup­ply of plu­to­nium by in­te­grat­ing some high-en­riched ura­nium into each bomb and de­vel­op­ing all-ura­nium de­signs. North Korea has an un­known ca­pac­ity to make highly en­riched ura­nium. We’ve long no­ticed that the sin­gle fa­cil­ity that North Korea has shown off to out­siders seems smaller than North Korea’s newly ren­o­vated ca­pac­ity to mine and mill ura­nium; we nat­u­rally won­dered where all that ex­tra ura­nium is going. (My re­search in­sti­tute thinks it might be fun to es­ti­mate how much ura­nium North Korea en­riches based on how much it mills, if you know any­one with grant money burn­ing a hole in her pocket.)

Just guess­ing

Un­less the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity knows ex­actly where North Korea is en­rich­ing ura­nium and how big each fa­cil­ity is, we’re just guess­ing how many nu­clear weapons the coun­try may have. But 60 nu­clear weapons doesn’t sound ab­surdly high.

The thing is, we knew all this al­ready. Sure, sure it isn’t the same when I say it. I mean, I am just some rando liv­ing out in Cal­i­for­nia. But now that some­one with a tie and real job in Wash­ing­ton has said it, it is news.

The big ques­tion is where to go from here. Some of my col­leagues still think the United States might per­suade North Korea to aban­don, or at least freeze, its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams. I am not so sure. I sus­pect we might have to set­tle for try­ing to re­duce ten­sions so that we live long enough to fig­ure this prob­lem out. But there is only one way to fig­ure out who is right: Talk to the North Kore­ans.

The other op­tions are ba­si­cally ter­ri­ble. There is no cred­i­ble mil­i­tary op­tion. North Korea has some un­known num­ber of nu­clear-armed mis­siles, maybe 60, in­clud­ing ones that can reach the United States; do you re­ally think U.S. strikes could get all of them? That not a sin­gle one would sur­vive to land on Seoul, Tokyo, or New York? Or that U.S. mis­sile de­fenses would work bet­ter than de­signed, in­ter­cept­ing not most of the mis­siles aimed at the United States, but ev­ery last one of them? Are you will­ing to be your life on that?

On a good day, maybe we get most of the mis­siles. We save most of the cities, like Seoul and New York, but lose a few like Tokyo. Two out three ain’t bad, right?

I kid — but not re­ally. Wel­come to our new world. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What is said to be the Hwa­song-12 mis­sile launches from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in North Korea in May.

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