Anx­i­ety grows over N. Korea’s ar­se­nal

Kim Jong Un’s threats to strike U.S. are no longer taken lightly

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOBY WAR­RICK

On the day of North Korea’s first atomic test in 2006, aides to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush be­gan phon­ing for­eign cap­i­tals to re­as­sure al­lies star­tled by Py­ongyang’s sur­pris­ing feat. The test, aides said, had been mostly a fail­ure: a botched, 1-kilo­ton cry for at­ten­tion from a regime that had no war­heads or re­li­able de­liv­ery sys­tems and would never be al­lowed to ob­tain them.

“The cur­rent course that they are on is un­ac­cept­able,” State Depart­ment spokesman Sean McCor­mack said pub­licly at the time, “and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is go­ing to act.”

A decade later, that con­fi­dence has all but evap­o­rated. After a week in which Py­ongyang suc­cess­fully lobbed four in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles into the Sea of Ja­pan, U.S. of­fi­cials are no longer see­ing North Korea’s weapons tests as am­a­teur­ish, at­ten­tion-grab­bing provo­ca­tions. In­stead, they are viewed as ev­i­dence of a rapidly grow­ing threat — and one that in­creas­ingly de­fies so­lu­tion.

Over the past year, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams have dra­mat­i­cally

raised the stakes in the years-long stand­off be­tween the United States and the reclu­sive com­mu­nist regime, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials and Korea ex­perts. Py­ongyang’s grow­ing ar­se­nal has rat­tled key U.S. al­lies and spurred ef­forts by all sides to de­velop new first-strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­creas­ing the risk that a sim­ple mis­take could trig­ger a dev­as­tat­ing re­gional war, the an­a­lysts said.

The mil­i­tary de­vel­op­ments are com­ing at a time of un­usual po­lit­i­cal fer­ment, with a new and largely untested ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton and with South Korea’s gov­ern­ment cop­ing with an im­peach­ment cri­sis. Long­time ob­servers say the risk of con­flict is higher than it has been in years, and it is likely to rise fur­ther as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seeks to ful­fill his pledge to field long-range mis­siles ca­pa­ble of strik­ing U.S. cities.

“This is no longer about a lonely dic­ta­tor cry­ing for at­ten­tion or de­mand­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions,” said Vic­tor Cha, a for­mer ad­viser on North Korea to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Korea chair at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, a Wash­ing­ton think tank. “This is now a mil­i­tary test­ing pro­gram to ac­quire a proven ca­pa­bil­ity.”

Py­ongyang’s am­bi­tion to be­come an ad­vanced nu­cle­ar­armed state is not new. North Korea be­gan build­ing its first re­ac­tor for mak­ing plu­to­nium more than three decades ago. Over the years, it has shown in­ge­nu­ity in in­creas­ing the range and power of a stock­pile of home­made short- and medium-range mis­siles, all based on Soviet-era de­signs.

Of­ten, in the past, the new in­no­va­tions have been ac­com­pa­nied by de­mands: a clam­or­ing for se­cu­rity guar­an­tees and in­ter­na­tional re­spect by a para­noid and nearly friend­less gov­ern­ment that per­ceives its demo­cratic neigh­bors as plot­ting its de­struc­tion. After the first atomic test in 2006, then-leader Kim Jong Il threat­ened to launch nu­clear mis­siles un­less Wash­ing­ton agreed to face-to-face talks.

North Korea has been slammed in­stead with ev­er­tighter United Na­tions sanc­tions meant to cut off ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy and for­eign cash flows. Yet, de­spite the trade re­stric­tions, diplo­matic iso­la­tion, threats and oc­ca­sional sab­o­tage, the coun­try’s weapons pro­grams have con­tin­ued their up­ward march, goaded for­ward by dic­ta­tors will­ing to sac­ri­fice their ci­ti­zens’ well-be­ing to grow the coun­try’s mil­i­tary might.

And now, in the fifth year of Kim Jong Un’s rule, progress is com­ing in leaps.

‘A liv­ing, breath­ing thing’

Py­ongyang’s fifth and lat­est nu­clear weapons test oc­curred on Sept. 9 on the 68th an­niver­sary of North Korea’s found­ing. Seis­mic mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions picked up vi­bra­tions from the un­der­ground blast and quickly de­ter­mined that this one was ex­cep­tional.

Sci­en­tific analy­ses of the test de­ter­mined that the new bomb’s ex­plo­sive yield ap­proached 30 kilo­tons, two times the force of the “Lit­tle Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Ja­pan, in 1945. The de­vice was twice as pow­er­ful as the bomb North Korea tested just nine months ear­lier, and it was 30 times stronger than one det­o­nated in 2006 in a re­mote moun­tain tun­nel. More omi­nously, North Korea last March dis­played a new com­pact bomb, one that ap­pears small enough to fit in­side the nose cone of one of its in­dige­nously pro­duced mis­siles.

Re­gard­less of whether the minia­ture bomb is real or a clever prop, North Korea does fi­nally ap­pear to be “on the verge of a nu­clear break­out,” said Robert Lit­wak, an ex­pert on nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion and di­rec­tor of In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars. He said Py­ongyang’s ar­se­nal is be­lieved to now con­tain as many as 20 nu­clear bombs, along with enough plu­to­nium and highly en­riched ura­nium to make dozens more.

“When I got into this field,” Lit­wak said at a sym­po­sium on North Korea this month, “I couldn’t have con­ceived of North Korea ac­quir­ing a nu­clear ar­se­nal ap­proach­ing half the size of Great Bri­tain’s.”

The coun­try’s mis­siles also have grown more so­phis­ti­cated. Last year, North Korea’s mil­i­tary con­ducted the first test of a twostage bal­lis­tic mis­sile that uses solid fuel — a sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance over the coun­try’s ex­ist­ing liq­uid­fu­eled rock­ets be­cause they can be moved eas­ily and launched quickly. Also in 2016, North Korea broad­cast images of en­gi­neers test­ing en­gines for a new class of ad­vanced mis­siles with true in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal range, po­ten­tially putting cities on the U.S. main­land within reach.

The provo­ca­tions have con­tin­ued in the weeks since the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, who, just be­fore tak­ing of­fice, ap­peared to taunt Py­ongyang in a Twit­ter post, say­ing that North Korea’s plan for build­ing in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles “won’t hap­pen.”

A month later, Kim launched one of the coun­try’s new solid­fuel mis­siles, in­ter­rupt­ing Trump’s Mar-a-Lago din­ner with vis­it­ing Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe. Last week’s co­or­di­nated launch of four in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles ap­peared in­tended to show­case the coun­try’s abil­ity to fire mul­ti­ple rock­ets si­mul­ta­ne­ously at U.S. mil­i­tary bases in Ja­pan, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood that some will pen­e­trate an­timis­sile shields.

North Korea’s state-run me­dia has oc­ca­sion­ally shown pro­pa­ganda footage of Kim hud­dling with his gen­er­als over what some an­a­lysts have jok­ingly called the “map of death”: a chart that por­trays Ja­panese and U.S. main­land cities as po­ten­tial tar­gets.

The laugh­ter has now stopped, said Jef­frey Lewis, an ex­pert on North Korean weapons sys­tems. “This idea that th­ese things were just bar­gain­ing chips — some­thing that was true years ago — is su­per­seded by the fact that there is now a rocket force . . . with a com­man­der and a head­quar­ters and sub­or­di­nate bases, all with mis­siles,” said Lewis, di­rec­tor of the East Asia Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­gram at the James Martin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies. “This is now a liv­ing, breath­ing thing.”

There have been notable fail­ures as well. Nu­mer­ous test rock­ets have drifted far off course, and oth­ers never made it off the launch­pad. Many an­a­lysts say it could still be sev­eral years be­fore Kim can con­struct a true ICBM that could re­li­ably reach the U.S. main­land, and per­haps longer be­fore he can demon­strate an abil­ity to in­cor­po­rate a nu­clear pay­load into his rocket de­sign. Yet, al­ready, the ba­sic com­po­nents for a fu­ture ar­se­nal of long-range, nu­clear-tipped mis­siles are in place, Lewis said.

“The ICBM pro­gram is real,” Lewis said. “They’ve showed us their static en­gine test. They showed us the mock-up of the nu­clear war­head. They have done every­thing short of ac­tu­ally test­ing the ICBM. When they do test it, the first time it will prob­a­bly fail. But even­tu­ally it will work. And when it works, peo­ple are go­ing to freak out.”

Dan­ger of mis­cal­cu­la­tion

For decades, the United States and its East Asian al­lies have tried an ar­ray of strate­gies to blunt North Korea’s progress, rang­ing from diplo­macy to covert op­er­a­tions to de­fen­sive an­timis­sile shields. Lately, the search for so­lu­tions has taken on an in­ten­sity not seen in years.

As diplo­matic ini­tia­tives have stalled, U.S., Ja­panese and South Korean of­fi­cials have broad­ened the search for mea­sures to en­sure that Py­ongyang’s mis­siles re­main grounded, or — in the event of a launch — can be brought down be­fore they reach their tar­get. The ef­forts have proved to be partly suc­cess­ful at best.

Three years ago, alarmed by North Korea’s ad­vances on mis­sile sys­tems, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion or­dered the Pen­tagon and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to de­ploy highly clas­si­fied cy­ber and elec­tronic mea­sures against North Korea, largely aimed at un­der­min­ing the coun­try’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams, two for­mer se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said. As­pects of the ini­tia­tives were de­scribed in a re­cent re­port by the New York Times. The ef­fort was fur­ther in­ten­si­fied last year, the of­fi­cials said, in re­sponse to new in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments show­ing North Korea inch­ing closer to its goal of field­ing lon­grange bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

The clan­des­tine ef­fort be­gun un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ap­pears to have borne fruit, judg­ing from a rash of mis­sile fail­ures in the past year, said one for­mer of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the pro­gram. The of­fi­cials spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the se­cret op­er­a­tions.

“We’re stop­ping ship­ments. We’re mak­ing sure things don’t work the way they’re sup­posed to,” one for­mer of­fi­cial said. “We’ve been able to de­lay things, in some cases prob­a­bly by a lot. It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”

But the sec­ond of­fi­cial, fa­mil­iar with the Pen­tagon’s cy­ber­war­fare ef­forts, ac­knowl­edged that North Korea re­mains an ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult tar­get be­cause of its iso­la­tion and lim­ited dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture. The of­fi­cial sug­gested that at least some of the re­cent mis­sile fail­ures were prob­a­bly caused by North Korean er­rors. “I would be wary of claim­ing too much,” he said.

“We were try­ing to use all the tools that were avail­able to us in or­der to de­grade as much of their ca­pa­bil­i­ties as pos­si­ble,” a sec­ond for­mer of­fi­cial said. “But we just did not have nearly as much game as we should have.”

In hand­off meet­ings with Trump, Obama de­scribed the gath­er­ing threat in stark terms, call­ing it the most se­ri­ous pro­lif­er­a­tion chal­lenge fac­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to aides fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions. The Trump White House has since con­vened three deputies’ com­mit­tee meet­ings on North Korea and or­dered a new, top-to-bot­tom threat as­sess­ment. White House of­fi­cials say that Trump is weigh­ing all op­tions, from a new diplo­matic ini­tia­tive to en­hanced mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, pos­si­bly in­clud­ing a highly con­tro­ver­sial re­turn of tac­ti­cal nu­clear weapons to South Korea for the first time since the early


The ad­min­is­tra­tion is dis­patch­ing Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son to East Asia this week to con­fer with coun­ter­parts in Bei­jing, Tokyo and Seoul. And the White House is de­fend­ing its de­ci­sion last week to send an­timis­sile bat­ter­ies to South Korea de­spite ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion from China.

The ini­tia­tives have failed to calm ten­sions in the re­gion. As more mis­siles streak across North Korea’s eastern coast, Ja­panese and South Korean of­fi­cials are pledg­ing in­creased in­vest­ments in de­fen­sive shields and highly ac­cu­rate, con­ven­tion­ally armed mis­siles de­signed to pre­emp­tively de­stroy North Korean launch sites and com­mand cen­ters if an at­tack seems im­mi­nent. North Korea has re­sponded with sim­i­lar threats, de­scrib­ing its re­cent mis­sile launches as a dry run for a pre­emp­tive at­tack on U.S. bases in Ja­pan, the pre­sumed stag­ing ground for forces pre­par­ing to come to South Korea’s aid if war breaks out.

In the past, such a strike would be seen as sui­ci­dal, as it would cer­tainly re­sult in a dev­as­tat­ing coun­ter­at­tack against North Korea that would prob­a­bly de­stroy the regime it­self. But Kim is bet­ting that an ar­se­nal of lon­grange, nu­clear-tipped mis­siles would serve as an ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent, said Cha, the for­mer Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion ad­viser.

“That’s why they want to be able to reach the con­ti­nen­tal United States, so they can ef­fec­tively hold us hostage,” Cha said. “Do we re­ally want to trade Los An­ge­les for what­ever city in North Korea?”

Such an at­tack on the U.S. main­land is not yet within North Korea’s grasp, and U.S. of­fi­cials hope they can even­tu­ally neu­tral­ize the threat with im­prove­ments in an­timis­sile sys­tems. But in the mean­time, each new ad­vance in­creases the chance that a small mishap could rapidly es­ca­late into all-out war, Cha said. In a cri­sis, “ev­ery­one is put in a use-itor-lose-it sit­u­a­tion, in which ev­ery­one feels he has to go first,” he said. “The grow­ing dan­ger now,” he said, “is mis­cal­cu­la­tion.”


An un­dated photo shows North Korea’s “un­der­wa­ter test-fire of strate­gic sub­ma­rine bal­lis­tic mis­sile.”

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