On March 9, North Korea’s state media released photos of Kim Jong-un inspecting a miniaturized nuclear weapon and modern re-entry body. While experts have believed for some time that the North had miniaturization capabilities, the photos put to rest any doubts from skeptics that such capabilities existed, and signaled to the world, once again, that the North’s ambitions for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are both real and a serious, growing threat.
In 2015, the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies conducted a yearlong study of North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. This study, the North Korea Nuclear Future project, assessed the North’s WMD-related capabilities today, and projected low-, mid- and high-level scenarios of where the programs may be by 2020.
The projections, even under the harshest conditions for Pyongyang to maneuver within, estimated that the North could double the size of their nuclear arsenal in five years. Under more optimal conditions (for Pyongyang), that projection increased rapidly — up to 50 nuclear weapons in a midrange scenario and up to 100 in a high-end scenario — along with development projections for the North’s delivery systems.
Despite international and unilateral efforts to bolster sanctions against North Korea, the lack of serious diplomatic efforts by the United States or other stakeholders to address Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions have tacitly given Pyongyang the green light to keep developing its WMD. While these ambitions are far from new, the pace of development under Kim Jong-un seems to have accelerated. In just the past few years, we have seen major upgrades to the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, including the building of a taller gantry tower able to handle larger space launch vehicles; construction of more sophisticated assembly systems; and implementation of better concealment facilities, such as covers over the end of the rail spur, and new structures on both the launch pad and engine test stand to provide more cover for launch and test preparations. At North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, there has been continued excavation of tunnels at the North Portal, where the 2009, 2013 and 2016 tests took place; the beginning of tunnel excavation at a new West Portal; and consistent activity at the main support area, separating the North and South Portals. In addition, North Korea has built a new class of ballistic missile submarine, the GORAE-class, berthed at the Sinpo South Shipyard, and has started testing sea-launched ballistic missiles.
North Korea has also stepped up its fissile material production capacity. In 2013, North Korea restarted its 5 MW reactor for plutonium production, which, if running at full capacity, can produce up to six kilograms of plutonium per year (roughly one bomb’s worth); and also doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility’s centrifuge halls.
This year already, the North Koreans have resumed nuclear testing, now claiming to have hydrogen bomb capabilities, and warned of more tests to come. They restarted satellite launches, revealed a miniaturized nuclear weapon design, started wind-tunnel testing of a re-entry vehicle, and have tested solid-fuel rocket engines.
These developments, while sparking great concern, are not so surprising, given the trajectory North Korea has been on. As its WMD capabilities grow, Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy will also evolve. Even in a low-end scenario, doubling its nuclear arsenal and showing some improvement of its delivery systems will still bolster its deterrence capabilities, and continue assured retaliation in response to a nuclear attack by the United States. With larger arsenals, it moves past assured retaliation, and could become emboldened to explore other nuclear options, including tactical nuclear weapons, or could even start to threaten early or first use of nuclear weapons. And here we are today.
The stronger North Korea’s WMD capabilities become, the harder it will be to find diplomatic solutions to slow or halt these programs. However, leaving the situation to resolve itself has proven ineffective, time and time again, even with increased pressure through sanctions. As difficult as pursuing a serious, sustained, diplomatic process with North Korea may seem, the threat Pyongyang poses will continue to grow in the meantime.
• Jenny Town is assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and managing editor and producer of “38 North,” a Web journal on North Korean affairs.