- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has expanded to 30 warheads and will grow further as Pyongyang produces increased quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, according to estimates.

In just three years, the North’s unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un, will control sufficient fissile material to double that arsenal to as many as 60 weapons, says the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

To underscore this alarming increase, the U.S. estimated that North Korea owned just one or two nuclear weapons in 1999 and would have 10 or more by 2020, according to a secret Defense Intelligence Agency report obtained by The Washington Times shortly after it had circulated privately last decade.

“The bottom line is that North Korea has an improving nuclear weapons arsenal,” said David Albright, founder and director of the Institute for Science and International Security. “The last several years have witnessed a dramatic and overt buildup in North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.”

The numbers show that North Korea is becoming a true nuclear power with the ability to hit its neighbors and, one day, the U.S.

Analysts say the North’s objective is simple: Assure the communist state’s, and thus the Kim dynasty’s, survival and coerce U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

SEE ALSO: Mike Pence tells Japanese that U.S. will confront North Korean nuclear threat

Mr. Albright issued his assessment amid the growing confrontation between Pyongyang and the Trump administration, which says the era of “strategic patience” with the reclusive North is over.

The rhetoric was heightened and a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group was positioned in the region after the Stalinist North threatened to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S.

Mr. Albright, a recognized expert on nuclear weapons development globally, told The Times that North Korea could “theoretically use a satellite launcher” today to conduct a nuclear strike on the U.S., but “not with any reliability.”

“It is uncertain, and there are reasons to doubt, that North Korea can yet build reliable, survivable warheads for ICBMs,” he said in a briefing paper.

The North has likely mastered the engineering to place a miniaturized nuclear warhead on its shorter-range Nodong missile that could hit South Korea and Japan. But it is unclear whether it has achieved a similar breakthrough for its family of longer-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea masks its illicit nuclear work and has allowed no international inspections in recent years. The West must rely on spies, communications intercepts and satellite imagery to put the puzzle together.

SEE ALSO: Answer to Kim Jong-un: U.S. and Chinese financial muscle

For example, the North is suspected of conducting “cold” nuclear tests rather than detonation at sites not yet discovered by U.S. intelligence. The U.S. also does not know the locations of weapons assembly facilities, Mr. Albright said.

One development that spy satellites can detect is increased activity around the reactor (plutonium) and centrifuge operations (enriched uranium) at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, including the construction of buildings.

Satellites have picked up activity near the North’s underground test site.

Mr. Albright said that, from the North’s point of view: “Continued underground testing will provide North Korea opportunities to improve significantly its weapons in terms of less fissile material (particularly plutonium) per weapon, increased warhead miniaturization, and/or greater explosive yields.”

A North Korean priority is a focus on expanding its gas centrifuge program to dramatically boost plutonium production, meaning more bombs.

Mr. Albright said there is evidence that North Korea has constructed a second centrifuge plant yet to be discovered by Western intelligence.

Part of the evidence is that during the failed “six-party talks” between North Korea and five leading Western nations in the 2000s, the U.S. removed components that were later shown to contain highly enriched uranium.

President Trump would have to make a military decision when intelligence agencies report that North Korea has assembled and plans to test a long-range ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. Presumedly, this above-ground target could be taken out with sea-launched Tomahawk missiles. Or the president may approve the use of an anti-missile system to knock it out of the sky.

Much more difficult would be stopping an underground nuclear test.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday downplayed talk of a pending military strike, emphasizing that China and other nations can pressure Pyongyang to change course.

“I think that we’re going to continue to work with China in particular to help find a way forward on this,” Mr. Spicer said.

The commander in chief has the tools if he ultimately authorizes an air war to cripple North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure or for regime change, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney.

He said the air plan should include dropping 20 to 30 Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bombs (MOABs) on hardened North Korean artillery sites, nullifying the North’s planned bombardment of the South Korean capital, Seoul.

“Those massive shock waves will kill crews, just like it did in Afghanistan,” said Mr. McInerney, referring to the April 13 bomb strike on Islamic State fighters, the first time the 21,000-pound, satellite-guided bomb was used in combat.

The Air Force also should unleash about 100 30,000-pound penetrating bombs on the North’s network of underground command centers and direct precision-guided 2,000-pound ordnance to seal underground hangar complexes to keep the North’s air force grounded.

Mr. McInerney said that when he conducted intelligence and operations planning, he looked at an 100-hour plan to destroy the North Korean air force and anti-aircraft ties.

“It’s easier to do now,” given the technology, he said.

He said the North has three land attack corridors for invading the South on the west and east coasts, and through central North Korea.

“But they are all very narrow and easy to seal off before they break out,” he said. “Air power will seal them off, and we will destroy them as they back up.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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