North Korea could double its number of nuclear warheads by next year
While the world focused its attention this spring on mitigating the potential nuclear threat from Iran, North Korean advances in building its nuclear weapons arsenal have finally made even the Chinese anxious. For the first time, Chinese warnings of the North Korean threat exceed those of Americans. In meetings earlier this spring, unofficial Chinese briefings suggested that North Korea could double its number of warheads from 20 to 40 by next year through production of highly enriched uranium (HEU). In 2013, satellite images suggested the DPRK had expanded its enrichment facilities.
If true, there could be several dangers here. First, a production capacity for HEU using centrifuges is hard to turn off, for technical reasons. This could mean a significant surge in production with no civilian outlets (North Korea has been building a light water reactor that would use low-enriched uranium fuel, but it does not seem to be operational yet). A North Korea that can add 10 nuclear warheads to its arsenal per year would pose a significant threat to China, which has about 240 nuclear warheads now. Second, as North Korea’s arsenal grows, it is likely to look for additional roles and missions for those weapons. It is also likely to expand the kinds of delivery vehicles for those weapons. Finally, many observers fear that an industrial capability to build nuclear weapons will render North Korea’s denuclearization a pipedream. This leaves only one option for denuclearization: regime collapse. And that will be a very messy scenario, indeed.
And yet, very little of this will be discussed at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference taking place at UN headquarters for the next three weeks. North Korea, since it dropped out of the NPT, has not attended a review conference since 2000. Although diplomats at the 2005 conference carried the DPRK nameplate around, ready to be deployed if its diplomats showed up, today no one entertains such hopes.
Instead, nuclear diplomats have watched North Korea’s rapid escalation, particularly in the last five years, from a rhetorical threat to a “real” nuclear weapons state. Just 15 years ago, experts argued over whether North Korea had truly crossed the nuclear threshold: it had fissile material (plutonium) and short-range missile capabilities, but no one really knew whether it would build actual nuclear weapons. For close to 20 years, the Agreed Framework between the United States and the DPRK froze much of North Korea’s nascent nuclear program. Its collapse in 2002 led to a separate effort until 2009 that ultimately failed to secure real North Korean nuclear dismantlement (the so-called Six-Party talks).
Today, the only question is how far the North Koreans will go. After three underground nuclear tests (2006, 2009, 2013), multiple missile tests, including some for long-range ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles, and publication of a nuclear weapons doctrine in 2013 (Supreme People’s Assembly law on Consolidating Position of Nuclear Weapons State), North Korea considers itself to be a growing nuclear power unconstrained by any treaty obligations. In addition to its plutonium stockpile, North Korea is enriching uranium and working to enhance the survivability of its nuclear forces in case they are attacked, possibly with sea-based missiles. North Korea claimed Saturday to have launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.
How successful can the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty be if it has no means or mechanisms for bringing North Korea in from the cold?
As in the case with Iran, outside negotiations may be the only hope. Increased concern by China is a good thing. In the past, China let other states raise the alarm about North Korea’s nuclear intentions. But earlier this year, Chinese diplomats met with top Russian and South Korean officials in an effort to restart the Six-Party Talks. The fact that China may be increasingly alarmed about North Korean developments should work to the West’s advantage in diplomacy. And reining in North Korea’s nuclear developments may be one area for modest U.S.-Russian collaboration to everyone’s benefit.
While denuclearization may be a pipedream, efforts to ratchet down nuclear risks in Northeast Asia are worth it as long as diplomats avoid legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Consistent with other precedents, some assistance in nuclear safety and security could be provided, and Track II efforts (outside the government) along these lines were underway before Kim Jong Un took power. Although no one should be sanguine about success, it is time to put North Korea back on the front burner of nuclear diplomacy.