North Korean Nuclear Rhetoric and Operational Capability
by Scott Bruce
Your Propaganda Says No, but Your Sand Piles Say Yes | Speculation over the North’s pending (or not) nuclear test continues. Although North Korea indicated via the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Tuesday that they “did not envisage such a military measure as a nuclear test,” digging and sand piles at the Pyungg-ri test site now indicate that a nuclear devise is in place and the DPRK is prepared for a nuclear test at any time. Given this ambiguity, and the opacity of the North Korean nuclear program, it is helpful to contrast the language and tone of KCNA commentary on this issue with that from 2006 and 2009.
The DPRK Foreign Ministry’s response to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemnation of the April 13th “satellite launch” was to reject the UNSC’s authority, pledge to continue to its space programs, and declare the February 29th Agreement null and void. In terms of a retaliatory response the statement promised: “necessary retaliatory measures, free from the [Leap Day] agreement.”
A later statement directly responding to the censure of North Korean entities by the Security Council produced a rather tame statement pledging to:
“dynamically push forward the development of space for peaceful purposes and the industry of nuclear energy and proudly build a thriving nation where its people will fully enjoy prosperity under socialism.”
There was no bolstering of nuclear deterrents, no commitment to a strong response. In response to UN sanctions on North Korean entities, the Foreign Ministry pledged to keep calm and test more satellites.
Compare this to the Foreign Ministry response to the 2009 UNSC Presidential Statement, which was to explicitly reject the authority of the UNSC, declare the Six Party Talks null and void, and restart construction of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The statement committed the state to “further increase its nuclear deterrent.” A subsequent statement explicitly promised retaliatory measures would “include nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
If we look at the tone of the KCNA articles, the 2006 and 2009 statements are defiant messages that cited the law of the jungle, “Japanese imperialism,” and Korea being “violated… by large powers.” The 2012 statement speaks of “double standards,” but notes that “peace is very dear for us.” By North Korean standards, this is a very different tone than that of previous statements.
I am not saying that a test is not likely; it is quite possible that a nuclear test is indeed forthcoming but will be framed as a scientific test, rather than a “military measure.” What is important to note is that North Korea’s statements addressing the UNSC condemnation have changed, and there has been no attention to or explanation of that change by those who predict an imminent nuclear test.
This is only a test… | Setting aside this change in language, the possibility of a test raises the question: What is the operational capability of a North Korean nuclear weapon at this present stage?
For this analysis I draw heavily upon a paper Peter Hayes and I wrote last year, “Unprecedented Nuclear Strikes of the Invincible Army: A Realistic Assessment of North Korea’s Operational Nuclear Capability” Our analysis concludes the North Korea could conceivably deliver a nuclear devise to a target, but the chances of it doing so successfully, especially given its limited supply of fissile material and the overwhelming military retaliation it would expect in response, makes North Korea’s nuclear weapon effective as a deterrent against invasion, rather than an effective offensive weapon.
The scenarios for delivery of a nuclear weapon would be:
1. Missile. For North Korea to have an effective delivery system for an atomic device, the weapon needs to be miniaturized to fit onto a missile. Its ability to do this, however, is highly debatable. South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, in a widely misinterpreted statement, said that he though that North Korea had that capability, based on the time it had had to develop its nuclear program. No technological assessments or intelligence estimates were produced to support this statement.
Other experts, such as Jonathan Pollack of Brookings, give development of this capability a longer timeline, noting, “I think [the North Koreans] have a reasonable chance of being able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile in three to five years if they speed up research, development, testing and evaluation.”
Even if North Korea has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon, it would still need to refine its missile system to do so. As of April 15, 2012 North Korea is 0 for 4 in terms of booster rocket tests. Short and medium range rockets have faulty guidance systems and are wildly inaccurate.
2. Bombers: North Korea’s nuclear capable bombers, bought from the Soviets in the 1980s, are antiques. Moreover, they are slow and have a low ceiling.
3. Boat: It is conceivable that, in a move inspired by an Ian Fleming novel, North Korea could put a crude nuclear devise on a boat and sail it into a harbor in South Korea or Japan. This method would entail a high risk of detection and it would be hard to believe that the DPRK would allow its limited stock of fissile material to be used in such a risky manner, not to mention, in light of recent events, that the state would delegate control of the nuclear weapon to a group in the field.
This means that the most effective use of North Korea’s nuclear weapon is as a deterrent against invasion from US and ROK conventional forces.
Opacity, not Capacity | This capacity to effectively launch a nuclear attack may indeed change, but not overnight. North Korea will need to continue to develop its missile program to develop an effective delivery system and demonstrate that it has the capability to launch a nuclear attack. Indeed, this many be what the country is currently working on.
With the enlargement of the missile launch site at Musudan-ri, policy on the peaceful use of space, and surprising transparency about the failure of its most recent rocket launch — a move that may indicate that it is domestically framing these launches as part of a long term effort with successes and failures — all indications are that North Korea has made development of its rocket system a national priority. With the development of its rockets, debatable capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon, and a potential new source of fissile material from its pilot enrichment program, North Korea could become an operational nuclear weapon state over the next decade, but will continue to do so in an opaque manner that makes it very hard to distinguish between their rhetoric and real capabilities.
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