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North Korea’s nuclear puzzle

by Michael Richardson

The key pieces in North Korea’s secret nuclear jigsaw puzzle are falling into place, revealing the outlines of an increasingly long-range ballistic missile force armed with nuclear warheads.

The picture, although yet to be fully clarified and detailed, is alarming the United States and its Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, against whom the North is threatening to use its weapons of mass destruction.

The threats raise the hitherto unthinkable specter of nuclear war in Asia — either by design or, more likely, by miscalculation. Such a conflict, in a region that is growing faster than any other major part of the global economy, would produce devastating strategic and economic fallout, almost certainly causing worldwide depression.

The latest piece was placed in the North Korean nuclear jigsaw on April 11 when it was revealed that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had recently concluded with a moderate degree of certainty that the North had made a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

Pyongyang claimed to have done this when it carried out its third underground test of a nuclear explosive device in February. But there was no proof and many outside analysts were skeptical.

In the executive summary of its March report, the DIA “assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.”

It is not clear whether this means that the miniaturized warheads may be unreliable, or that the missiles that carry them may not be strong or accurate enough to strike close to their intended target and cause maximum damage.

Of course, the DIA may be wrong or premature in its assessment. North Korea’s claims may be a deliberate bluff to make it look far stronger than it actually is, to strengthen its bargaining position.

But some U.S. officials and analysts believe that the North has not only made significant recent advances in nuclear warhead design. They say that there have been similar advances in missile development and that the North may be on the verge of fielding an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force that could be launched with little or no warning.

After several missile launches that were judged to be failures, North Korea successfully fired a three-stage rocket in December, which reached as far as the Philippine Sea.

However, neither of the two missiles that the U.S. and its Asian allies and security partners are currently most concerned about is known to have been flight-tested through actual launches. This was a point made by Pentagon spokesman George Little when he said that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities” referred to in the DIA report.

South Korean officials have said that they expect the North to make the first flight test very soon of the medium-range Musudam, one of the missiles of most concern to the U.S. and regional nations because of its potential to carry a nuclear warhead for 3,500 km or more. This would put all of South Korea and Japan within range, and possibly even threaten Guam — a key U.S. territory and military hub in the Western Pacific.

A leaked US State Department cable from 2009 described the Musudam as a solid-fueled, road mobile system, meaning that it could be moved around by launch truck and hidden in caves and buildings to avoid detection by spy satellites.

Having solid instead of liquid fuel enables missiles to be launched more quickly, minimizing chances of detection and destruction. Other Western analysts believe that the Musudam uses a liquid propellant but one that does not vaporize, allowing the missile to be fueled and kept in the launch position for days or even weeks.

The Pentagon’s Joint Staff was reported in February to be conducting an urgent assessment of the threat to the U.S. and its Asian allies of an additional North Korean missile, with a longer range than the Musudam that would put it into the category of an ICBM.

North Korea calls the missile the Hwasong-13. In the rest of Asia and the West, it is known as the KN-08. Although the KN-08 is not known to have been flight- tested from its mobile launcher, the U.S. is concerned it might have the range to reach Hawaii, Alaska and the western U.S.

James Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, told a congressional hearing on April 11 that “we believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps” toward fielding “a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.” He was apparently referring to the KN-08.

Six of the missiles were shown publicly for the first time in a North Korean military parade a year ago. However, there was division among outside analysts whether the missiles were real or mock-ups.

North Korea has a history of deception in its nuclear and missile program. The present regime in Pyongyang is a maverick and unpredictable one. The longer Pyongyang fails to carry out successful test flights of both the Musudam and KN-08 missiles, the more the outside world will believe that they are part of a game of bluff.

However, if more evidence emerges that North Korea is on the verge of possessing nuclear-tipped long-range missiles that even the U.S. might find difficult to defend against, it will raise a question no Asian or Western leader wants to answer. Should they accept the North as a nuclear power or use force to destroy its nuclear arms and missile delivery systems, as the U.S., has threatened it will do should Iran reach a similar threshold?

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.