North Korea has confirmed the worst suspicions of those who fear the destabilizing consequences of nuclear proliferation by announcing that it will become a full-fledged nuclear state, able to build both uranium and plutonium bombs and fit them to the nose cones of its missiles.
In its latest act of defiance, Pyongyang is reportedly preparing a new series of ballistic missile launches and another nuclear test, after a long-range missile test in April and the second test of a nuclear explosive device in May.
These and other actions have reversed steps the North had taken to abandon its nuclear program, coaxed by security, aid and other incentives offered in six-party negotiations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.
North Korea’s breakout announcement June 13 followed the unanimous approval by the U.N. Security Council the day before of a resolution demanding that North Korea halt nuclear weapon tests, suspend its ballistic missile program and rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The resolution marked a significant hardening of Chinese and Russian positions toward Pyongyang. They had previously counseled patience and opposed sanctions. China was particularly concerned about upsetting North Korea in the midst of a sensitive leadership transition, as its ailing leader Kim Jong Il reportedly prepares the country for rule by one of his sons.
The Security Council resolution extends penalties on North Korea by targeting its financial transactions and arms industry. It authorized U.N. member states to inspect suspect sea, air and land cargo going to or from North Korea. They are required to seize and destroy goods shipped that violate the sanctions, including nuclear or missile supplies. Pyongyang has financed its weapons’ program with the sale of missile technology.
China and Russia had previously balked at imposing sanctions. What accounts for their harder line against the North? Most officials and analysts rate the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests as only a partial success, at best.
The first nuclear device exploded underground by North Korea in 2006 had a yield of barely one kiloton, less than a quarter of the yield it told China in advance that it planned to achieve.
Analysis of the second underground test last month suggests the yield was no more than four kilotons. If dropped on a city, such a bomb would cause extensive damage. But it is well short of the early U.S. nuclear weapons that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of the World War II.
North Korea has so far failed to show it can build a reliable plutonium weapon, let alone one sufficiently small (around 1,000 kg) to fit on the nose cone of a missile that can guide itself to a target.
However, the North has abundant supplies of uranium and has now openly declared it will develop uranium enrichment to build nuclear weapons. This is the main route to nuclear power Iran has chosen, although it is also following the plutonium path.
It is easier to produce plutonium than highly enriched uranium. But making a uranium bomb is less challenging than producing a plutonium warhead.
An intercontinental ballistic missile is one with a range of 5,500 km or more. Only the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France are known to have nuclear-tipped ICBMs because of the inherent difficulties of making such weapons.
North Korea’s longest range missile, the Taepo Dong 2, has been under development since the early 1990s. The reported design objectives were to deliver a 1,000 to 1,500 kg warhead over a 4,000 to 8,000 km range, far enough to hit Alaska or Hawaii from North Korea but not the U.S. mainland. Of course, with a smaller warhead, it could fly further.
The Taepo Dong 2 has been flight tested twice. The first, in 2006, failed about 40 seconds into its flight. The second, two months ago, was declared a success by North Korea, which claimed it had put an experimental communications satellite into orbit. The booster section of the three-stage rocket appears to have dropped as planned into the sea between Korea and Japan. However, the remaining stages, along with any payload that may have been carried, crashed into the Pacific only 3,200 km from the launch pad.
Still, it would be unwise to write off North Korea’s quest to be a nuclear state with deliverable weapons. With more tests, its nuclear warheads and long-range missiles may work as designed. South Korean reports indicate that another Taepo Dong 2 is being prepared for launch, as well as a new missile with a range of around 3,000 km. The latter may be based on the Soviet R-27 submarine launched ballistic missile, a proven system that North Korea allegedly acquired from Russia in the 1990s, and possibly enhanced with the help of Russian missile specialists, without the knowledge or approval of the Russian government.
The land-based North Korean version of the R-27 has an estimated range of 2,500 to 3,200 km but has not been flight-tested. Steven Hildreth, a missile defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said in a report to U.S. lawmakers in February that the sea-based version of the R-27, with an estimated range of at least 2,500 km, could be mounted on ships, including cargo vessels.
“It is not known if North Korea has sold or will sell this new system to other countries,” he wrote, adding that Iran might be a potential buyer.
Even without the spread of such a weapon system, having ships with R-27 missiles under North Korean control roaming the seas within range of targets in Asia and the Pacific is a security challenge no country in the region would want to face. It may help account for the newfound Chinese and Russian willingness to join the U.S. and other countries in confronting the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.