NEW YORK - While the world’s attention focuses on North Korea’s cyberwar with Sony Pictures, the Hermit Kingdom is rapidly increasing its stockpile of nuclear weapons material, with real little pushback from the United States.
A new analysis of North Korea’s nuclear program by a group of top U.S. experts, led by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that North Korea could have enough material for 79 nuclear weapons by 2020.
The analysis, part of a larger project called “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures” being run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, has not been previously published.
Albright said the North Korean government is ramping up its production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, speeding toward an amount that would allow it to build enough nuclear weapons to rival other nuclear states including India, Pakistan and Israel.
“North Korea is on the verge of being able to scale up its nuclear weapons program to the level of the other major players, so it’s critical to head this off,” Albright said in an interview.
He added, “It is on the verge of deploying a nuclear arsenal that would pose not only a threat to the United States and its allies but also to China.”
According to the analysis, which included the input of a team of former government officials, nuclear experts and North Korea-watchers, the regime now has as many as four separate facilities churning out nuclear weapons material or preparing to do so.
The best-known one, at Yongbyon, has a functioning 5-megawatt plutonium reactor, a uranium enrichment grid with thousands of centrifuges and a light-water reactor that could be used for either military or civilian purposes.
The U.S. intelligence community also believes the North Koreans have a second centrifuge facility they have never acknowledged. Even if that second uranium facility is taken out of the equation, Albright’s team projects that North Korea will have enough material for 67 bombs in five years time.
The light-water reactor at Yongyon is not online yet, but it should be soon. Even if that reactor is never turned on or limited to civilian purposes, North Korea could still have 45 bombs by the time the next U.S. president is finishing up his (or her) first term.
North Korea is estimated to have 30 to 34 kg of weapons-grade plutonium now, enough for around nine nuclear weapons, depending on the size of each bomb. Last year it conducted its third nuclear weapons test.
Albright acknowledged that the secrecy of the North Korean program makes exact projections impossible and therefore his estimates all have a range to account for known unknowns, such as secret facilities. According to the detailed intelligence community budget leaked to the Washington Post in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, North Korea’s nuclear program remains one of the hardest targets for U.S. spies as well.
But there’s no doubt about the North Korean government’s intentions, Albright said, to produce as much nuclear-weapons material as possible before it is forced to stop either by coercion or the resumption of a diplomatic negotiations with the West.
“They are engaged in building a more fearsome nuclear arsenal. They see it as a vital part of their defense and want to make sure people are scared enough by it that they won’t try any offensive actions against North Korea,” Albright said. “You have this growing arsenal in the hands of people who are always on edge, and it creates an environment that is unstable and could lead to a very large arms race in the region.”
For Albright as well as other Korea experts, the North Korea policy of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, often referred to as “strategic patience,” has not only failed to stop this nuclear buildup, it has encouraged Pyongyang to increase its aggressive behavior, as shown by the brazen attack on Sony’s computer systems. “When you leave North Korea alone like that, they engage in this kind of reckless behavior,” he said. “It tends to go on until there’s some meaningful engagement.”
Obama is said to be considering a range of “proportional responses” against North Korea, possibly including counter cyber-hacks, financial sanctions or placing North Korea back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. (Early last week, North Korea’s Internet was effectively taken offline.) But none of those steps is likely to be effective, according to experts and lawmakers.
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told us that the intelligence attributing the attack to North Korea has “a level of certainty that you normally don’t see.” Schiff worried, however, that responding to North Korea with a cyber-attack may backfire: “They can do a lot more damage to us in a cyber battle, given our exposure and given that their infrastructure is already so dilapidated,” he said. Instead, Schiff said, Obama should consider financial measures. “There are ways the administration to turn up the economic heat, both as a way of punishing this rogue regime and its cronies and as a way of deterring further attacks of this kind,” he noted.
Joel Wit, a former State Department official who runs the North Korea information website 38North, also participated in Albright’s latest analysis. He said all of the “proportional responses” Obama is likely reviewing now, such as putting the regime back on the terrorism-sponsors list, are likely to fail in terms of the overall goal of deterring North Korean belligerence.
“These things are not going to affect them at all,” said Wit. “Even if you did put them back on the list, it’s symbolic. They’ve been figuring ways around sanctions for 60 years and they are pretty good at it. This is a durable regime.”
The environment may not be ripe for engagement, but that doesn’t mean the Obama administration should just sit on its hands and respond piecemeal to each individual provocation, Wit said. It needs a new comprehensive policy to deal with the security threat from North Korea.
Albright and Wit said the administration should come up with terms for a resumption of dialogue that the North Koreans and the U.S. can both accept. U.S. officials have said repeatedly they are open to talks, but they are demanding several preconditions that Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected.
“The North Koreans are more than happy to make concessions to start things up again, but the U.S. has shown no flexibility in addressing North Korea’s position to arrive at a starting point that both sides can be happy with,” said Albright.
“We have this reactive approach and it’s ad hoc,” Wit added. “The North Koreans aren’t taking us seriously. They feel they are in the driver’s seat here. It’s wrong to assume they are taking these steps like this Sony hack out of weakness. They are taking these steps because they feel there’s nothing we can do to them.”
And this raises an uncomfortable question for the White House. Why does a targeted cyber-hack draw a tougher response from Obama than the amassing of a small nuclear arsenal? The message it sends to Pyongyang is that they can threaten their entire region with nuclear weapons, just so long as they don’t touch Hollywood.
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake are Bloomberg View columnists who write about national security and foreign affairs.