North Korea’s nukes are much scarier than its hacks



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.

  • rossdorn

    Thank you! It is about time an open honest word was spoken!

    It is definately “North Korea’s cyberwar with Sony Pictures” and they “increasing its stockpile of nuclear weapons”.

    Finally the truth and nothing but the truth about that dastardly country! Did you see in that documentary “The Interview” what a bad man that Kim is?

    Thank you North Josh Rogin and Eli Lake from Bloomberg, for sharing the truth with us.

  • Paul Martin

    I have long predicted the clear and present dangers of NK’s nukes that are far more advanced than believed !
    Given the proximity of South Korea, Japan,etc it is ludicrous for skeptics to anticipate that an unstable regime such as Pyongyang wouldn’t dare use nuclear weaponry if in their irrational mindset they were sufficiently provoked and angered.
    That being said, all the defensive preparations and military buildups and reliance on US support wouldn’t alter or affect the unpredictable consequences of Kim Jong Un and his Stalinist cronies who yearn to show their power (s) and capabilities to the World.
    Underestimating NK’s capabilities and resolve (s) is potentially disastrous for it’s neighbors and the West.

    • phu

      You seem to have missed the entire modus operandi of North Korea.

      They make threats, they kidnap, they make promises. The regime has always had and still has exactly one priority: To maintain their power. They do an exceptional job internally; their population is so oppressed and indoctrinated that the nation somehow keeps failing to overthrow its horrid government decade after decade.

      But this approach has necessarily cut NK off almost entirely from the international community, with the notable exception of China, which depends on them both as a fellow totalitarian state and a buffer from South Korea. And the Chinese are not stupid; they know how unpredictable the Kim dynasty is. I doubt they’d intentionally help NK develop their nuclear arsenal.

      No, at this point, I’d be more concerned about Russia running to Kim as a last resort as their economy fails. It sounds like they may have a mild reprieve in the wings with some of the other ex-Soviet nations, but the only way North Korea is going to gain a formidable nuclear arsenal any time soon is if it comes from outside the country.

      North Korea’s “resolve” goes exactly as far as maintaining the status quo. That state exists for the sole purpose of making the Kim family rich. No, their resolve should not be underestimated. However, it’s also important to consider what their goals are and cast the nation’s propaganda and posturing in the appropriate context.

      • Paul Martin

        Point taken…however having lived in Japan, SK,Taiwan,Singapore and HK for many years I have covered the news for the World’s media and my sources and knowledge of NK is they are more advanced in their technology than the World realises. They have a highly recognized tech. school in Pyongyang and the academics and scientists there are quite capable of doing what their counterparts like MIT, CALTEC. etc can do. Bearing that in mind NO outside source really understands or can predict other than theorize what NK might or can do because they change minds and moods daily. One moment they adapt reconcilliatory gestures towards Seoul and the next they threaten to annihilate them. The fact that they sank a SK patrol boat killing 40 sailors and shelled a SK border island with severe casualties and property damage also without hesitation or remorse should indicate what they are capable of and what they might resort to in future with WMD !

    • rossdorn

      The threat of North Korea’s nukes reminds of one thing only:
      The threat from Saddam Hussein’s WMD for which the americans had undeniable proofs….

      • Paul Martin

        The difference is we know that Iraq had no WMD…but NK absolutely does and is refining and expanding their nuclear and biological warfare expertise…underestimating them would be a BIG mistake…we should not FEAR them but we should recognize the realities involved in this respect !

      • rossdorn

        “Absolutely does…” you were there and checked that personally, I presume?
        The only country that was ever disgusting enough to actually throw one of those on human beings was a differnet one, if memory serves me well.

        Considering the fact, that the USA never knew any kind of business other then exploit and rob other nations, or by default send in their army, we should be aware, that being passed by China and going more and more down the drain at home and everywhere élse, they will have no qualms about using them again. As we saw clearly on several occasions from Tonkin, Iran, Iraq to Libya and man others, americans are very brilliant at lyoing aboutz others, and producing a fabricated reason all on their own. They will do wjatever it takes trying to preserve their position as No 1 power in the world.

        My guess is, everybody alive today and under the age of 60 will see the downfall of this criminal country during their lifetime.
        As americans lack all sorts of understanding, let me make it clear that this does NOT mean things will be better then…

      • Paul Martin

        You seem to be bitter towards America and accuse 300 milion people from every country on earth and all walks of life, religion, economic levels and political differences as being of the same one mind and viewpoint and being the World’s worst nightmare,etc !
        As a British citizen who has lived in the US on and off since the 60’s and know America well I disagree. Had they not entered and fought in 2 World wars and answered desperate requests for help from many countries under siege the World would now be at the mercy of fascist despots and freedom of any kind would be a memory !
        Too many brave Americans gave their lives to help other peoples in far away lands only to be later criticized and jeered at by ingrates !
        NO other country has been as compassionate and given so much as the US and no other country has ever helped America in the same ways !
        If the US should ever resort to isolationism or falter we can only imagine who would then grab power and control the Planet !
        I have never found a kinder people or had more doors opened for me than Americans, those who hate America are enemies of freedom and democracy because NO other country comes close !

      • rossdorn

        What hogwash… read it again. I have lived in the US myself and do not need your advice about the american people. I have not said a single word against them!
        You might try and answer in a forum what others actually did write, not what is your interpretation.
        I have criticised US foreign politics, beginning with th the Korean War.

        A history of 60 years of nothing but lies, hypocrisy and criminal mass murder!

      • Paul Martin

        Name a better, more honest, decent, fairer justice, more free, country !

      • rossdorn

        You are missing the point… which is not really a surprise given your “ability” to understand what is written.

        Besides that, in not a single so-called First World country comes out second to the USA in almost every respect.

        And none of those claims “exceptionalism”…
        … but there is absolutely no point in wasting any more time on you. I pronounce you an honorary american, you definately qualify.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    As an interested amateur it’s my opinion that the chances of N.K. actually launching a nuclear strike are small. I base this on several observations, the first being : about 10 years ago (excuse me if the time frame is wrong, I didn’t keep notes) there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair here when N.K. launched a handful of missiles in this general direction. The media and Japanese government barely contained their hysteria about nuclear annihilation but, to my mind purposely, neglected to mention the fact that the missiles were antiquated Silkworm anti-shipping missiles, with a maximum range of maybe 200 kms and NOT capable of being fitted with a nuclear warhead. An inconvenient truth?
    Then about 5 or 6 years ago (again please excuse me if that’s not exactly right) there started launching I.C.B.M.s to overfly Japan. The S.D.F. quickly made a high profile deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries, even in central Tokyo. However, in large white lettering on the the missile launch containers were stencilled the words ‘INERT’. In other words, dummies. Not capable of being launched or knocking down any errant N.K. I.C.B.M.s. Did someone make a mistake, or was it done on purpose? Either way again nothing was said about it in the media.
    Pyongyang likes to tease in my opinion. They make a lot of noise, like any bully, but rarely come up with the goods. Military analysts say the bulk of N.K.s missiles are short-range air defence missiles, mostly huddled around the capital. But sabre-rattling suits the needs of both sides, does it not? For internal consumption Kim gets to look like the tough guy, externally the military industrial complex, and right-wing pollies get to point and shout. It’s a game, and the public are being played like a fiddle.

  • Robert Matsuda

    There is a close relation between Cyberattacks and nuclear threats. The extreme case of a cyberattack can lead to the destruction of the system of nuclear facilities. It is said that the system of nuclear weapons would be protected strongly. I hope so. How about the system of nuclear power stations? If the system of nuclear power stations receives a cyberattack,
    what would occur? We have learned from the accident of nuclear power stations in Fukushima that the disorder of nuclear reactors leads to an uncontrollable accident and the effect of the accident would be unimaginably dangerous for residents around nuclear facilities.