"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Intelligence Agencies Clarify North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities

Paul Kerr

As U.S. diplomats move closer to restarting talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, intelligence analyses recently made public shed new light on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and political stability. In unclassified responses provided to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this year and made public by the Federation of American Scientists Oct. 31, intelligence officials say North Korea has attained a nuclear weapons capability without conducting a nuclear test. They also portray the Kim Jong Il regime as more stable than some Bush administration officials have indicated.

The CIA response, dated Aug. 18, said that “North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests.” Noting “press reports” that North Korea has conducted tests with conventional high explosives, the report added that such tests allow the North Koreans to verify their weapons designs. “There is no information to suggest that North Korea has conducted a successful nuclear test to date,” the CIA stated.

The CIA also observed that “conducting a nuclear test would be one option” for North Korea “to further escalate tensions and heighten regional fears in a bid to press Washington to negotiate” on Pyongyang’s terms. The report, however, added that North Korea “appears to view ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities as providing a tactical advantage,” noting that a nuclear weapons test could produce “an international backlash and further isolation.”

On the question of a suspected North Korean nuclear arsenal, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) response, dated June 30, stated that “North Korea has produced one, possibly two nuclear weapons.” Although a 2001 National Intelligence Estimate says the intelligence community reached the same conclusion in the mid-1990s, the intelligence community’s assessment of this question has at times varied. For example, a January 2003 CIA report to Congress stated that “North Korea probably has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.”

North Korea has said it possesses nuclear weapons and has issued apparent threats to test them. (See ACT, November 2003.) Pyongyang’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ri Yong Ho, told Reuters Nov. 7 that his country possesses a workable nuclear device.

Two intelligence agencies also addressed the question of North Korea’s stability. The Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research stated in its April 30 response that it does not “perceive [North Korea’s] collapse as imminent.” Similarly, the DIA asserted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s “hold on power appears secure” and that the regime showed no indications of collapse from a declining economy.

Such assessments stand in contrast to Bush administration officials who have expressed the belief that economic pressure will induce Pyongyang to comply with administration demands that it dismantle its nuclear programs. For example, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued in May that North Korea “is teetering on the edge of economic collapse” and that this weakness “is a major point of leverage” for the United States and its allies.