North Korean Capabilities Remain Unclear

Paul Kerr

As six-party talks designed to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis have stagnated, concerns have increased that Pyongyang is bolstering its nuclear weapons capabilities. Some intelligence analysts have detected signs that Pyongyang may be preparing for a nuclear test, producing additional fissile material, and augmenting its nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. However, the evidence regarding both North Korea’s actions and future intentions remains unclear.

Nuclear Test Preparations
U.S. officials have continued to voice concerns that North Korea may conduct its first nuclear weapons test. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told CNN May 15 that Washington has seen North Korean “activity that is consistent with possible preparations for a nuclear test” but added that “[w]e don’t know for sure.”

Hadley also said that “action would have to be taken” in the event of such a test, but did not elaborate.

U.S. officials have previously told Arms Control Today that fears that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test are driven more by the country’s recent provocative statements, such as its March claim to be a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state,” rather than by any new intelligence. (See ACT, May 2005.)

This apparently remains the case. A congressional source familiar with the matter told Arms Control Today May 19 that North Korea has a “theoretical capability” to test a nuclear weapon, but added that the relevant U.S. intelligence continues to be ambiguous. A North Korean decision to conduct such a test would be “political” rather than “technical,” the source said.

Although Hadley said that the United States has shared its information with “our allies in the six-party talks,” some appear to dispute the value of the intelligence.

For example, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lee Kyu-hyung stated that “there is not any evidence” that Pyongyang is preparing to test, The New York Times reported May 17.

The head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Ko Young-koo, cast additional doubt on the intelligence. During a May 13 meeting with South Korean lawmakers, Ko dismissed reports that North Korea is digging a tunnel and building a viewing stand in preparation for a nuclear test, the semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported.

China, Japan, and Russia are also part of the six-party process.

More North Korean Plutonium?
Meanwhile, North Korea claims to have taken steps that could allow it to obtain additional plutonium. Its foreign ministry announced May 11 that the country has “successfully finished the unloading of 8,000 spent fuel rods” from its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Pyongyang had announced in April that it had shut down the reactor.

About two months after the recent nuclear crisis began in October 2002, North Korea announced that it was restarting the reactor, which, along with North Korea’s reprocessing facility and approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods, had been frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. North Korea subsequently claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel, which had been monitored by UN inspectors and is estimated to contain sufficient plutonium for several nuclear weapons.

If North Korea’s current claims are true, Pyongyang’s actions would allow it to bolster its plutonium stockpile. U.S. intelligence assesses that North Korea has produced one or two nuclear weapons using plutonium produced prior to the 1994 Agreement. (See ACT, March 2005.)

A North Korean Nuclear Warhead?
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby made headlines April 28 when he suggested during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that North Korea may be able to attach a nuclear warhead to an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. This was the first time that a U.S. intelligence official has made such a statement.

Asked by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) whether the agency assesses that “North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device,” Jacoby replied that “they have the capability to do that.”

His remarks contradicted Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Thomas Fingar’s February 2005 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Fingar told the committee that there is “no evidence” that North Korea has either produced nuclear weapons or “mated them to a missile capable of delivering them to the United States.”

Yet, whether Jacoby’s statement was based on a different assessment within the intelligence community or was in error is not clear. Speaking to reporters April 29, Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence Di Rita said that Jacoby was “not offering a new assessment,” but would not say whether Jacoby misspoke, adding that “his words were what his words were.” Asked whether North Korea can attach a warhead to a missile, Di Rita replied, “I don’t believe we know that.”

The congressional source said that there are no new community-wide intelligence assessments of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

According to a DIA statement issued after Jacoby testified, the admiral was “reiterating” testimony given to the committee in March. At that time, Jacoby testified that North Korea’s Taepo Dong-2 missile “could deliver a nuclear warhead to parts of the United States in a two-stage variant and target all of North America with a three-stage variant.” CIA director Porter Goss testified at the same hearing that the missile “is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear-weapon-sized payload.” (See ACT, April 2005.)

North Korea, however, has never conducted an explosive test of a nuclear device, a step widely regarded as necessary for developing a reliable, ICBM-deliverable nuclear warhead. According to an August 2003 CIA report, North Korea has “validated” designs for “simple fission” nuclear weapons without conducting explosive tests. But a 1996 Department of Defense report describes a “simple fission weapon” as one that “could be delivered by aircraft or tactical missiles,” rather than an ICBM.

In interviews with Arms Control Today, two intelligence officials, as well as the congressional source, cautioned that North Korea may still decide to attach an untested warhead to a missile.

Additionally, past intelligence reports may call into question Pyongyang’s ability to produce a nuclear warhead for an ICBM. According to a 1999 DIA report, North Korea will not be able to develop a nuclear warhead lighter than 650-750 kilograms in the “near term.” The Taepo Dong-2 “could deliver a 650-kilogram warhead to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest, or a much lighter warhead to most of the United States,” the report says.

A 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is less specific, stating that the Taepo Dong-2 “could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload,” which is “sufficient” for an early generation nuclear weapon.

The 2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong- 1 is the longest-range missile North Korea has flight-tested. As configured, that missile cannot reach the United States. The longest-range missile North Korea has deployed is the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong, according to a 2001 NIE. North Korea has never flight tested the Taepo Dong-2.