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Interview with The Hankyoreh (Seoul)

Arms Control NOW

Hankyoreh: North Korea its 5th nuclear test at the eight months after 4th nuclear test on January. It was regarded as very unusual beacause North Korea conducted nuclear test at intervals of two or three years so far. What do you think is its implication in terms of technology?

Daryl Kimball: The cumulative knowledge of the five nuclear test explosions since 2006, and the dozens of ballistic missile tests, especially in the last 12 months, has provided the DPRK’s technical and military teams greater confidence that they can deploy warheads on their short and medium-range ballistic missiles. If they have not reached that capability today, they certainly could do so relatively soon with additional successful nuclear test explosions and ballistic missile tests.

As Seoul and Washington have insisted that Pyongyang recommit to full denuclearization before resuming talks, continued to conduct joint military exercises, and tried to put in place tougher sanctions, the DPRK has accelerated the pace of its testing. But a sanctions-only approach has proven to be inadequate—and maintaining the same policy is a recipe for failure. Time is on the side of the regime in Pyonyang.

It is essential that the Republic of Korea, the United States, and our allies focus on re-engaging Pyonyang in renewed talks with the near term objective of freezing further nuclear testing and long-range ballistic missile testing, If we can put a stop to further DPRK advances of its capabilities, including the development of reliable, solid-fueled missiles, we may buy some time for a longer-term solution that reduces the dangers that these weapons pose. 

Hankyoreh:  The North Korea claimed through its state media that the country has been able to “standardize” its nuclear warhead so it can be put atop a ballistic missile. Do you think it is really trustable? If it is near certainty, what’s the danger of standardization of nuclear weapon?

DK:  It is prudent to assume that the DPRK’s claims are correct: that that they have developed a compact, powerful nuclear bomb that can be launched by one of their operation ballistic missiles types. I think we should interpret their claim of being able to “standardize” their warhead to mean that they may soon begin to manufacture this design in greater numbers and possibly deploy the warhead on operational ballisic missiles — probably the Scud-type (Hwasong) short-range missiles, or possibly their No-Dong (medium-range, 1,300km) medium-range missiles. How soon and how many is not clear.

North Korea is still many years away from acquiring a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that can reach the continental United States. Achieving that capability is technically challenging and would require, perhaps an even more compact and lighter nuclear bomb design, and multiple, successful tests of long-range ballistic missiles and re-entry vehicles that are necessary to bring the nuclear payload back to earth and on a target.

Hankyoreh: The yield of this test was higher than any nuclear tests North Korea conducted so far, estimated at least 10 kilotons. When we consider both standardization and highest yield, can we think that North Korea achieved the minimalization of nuclear weapons and is on the verge of direct threat to United States?

DK:  The fifth test DPRK test was their most powerful to date. The revised estimate from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's is that the seismic tremor produced by the Sept. 9 nuclear detonation was magnitude 5.1, which suggests that a yield of as large as 15 kilotons TNT equivalent, which is roughly the size of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Hankyoreh: Broadly speaking, how do you think this new development of nucear capability of North Korea affects the security environment in Northeast Asia in both near term ans long term?

DK:  North Korea has developed a basic capability to strike targets in Northeast Asia with nuclear weapons and may now be preparing to try to operationalize that capability. This has negative implications for South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States, but there is still a narrow window of opportunity to head-off that threat.

Hankyoreh:  And relating to that, South Korea’s some conservative media and ruling party leaders have supported for a domestic nuclear program. How do you think the United States should view the prospect of a nuclear South Korea?

DK:  It would be utterly foolish and counterproductive for South Korea to pursue its own nuclear weapons program and if it did, it would be strongly and successfully opposed by the United States and the entire international community. U.S. and South Korean conventional forces, and U.S. strategic nuclear forces, have effectively deterred serious North Korean aggression for decades. The Republic of Korea has ironclad assurances from the United States that our superior conventional forces, and if necessary nuclear forces, would be used to respond with overwhelming force to any serious North Korean aggression against the South, including any North Korean first use of nuclear weapons.

The development of an indigenous South Korean nuclear force would be very costly, would accelerate and provide justification for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and would sharply increase the grave risk of miscalculation and a nuclear war that would utterly destroy both North and South Korea. The pursuit of a South Korean nuclear arsenal would also have negative political and economic consequences for South Korea and its economy. Asia would be safer with fewer nuclear-armed states and fewer nuclear weapons, not more.

Those in South Korea who are proposing such a course of action need to explain exactly how and why they think this would improve and not worsen an already dangerous situation.

Hankyoreh:  South Korea and United States government have urged China to press the North korea for abandoning nuclear program. Do you think that beyond the language in the recent set of sanctions that China has agreed to, how much practical effect do you think that sanctions have worked? In other words, China sincely cooperated with South Korea and United States’ demand?

DK:  China has not fully implemented the existing internationally-mandated sanctions against the DPRK. China is simply unwilling and to some extent is unable to completely cut-off all trade—on the open market and on the black-market—with North Korea.Pyongyang has been able to evade the existing sanctions due to the fact that there are several countries in Asia that are simply not capable of enforcing the restrictions on financial and economic transactions with the North.

Hankyoreh:  If it hasn’t worked, what do you think are main reason? Relatiing to that, What would you say are China‘s main long and short term goals and interests on the Korean Peninsula, particularly in non-proliferation?

DK:  North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is an insult to the leadership in Beijing, which has shown it is not yet ready to take the North Korean nuclear threat seriously enough.

Hankyoreh:  South Korea government said yesterday that If there is any sign of the use of nuclear weapons from North Korea, it will make a ”preemptive strike” against the North‘s leadership in close cooperation with the United States. Do you think it is possoble to ”preemptive strike” aginst North Korea in the aspect of military?

DK:  The plan announced by the government of the Republic of Korea ('Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation’)to pre-emptively strike North Korean nuclear command and control targets with missiles armed with conventional high-explosives is very, very risky. This approach requires exquisitely precise intelligence about North Korean plans and intentions and all relevant North Korean nuclear-related sites, which is extremely hard to achieve.It increases the risk of miscalculation and disaster.

Furthermore, just like South Korea, North Korea posseses hundreds, if not thousands of rockets with conventional explosives that can hit populated areas along the DMZ.The only way to“win” and avoid all-out conflict is not to play "the game."

Hankyoreh:  How much do you think that military responses such as extended deterrence, missile defense system could fuction as a deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear program?

DK:  The combined conventional forces of the United States and South Korea have and can continue to function effectively to deter serious aggression from the DPRK. If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, the United States can and will use some of its strategic nuclear forces in retaliation. Theater missile defense systems, such as THAAD and the SM-3 missile that can be carried on Aegis destroyer ships, can hit some but not all of the DPRK missiles. The problem on the Korean peninsula, however, is that the distances between the adversaries are very small, missile defense systems are not a reliable or effective means to counter offensive missile systems.

Hankyoreh:  South Korea and U.S. government have tried to increase pressure to North Korea by imposing sanctions. But, the capability of North Korea’s nuclear program is getting enhanced. Why do you think the sanctions regime in North Korea have not worked comparing to Iran?

DK:  Iran, unlike North Korea, depends on economic activity with the outside world. The financial, trade, and oil sanctions that were imposed on Iran simply cannot be applied to North Korea with the same effect.

Hankyoreh:  Do you think that we have to step up sanctions or have to explore another optoins like diplomatic negotiation, or both all?

DK:  Negotiating with North Korea is difficult, it is unpleasant, it provides no guarantee of success. But the current policy of“strategic patience” has failed. It is irresponsible for any government leader to simply follow the same failed policy year after year. The long history of nuclear and missile diplomacy with North Korea shows that when the United States and or other countries engage with diplomats from Pyongyang, the DPRK is willing to slow or halt its nuclear and missile provocations.

The next U.S. presidential administration must renew efforts to productively engage North Korea in a diplomatic dialogue with the goal of freezing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing. Such a freeze would buy time to seek a more robust arrangement to roll back its capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief and other inducements.Failure to achieve such a result will allow North Korea to continue to develop and deploy missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads that can reach targets throughout Northeast Asia.