Joel Wit

Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction

BCAS, December 2003

Dr. Joel Wit
Senior Fellow, International Security Programme
Centre for International and Strategic Studies
1800 K Street NW, Washington D.C. 20006
Email: jwit@csis.org

4th Europe-Northeast Asia Forum -
The Future of Korea and Northeast Asia,
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Dec. 11-13, 2003


Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Introduction

Would like to focus on a few topics briefly related to North Korea's nuclear program and current state of the crisis over that program. I will briefly look at; 1) the status of our knowledge about that program; 2) the status of the Bush Administration's approach in dealing with North Korea and, 3) where we might be headed in the future.

Status of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program

I just spent three weeks in Asia and was constantly bombarded with questions about the North's nuclear program as well as erroneous technical judgments.

Guess there is no reason why I should have a corner on the market concerning Pyongyang's program. I think I can give you an informed, balanced view on where it stands today. But an important caveat is our level uncertainty today is much greater than it has been in the past decade. I will touch on that issue in a moment.

I am not a bomb designer but worked on these technical issues from 1993-2000 in the US government. Moreover, since then, I have done a great deal of work on technical issues related to Pyongyang's program, including a number of projects with third country bomb designers. These individuals are proliferants who have had to build nuclear weapons in spite of the views of the outside world.

Let me try to answer briefly some of the key questions that I was constantly bombarded with in Asia.

First, there is the age old question, does North Korea have nuclear weapons? The judgment of the US intelligence community in 1993 was that "there was a better than even chance that North Korea had one or two nuclear weapons." That reflected fairly good information that it had enough plutonium for one or two weapons and not so good knowledge about whether it could build a bomb.

Doubt whether our intelligence today is any better on North Korean bomb-making. But the key point here is that North Korea has been at work on this for at least two decades if not more. That is more than enough time to accomplish the task unless they are totally incompetent.

Some would argue that North Korea needs to conduct a nuclear test to build a bomb and it has not done that yet. THIS IS WRONG. The fact is that through computer simulations and other high explosive tests, it is perfectly feasible to build a weapon without a nuclear test. This is the unanimous judgment of bomb-builders I have talked to.

Second, can North Korea deploy nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles? The judgment that it would only be able to build a crude device that could not go on top of a missile is also wrong. Some argue that a nuclear test would be necessary to "miniaturize" the warhead sufficient to place it on top of a missile.

That would be true if North Korea wanted to deploy a nuclear warhead on an ICBM or if it were building multiple warhead missiles. But placing a nuclear warhead on top of its shorter range missiles, such as the Nodong, is entirely feasible without such a test.

Hasten to add that we probably have no information on this either. Just a statement of technical feasibility.

Third, how many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? This question is directly related to how much material has Pyongyang produced and, most importantly, whether it is reprocessing the 8,000 fuel rods unloaded from its 5 MW reactor.

The answer here, quite frankly, is no one seems to know. The North Korean claim they have reprocessed all 8,000 rods. If that is true, it represents a total failure of US intelligence. Alternatively, they may have only reprocessed some rods, evading detection. Or they may have a secret, hidden facility.

A last important question is the status of North Korea's uranium enrichment program or how close is it to producing HEU? Once again, I believe the answer is no one really knows. I personally believe they have a program but whether that means they are building a production facility or not my hunch is no one really knows for sure.

Given everything I just said, you would be justified in thinking that we know very little about exact developments in North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Anyone who says other wise is not telling the truth.

Moreover, I would argue that our margin of uncertainty is greater now than at anytime since 1994, courtesy of the Bush Administration's misguided handling of the current crisis.

By that I mean we have totally lost our handle on the 8,000 North Korean fuel rods containing enough plutonium for about 5 nuclear weapons. We don't know where they are or whether the rods have been reprocessed. And that will be true for any subsequent fuel rods irradiated in the North's reactors.

I believe this represents one significant failure of the Administration that will only complicate reaching any diplomatic solution to the current crisis. The idea of a "freeze" on the North's nuclear program now becomes infinitely more complicated, particularly if those rods have been reprocessed and/or moved.

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