North Korea just heralded the 68th anniversary of its founding by conducting its fifth nuclear test. The initial seismic recordings were larger than previously recorded activity. This, coupled with other indicators, suggests that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability is accelerating.
This year alone, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, and a number of ballistic missile launches. U.S. concerns are mounting over Pyongyang’s simultaneous missile launchings, its use of mobile missile launchers, its emerging submarine launching capabilities, and its on-going production of plutonium and enriched uranium. North Korea has even claimed that it has successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads.
Washington must consider the following as it crafts sensible policies to address this challenge:
First, it is important to not underestimate the skills and know-how of North Korean scientists and technicians. They have different standards for safety, security, and reliability, but they are committed to advancing Pyongyang’s nuclear program. When the IAEA was expelled from North Korea between December 2002 and July 2007, the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon was not only used to separate plutonium, it was also substantially modernized. This included the introduction of mechanical de-cladding of the spent fuel, installation of pulse columns for plutonium and uranium extraction, and the construction of a line to convert plutonium oxide to plutonium metal. All of this required extensive experimentation and engineering before installation.
Second, Washington must determine whether North Korea has mastered miniaturization of a nuclear warhead. This has never been independently verified, and some experts have cast doubt on the claims. Nevertheless, after a series of tests and evidence of increased inventories of plutonium and perhaps highly enriched uranium, North Korea appears closer to its stated goal. Indeed, the Institute of Science and International Security’s report estimated in June 2016 that North Korea may have enough fissile material for 13 to 21 nuclear weapons or even more, if there is (as suspected) an additional undisclosed uranium enrichment plant.
Third, the increased variety of delivery systems North Korea has under development adds to concerns about the regime’s use of nuclear warheads. The DPRK’s claims that the “standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.” This cannot not be summarily dismissed.
Finally, numerous UN Security Council resolutions, presidential, and other statements have failed to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. The regime is already heavily sanctioned, and China is unlikely to substantially increase pressure on North Korea, fearing a possible collapse. New approaches are required to halt further development on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and to eventually reach an agreement on the dismantlement of those capabilities.
How to proceed? Some scholars have recently suggested an approach that is similar to the one concluded between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015. Such an approach is not feasible. Proper verification, in particular for North Korea’s weapon’s program, would need to go well beyond the narrow approach used to address the so-called Possible Military Dimension of Iran’s nuclear program.
Moreover, the possibility that North Korea has likely advanced in the miniaturization of its warhead requires modifications to the IAEA’s verification objectives. The IAEA currently considers 8 kilograms of plutonium as a significant quantity (SQ) of concern – namely the minimum quantity of nuclear material required for the manufacture of nuclear explosive devices. Instead, 2 to 4 kilograms of plutonium is more in line for North Korea, given its nuclear strides and success in miniaturization. Similarly, the goal quantity for highly enriched uranium has to be adjusted down from the current level of 25 kilograms of isotope U-235 to 15 kilograms.
Verifiable dismantlement of all aspects of the DPRK’s plutonium and uranium weapons program is crucial. Key elements of that program should be dismantled irreversibly as an early step; the lack of which was a major shortcoming of the Agreed Framework and subsequent 2007 Monitoring Agreement.
North Korea has no need for enrichment and reprocessing. Therefore, denuclearization must be enforced.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.