The Future of U.S.-North Korea Relations
Council on Foreign Relations
February 21, 2019
LIPPERT: So I’m going to go first to Rebecca. And Rebecca, you’re the arms control, nonproliferation expert here. Can you just—to level-set everybody here—take us through kind of a brief history of the program, size and scope, threats they pose, and how you kind of think about that as the deep arms control, nonproliferation expert you are?
HERSMAN: Thank you. Thanks, Mark. And thanks for having me here, and to CFR. Let me just try to hit a few wave tops, because obviously that is a bit topic. And I think the important thing is to remember that the North Korean nuclear program has decades under its belt. Multiple leaders of the regime have invested in it. It is a core source of pride and prestige for the regime. And it—even more importantly, it is core to the perceptions of regime survival.
Now, we don’t know enough about North Korean doctrine and strategy to know a couple of important things that I would love to know more about, and that is to really understand the core purpose and orientation of their nuclear program. Do they see that program strictly defensively as a means to fend off invasion and coercion by the United States or South Korea? Or potentially, as many fear, that in fact it’s an offensively capable program to enable coercion and potentially conflict in favor of North Korean aggression? That’s kind of the core debate, because it changes how we think about the program.
Regardless, I think if in the past anyone every considered this nuclear program a bargaining chip, it really isn’t any longer. It’s a capability. Now, let’s break that down a little bit. DPRK has acquired sufficient weapons-usable material to support an arsenal of considerable size. Public estimates run between thirty and sixty weapons, probably to the higher side of that. They have two pathways to critical material. They have both a plutonium and a uranium pathway and the associated materials to develop more advanced weapons, such as tritium. Their material production has continued over this past year of summitry. And it is—as a result, the number of possible weapons continues to grow. And there’s really nothing to indicate that that is different.
They also have a quite diverse set of facilities. Of course, they have the kind of famous Yongbyon, but they have multiple other facilities—some known, some not known—that support that program. We know from observing their testing that they’ve mastered many aspects of weaponization. We don’t know for sure whether this includes sufficient, reliable miniaturization to support mating with a long-range or ICBM-range missile. I don’t know that I would rule it out, since the difference might not be that they don’t have the capability, but they might not have it at a level of reliability or certainty that we would associate with a capability.
We can document tremendous advances in their missile delivery systems. They have multiple ranges and capabilities. This has been an intense area of progress and effort over the last three to five years, and well before. There, we don’t know if they’re mastered a reliable reentry vehicle. Many suspect not. Regardless, it is important to recognize that in many ways it is the missile program on which the bigger strategic shift for North Korea rests over the last several years. I would argue more than necessarily a certain quantity of nuclear weapons. It is the combination of weapons and delivery with a more strategic range that’s critical. It is, indeed, I would argue, those missile capabilities, in fact, even more than the existence of nuclear weapons, that creates the challenge we have now of potentially decoupling between the United States, our allies, and others.
A bit more on those missile facilities. Victor and his team and Joe Bermudez have done some tremendous work looking at undeclared missile sites. I would simply argue there’s really nothing shocking about undeclared missile sites, because there’s lots of undeclared stuff period, all across their WMD programs. I actually think it’s useful to bring a spotlight to that, to remind people those things exist. We should expect to find more. We should expect to see missile garrisons in operating areas throughout the country. We should see them to varying degrees of defensive posture. We should be seeing shorter-range ones near the DMZ, more, you know, kind of developed longer ranges farther away where they’re better protected to threaten other states in the region. We should expect to see that. We should be looking for it. And they should be included in any conversation about denuclearization. They simply cannot be separated from the core program.
Just a couple of other things. Both in terms of weaponization and delivery, the pause in testing has, in my view, slowed the speed of their advance, the accelerating process that was underway. I don’t really see how it’s reduced those capabilities. And it’s also important, when we think about the absence of testing, we keep a couple things in mind. First of all, testing has gone through episodic phases, whether it’s, you know, kind of nuclear testing or missile testing, has gone through periods of intense numbers of tests and far less intense. And, you know, significant numbers of months without testing. It’s not as new as we want to think about it. And it’s also true that we really don’t understand how Kim Jong-un views risk, safety, error, and accuracy margins in many fundamental ways, including in crisis. Those are the sort of things we’re usually seeking to eliminate in testing, right? We’re trying to improve our knowledge margins, reduce margins of error. But we have very narrow tolerances. We don’t know much about what those tolerances are like in North Korea.
Two more brief things. The WMD program and the nuclear program in particular is an indigenously developed program. Yes, it has at time relied on some capabilities external, but for the most part they could complete a full pathway on indigenous capabilities. And where they need to fill pockets of capabilities, they have a prolific, extensive illicit purchasing network. And all of that remains intact. It’s not clear there’s been any degradation there. And just as a final leave, I will say we cannot forget the fact that North Korea has extensive biological weapons program and chemical weapons program. And while it may not be necessarily on the front-burner for any of these denuclearization discussions, when you talk about the risk that North Korea poses to its neighbors in the region, it is important not to just dismiss those capabilities.