North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions

North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions opinions/north-koreas-nuclear- ambitions/2015/03/07/70059198- c1d1-11e4-ad5c-3b8ce89f1b89_ story.html

By Editorial Board March 7 at 8:07 PM

THE CARICATURE of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as a clownish figure and his nation as reckless, backwards and isolated is unhelpful in trying discern the reality of the Pyongyang regime and judge the dangers both to its own population and to those beyond its borders. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, as it is formally named, is most certainly a modern human rights disaster, as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry has exposed. And there can be no question that North Korea remains cut off from the powerful currents of economic and information globalization that have swept the globe.

But no one should ignore North Korea’s ability to make trouble. How else to explain that it was capable – if U.S. officials are correct – of executing a covert, sophisticated cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in the United States that stole truckloads of internal information and then destroyed Sony’s computers? This singular act should give pause to the rest of the world when thinking about North Korea’s quest to build ever-better nuclear weapons and missile programs. A clear-eyed view of the North’s weapons technology is essential, so that it is spotted before it becomes a surprise.

Making such an assessment is extremely difficult in a country that is hostile and closed. But a new report from Joel S. Wit and Sun Young Ahn at the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University raises the prospect that North Korea is already moving to fulfill ambitious goals of a bigger, better nuclear arsenal that could put it on par with Pakistan and Israel.

Based in part on research from David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, the report concludes that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs “have gathered significant momentum” and “these programs now appear poised to rapidly expand over the next five years.” Offering a range of scenarios from now to 2020, the authors suggest that North Korea could take an existing stockpile of 10 to 16 nuclear weapons and expand it, with a middle scenario of 50 weapons in five years and a worst-case of 100 warheads. Even the middle estimate raises the possibility that North Korea could achieve an increase in the yield of its weapons. The report also notes North Korea’s efforts to improve its delivery systems, with the appearance of road-mobile and solid-fuel missile technologies.

The technical uncertainties are many, including how much fissile material North Korea can produce, how much political effort is put behind the modernization drive, and, not in the least, whether scientists and engineers can overcome serious technical hurdles. North Korea has surprised before, as in the building of a plant to enrich uranium. However, this report ought to give the Obama administration a jolt. After the collapse of a tentative deal in 2012, the United States seems to have turned its attention elsewhere – especially to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the past is any guide, North Korea is not taking a break and may be exploiting U.S. inattention to climb to the next level.

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