Not So Fast: Pyongyang’s Nuclear Weapons Ambitions

A Unha-3 rocket in launch position from North Korea's failed missile tests on April 8, 2012. Image: Voice of America

Once again, North Korea has reminded the world of its intention to develop a nuclear weapons capability. North Korea’s February 12 nuclear test is reported to have been in the six to ten kiloton (kt) range, a relatively modest yield in comparison to most nuclear weapons tests. As North Korea continues its efforts, it is important to consider the enormous difficulty that even developed states have encountered on their way to becoming members of the nuclear club.

The production of nuclear materials and their eventual weaponization, coupled with the complexities of the delivery systems, guidance sets and myriad other components makes this endeavor challenging on multiple levels. Can North Korea eventually become a nuclear power? Sure, but it won’t be easy…or cheap. Can North Korea overcome the remaining technological hurdles to operationalize a nuclear weapons capability? Does Pyongyang have the capacity and resources to maintain and operate its nuclear capability over the long term? Can we gather any insights into what its nuclear strategy might be?

North Korea has conducted two earlier nuclear tests. The first test in October 2006 produced an explosion that was less than one kt, a result that is typically smaller than most nuclear tests and an indication that it may not have been entirely successful. Pyongyang conducted a second, more successful test in May 2009 which produced an explosion that most assessments maintain was somewhere between two and seven kt.

In November 2010, North Korea revealed another dimension of its nuclear ambitions. DPRK officials showed visiting Stanford physicist Siegfried Hecker a facility that North Korean officials said contained 2,000 aluminum centrifuges for the purpose of enriching uranium. Dr. Hecker was shocked by the revelation not only for its size but also for its advanced technology. U.S. officials knew the facility was not in existence prior to April 2009 so the speed of its construction along with its sophistication indicated that North Korea likely had outside help, possibly the AQ Khan network in Pakistan. North Korean officials maintain the facility is for enriching uranium for a new experimental light-water reactor that is under construction. Though it is unclear how far this program has progressed, it provides another route for North Korea to expand its nuclear weapons capability. Reports prior to the most recent test indicated that North Korea might test using highly enriched uranium (HEU). If that is true, a successful test with HEU would be a significant step forward for its nuclear weapons program. However, the weight of uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb and its associated materials puts a premium on the lift performance of the missile—especially one that can reach intercontinental ranges.

For all of the so-called progress that North Korea may be making with manufacturing and miniaturizing a nuclear weapon, Pyongyang’s efforts to test launch a long range rocket seemed to have been stuck in first gear for a long time. The April 2012 launch attempt was nothing short of a spectacular failure, lasting a little over a minute until the rocket broke up in flight. North Korean scientists tried again in December 2012 when they launched a three-stage rocket carrying a satellite using ballistic missile technology that violated UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting these activities. This launch was far more successful than previous attempts as it appeared to place a working satellite in orbit. Subsequent reports, however, indicated the satellite was non-functional and appeared to be “tumbling in space.” As such, this “success,” the first since 1998, only slightly advances the North Koreans’ efforts toward a reliable and credible nuclear threat.

To be sure, developing a launch platform and miniaturizing the nuclear components are achievable but incredibly difficult goals even for nascent nuclear states. However, putting the whole system together in an operational package is extremely challenging. For a missile of any sort, many “consecutive miracles” need to take place for the launch to be successful. Long range, multi-stage rockets require the stages to burn properly and at precisely the right time to deliver the payload to its intended destination. Therein lies another problem for North Korea: a bona fide nuclear weapon utilizing uranium will require a significant increase in boost technology—not to mention reliability—that the North Koreans currently do not have and will not likely have for some years.

Moreover, there are other serious technical issues. All components on board must survive the violent ride and incredible amounts of shock and vibration as well as successfully reenter the earth’s atmosphere on its approach to the target. North Korea has developed a reentry vehicle (RV) for its medium range Nodong missile, but developing a long range RV is a significantly greater challenge. Once the weapon has arrived on target, it must do what it is intended to do—detonate. In addition, gathering test data on the entire system is a crucial part of the development process. North Korea likely lacks the complex instrumentation equipment required to collect data from launch to RV impact, especially for an intercontinental range ballistic missile. Gathering and analyzing this type of data is critical to account for potential technical problems.

Pulling the entire system together takes an enormous amount of technical skill to ensure the appropriate level of testing at the component level has been accomplished and the numerous interfaces between the launch platform, weapon and guidance systems are sound. Complex systems such as guidance sets, fuses, batteries, etc., are incredibly precise and, in some cases, very fickle instruments. As such, their health and status requires careful monitoring and the ability to detect faults and failures if and when they occur. Additionally, some critical components, both in the weapon itself and the launch platform, will deteriorate over time and degrade either the performance or functionality of the system. Unless there is a concerted effort to actively monitor these components and the ability to replace them as needed, the entire system becomes nothing more than a show piece—not a show of force.

While concern for North Korea’s push to become a relevant nuclear power is warranted, it is equally important to recognize the very serious technical issues that have plagued Pyongyang’s efforts to date. Building a nuclear weapon and its delivery system, and then keeping them operational for the long term is hard—even harder for those states attempting to do it under the umbrella of international sanctions and monitoring. North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile ambitions are serious concerns, but it will be a long time before Pyongyang possesses a working and reliable long range, nuclear weapons capability.

Dana Struckman is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College and a retired USAF Colonel. In the Air Force he had extensive experience in ICBM operations, testing, and acquisition in both the Peacekeeper and Minuteman III weapon systems.

Terence Roehrig is a Professor at the US Naval War College and Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group. He is also a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School in the Project on Managing the Atom.

The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense or the Navy.

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1 comment to Not So Fast: Pyongyang’s Nuclear Weapons Ambitions by Dana Struckman and Terence Roehrig