North Korea Makes Progress on NW Miniaturization (UPDATED)

This report from the South Korean news outlet Chosunilbo:

The Defense Ministry here claimed Wednesday that the North appears to have improved its capacity to miniaturize nuclear warheads so they can be fitted on to missiles.

The nuclear payload needs to be reduced to less than 1,000 kg and the diameter to less than 90 cm to fit on a missile.

The ministry based its claim on assessment from South Korean and U.S. intelligence services.

“The North has reduced the nuclear payload to about 1,500 kg, but not less than 1,000 kg, which means that its nuclear weapons aren’t warfare-ready yet,” a ministry spokesman said. “But we presume that the North’s three previous nuclear tests have enabled it to improve technology to increase nuclear yield and make the payload smaller.”

Technical people can chime in about whether the measurements and numbers are accurate. But if this is accurate, it is alarming and troubling. I’ve written many times on this site about how I think the threat the US (as well of course as the threat to South Korea and Japan) faces from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and general nuttiness, far outstrips whatever potential threat the US may one day possibly face if Iran maybe possibly produces a nuclear weapon.

But in terms of general concern by the US government, and “doing something” about the North Korean nuclear threat, I don’t see a whole lot happening. Certainly there’s less attention being paid to it by the US administration and by Congress than is paid to the Iran issue. I think this is a seriously misplaced emphasis, and I hope we don’t pay a price for it.

As I said in a piece last year:

I often criticize US officials when they say that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Of course, in the case of NK we are way beyond that point now. NK has nuclear weapons, we know that. And we know they have long range missiles capable, or nearly capable, of reaching the US. It is only a matter of time before they progress development of both, and put the two together to have a weapon capable of striking both Japan and the US.  Also unlike the Iranian case, I have no confidence – zero – in the rationality and prudence of decisionmaking by NK officials. I think they are incredibly unpredictable, and are just genuinely nuts. This regime possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking Japan or the US is, in my opinion, absolutely unacceptable.

What do I mean by that? I’m still trying to think it through. I know what an ugly mess it would be to actually engage in military force against North Korea to forcibly disarm it of its nuclear weapons stockpile, and stop its development programs. I know the proximity of Seoul, and the presence of thousands of US troops around the DMZ. My uncle and his family live in Seoul. So it’s not something that I would want done unless absolutely necessary. I’m not a military planner, so I don’t know exactly how it would all work out. But I’m sure there are no good options for such a campaign.

But on the other hand, I do not want to live in a world in which North Korea has nuclear weapons deliverable at its psychotic whim against the US. Again, this isn’t Iraq 2003. This isn’t Iran 2013. This is a country that we know has nuclear weapons, and that we know is closing in on the capacity to deliver them against the US. And the rhetoric, whether to be believed 100% or not, is just not something I think we can ignore.

Where, then, is the “red line” here? Where is the point at which it will be necessary for the US and South Korea to take the extreme step of preemptively attacking North Korea? I don’t know, but I think it’s coming soon.  And if/when it does, I think it will be both legal under international law, and morally justifiable. I agree with Julian Ku’s legal analysis generally, and while of course the principles of the jus in bello would have to additionally be met (most importantly proportionality and discrimination), I think North Korea presents the strongest case we have ever seen for the satisfaction of the Caroline criteria for anticipatory self-defense in the jus ad bellum. In this case I unfortunately see few other realistic options.


UPDATE: Friend of ACL and actual nuclear weapons expert Bob Kelley wrote a piece in Jane’s a few months ago that takes a different view of the NK miniaturization issue, and importantly sounds a note of caution about exaggerating claims on the basis of few known facts concerning the NK NW program. I’ll attach his article below. I’ll defer to Bob’s technical assessment any day.

Bob Kelley on NK NW Miniaturization



3 Comments on “North Korea Makes Progress on NW Miniaturization (UPDATED)”

  1. Don Bacon says:

    The default position of US policy with any foreign policy challenge is usually to use force. North Korea’s cities were completely destroyed by US aerial bombing in 1950 and in the decades since then the US, in violation of the 1954 Armistice has maintained forces in Korea and has continually provoked North Korea (DPRK). So of course DPRK, especially recently seeing what happened in Gaddafi’s Libya, continues to go for the nuclear option.

    Meanwhile Korea, even after sixty years, is the gift that keeps on giving to the Pentagon. SecDef Panetta even said it was the reason for the US “pivot” to Asia-Pacific. Air bases only one air-hour from Shanghai and Beijing — the US doesn’t to give them up. So the war goes on, with provocative military ‘war games.’

    Military force is not the answer. Diplomacy is. But the US is incapable of it. As in Iran, the benefits of belligerency are manifold, the potential benefits of peace and accommodation few.

    • FlamesInTheDesert says:

      I think we`ve all had enough of “preventative wars”,the results have usually been very messy to say the least

  2. Leonard van Willenswaard says:

    I think Don Bacon is absolutely right. If perceived nuttiness and psychopathy – which just may boil down to not understanding the other party’s motives and logic – woulkd become a legal basis for armed conflict, the future holds very little hope for humanity.

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