Blast Off

How Scared Should You Be About North Korea?

Pretty freaking scared, according to some experts. Then again, the question of whether North Korea can ‘miniaturize’ a nuclear weapon remains eerily unanswered. Eli Lake reports.

Xinhua/KCNA via Newscom

North Korea has tested a nuclear device underground three times since 2006. But that doesn’t mean it can launch an actual nuclear missile. This would require, among other things, the ability to miniaturize the components that cause a nuclear explosion so that they can fit inside a warhead, which then rests atop a missile. This is no easy feat—and the United States intelligence community is divided on the question of whether North Korea is at the point of pulling it off.

With Kim Jong-un threatening this week to test a new intermediate-range missile known as the Musudan, the U.S. and others will be watching the test carefully for clues about North Korea’s progress in designing a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Earlier this month, North Korea moved its Musudan missiles to its east coast. South Korean officials have said they expect a test of the missile to come any day now. The U.S. military has said it is confident that its missile defense systems can intercept North Korean missiles.

Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea’s military at the RAND Corporation, said in an interview that the Musudan is based on the Soviet Union’s SS-N-6 missile, an intermediate-range missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. The Musudan has a range between 1,550 and 2,500 miles, according to Jane’s Defense & Security News.

Bennett says he doesn’t know whether North Korea could place a nuclear warhead on a missile, but that South Korean defense experts think it’s possible. “Many of my South Korean colleagues argue they can put a warhead on a missile and may have done so already,” Bennett says. “I don’t know for sure, but my guessing based on what my South Korean colleagues are telling me is that they can.”

Inside the U.S. intelligence community, the issue of North Korea’s progress is hotly debated. One problem is that while U.S. spy satellites can monitor the country from overhead, most of North Korea’s nuclear work is done underground. North Korea is so closed off that the CIA has also had trouble recruiting high-level spies inside the country.

One piece of evidence to support the view that North Korea can produce a nuclear warhead comes from A.Q. Khan, the man considered to be the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. In correspondences with a former British journalist, Simon Henderson, first disclosed by The Washington Post in 2009, Khan said that during a visit to a North Korean nuclear facility in 1999, he was shown boxes of components for three finished nuclear warheads that could be assembled within an hour.

Henderson, now an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “Khan holds the abilities of North Korean scientists and engineers in high regard. Although lacking the best technical equipment, they are well trained and determined. I fear Khan was telling the truth about what he saw in North Korea in 1999.”

Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists, said he saw no “definitive evidence” that North Korea had developed the technology to miniaturize the components for a nuclear explosion. Ferguson said that to date the North Koreans have also not developed a missile capable of reentering earth’s atmosphere from space, something needed for multistaged long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S.

North Korea’s weapon design work would also change the estimate for when Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. President Obama last month in Israel said Iran would need a year to develop a weapon after a successful nuclear test. But that estimate could change dramatically if North Korea, an ally of Iran, has already mastered the technology. North Korea has already shared advanced missile technology with Iran, according to a February 2010 diplomatic cable disclosed the same year by WikiLeaks.

“We know that the North Koreans have shared missile technology with the Iranians,” Henderson said. “In light of evidence to the contrary, it would be irresponsible not to assume they have also shared nuclear-weapons technology and possibly centrifuge technology with Iran.”

Ferguson was more skeptical. “On the nuclear-warhead front, I am not aware of significant evidence there has been cooperation between the two countries, but I cannot rule it out either,” he said.