North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal: The Political Significance of the Chinese Assessments



Last week, I reviewed two new complementary reports from SAIS on North Korea’s nuclear program (by David Albright here) and on the missile program (by  John Schilling and Henry Kan here). The bottom line: the nuclear program is chugging along and, while there are more constraints on the missile program, the US intelligence community and military, at least, have reached the conclusion that KN-08’s have been deployed and can carry a nuclear warhead. CSIS has a useful summary of the January South Korean Defense White Paper, which reaches broadly similar conclusions.

Now we have Chinese assessments, and if anything they are more alarmist. The story was broken by Jeremy Page and Jay Solomon at the Wall Street Journal. The information comes from a meeting hosted in February by the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s think tank. The account suggests a high-level Chinese delegation that included not only technical experts but military representatives as well. Sig Hecker from Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation headed the US delegation; his early 2013 assessment of the program is worth reading as a baseline. It was Hecker’s 2010 visit to Yongbyon that suggested a much more sophisticated HEU effort than had been known, including a high likelihood of a second site.

The bottom line from the meeting: the Chinese now put the path of North Korea’s weapons and fissile material production between the SAIS mid- and high-range estimates: 20 weapons now and the ability to double that annually. This slightly exceeds the higher end of official estimates of the existing arsenal (16 or so weapons), but greatly exceeds what was thought capable with respect to HEU output. More evidence of the departure from past assessments: Hecker reveals that he has been attending such meetings annually and was clearly surprised; see his 2013 notes above.

What has largely been missed in this story were not only the international political implications but what they say about developments within North Korea itself. This meeting—with revelations of this significance—might appear designed to focus US attention on restarting the Six Party Talks. But the diplomacy over the last three or four months has already narrowed Five Party differences on this score. Fatigue has even hit China with respect to what Bruce Klingner at Heritage calls North Korea’s “conditional unconditional” offers of engagement in a typically cogent review. The reaction might in fact be quite different (Yonhap coverage of US reactions here). If some in Congress think more sanctions are appropriate to get Iran to yield more, what will it mean for pending sanctions legislation with respect to the DPRK?

But the second, and even more significant question is: “who is really in charge in Pyongyang?” Some interpreted the byungjin line—simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons—as a step forward because it at least acknowledged the imperative of economic growth as opposed to songun or military-first politics alone. But this is increasingly dubious. Klingner’s review simply cites the numerous occasions on which North Korea has said that its weapons program is not for sale, that it has no intention of negotiating on the issue and that all previous agreements reached—the North-South denuclearization agreement, the armistice, the 2005 Joint Statement—are null and void. When we say repeatedly that “Kim Jong Un” has consolidated power, we don't mean that he personally pulls all strings: we mean that he sits atop a distinctive coalition that has prevailed. That coalition appears to be increasingly dominated by the military. Put most bluntly, has North Korea become in effect a military dictatorship?

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