North Korea Capabilities Update II: Tests, Weaponization and Doctrine

May 6, 2016 7:00 AM

In considering the prospects for negotiations, the outcome of sanctions, and the run up to the 7th Party Congress, we thought it worthwhile to review in some detail North Korea’s WMD capabilities. In a previous post, I reviewed evidence with respect to the nuclear fuel cycle and North Korea’s march toward production of fissile material; here we take up issues of weaponization and doctrine.

First, a brief note on the nuclear test site itself. In the division of labor which has emerged in the open-source literature, Jack Liu and Joseph Bermudez have taken the lead in analyzing satellite imagery of North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri; all of their posts can be found here. But only one thing needs to be reported: “that the January 2016 nuclear test demonstrated that North Korea has the ability to slow-roll test preparations relatively unnoticed and is able to conduct a new test with little or no warning.” Watching vehicle traffic at the site and signs of tunneling may or may not tell us a fifth test is coming, and we will probably do just as well to listen to what the leadership is actually saying in this regard.  

The next major question is whether these devices can be mounted on a missile—and of what range (we take that up in the next post)—and what the North Koreans plan to do with them; what is their nuclear doctrine? On the first question, we still don’t have anything better than Jeffrey Lewis’ post on 38North from over a year ago on "the great miniaturization debate.” As he notes, the answer to the question hinges on three things, only one of which has to do with the weapon itself:

  1. Can North Korea make a nuclear weapon small enough?
  2. Can North Korea’s compact nuclear weapon survive the shock, vibration and temperature change associated with ballistic missile flight?
  3. Can North Korea construct a “reentry vehicle” that can survive the extreme heat of reentry, a problem that gets worse with range?

Lewis’ answer to these questions is “yeah, probably” and following pictures of Kim Jong Un standing in front of a purported device—which could have been a mock-up—the intelligence community signed on with a "yeah, probably" as well. However, much depends on missile capabilities which I take up in the next post.

The final mystery is what the country’s actual nuclear doctrine is, and the news in this regard is both good and bad.  In a useful summary for the Belfer Center in 2013, Terence Roehrig outlines the logic of a minimal deterrent. On the one hand, the lack of accuracy means that North Korean boasts about targeting cities and American assets in the region are not completely irrational; as I argued in an earlier post, a close reading of the North Korean rhetoric suggested that boasts were typically linked to defensive objectives and concerns about American pre-emption during the exercises. This would suggest an understanding and acceptance of a mutual-assured destruction (MAD) logic, which doesn't make the US happy.

But unlike the situation with the China and Russia, this does not necessarily imply strategic stability (and questions are also now being raised on that score with those two countries as well). As I will argue in my next post on missiles, North Korea is clearly concerned not only about the range of its missile forces but their survivability. In this interim, there is always the risk that fear of pre-emption by the US would generate hair-trigger circumstances that are not desirable. An excellent series of papers that have sought to game out these strategic issues is the North Korean Nuclear Futures Project, which led off with a paper by Joel Wit and Sun Young Ahn laying out the terrain.    

It is worth noting one final possibility with respect to nuclear forces that has been raised in a provocative piece by Van Jackson, also at 38North and at The Diplomat: that perhaps the North Koreans are thinking in terms of tactical rather than strategic nuclear weapons.  This question takes us far beyond our purposes here, which is to simply survey capabilities. But as Kier Lieber and Daryl Press and Viping Narang argue in separate contributions, such capabilities severely complicate the US effort to maintain extended deterrence primarily through conventional means and any war-fighting in the low-probability event that it were to occur.

Next time: missiles.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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