ICAS Special Contribution


When North Korea Mounts Nuclear Warheads on Its Missiles

Larry Niksch

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry Niksch

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution of this paper
with written permission to ICAS of Larry Niksch. sjk]

When North Korea Mounts Nuclear Warheads on Its Missiles

Larry Niksch 1

Published by the Institute of National Security Strategy, Seoul, Korea, December 30, 2011

Diplomacy toward North Korea has begun a new cycle of talks and meetings aimed at resuming the six party nuclear negotiations that have proceeded sporadically since 2003. The actual prospects for renewed talks are uncertain for a number of reasons, including different pre-conditions laid down by North Korea and the United States and South Korea. Still, there is pressure to resume negotiations, particularly a view held in the U.S. State Department that a resumption of negotiations will lessen the possibility that North Korea would resort to more singular military provocations against South Korea as it did twice in 2010. China, too, continues to pressure the United States to agree to negotiations. Thus, nuclear talks could start again by the end of 2011 or sooner.

Renewed negotiations will spawn optimistic statements from media organs and from some North Korea experts in South Korea and the United States. Even these, however, likely will avoid predictions that the negotiations will produce an agreement or agreements that would set forth a path toward full denuclearization of North Korean nuclear programs and weapons. Anyone will a sense of realism understands that the gap in negotiation positions between North Korea and the United States and South Korea is wide, and North Korea's hardened negotiating positions since early 2009 have made them wider.

Negotiating positions are not the only reason for the low prospects of renewed negotiations. A more fundamental reason, ignored by most pundits, is that North Korea is close to achieving a fundamental military-strategic goal of its nuclear and missile programs: developing nuclear warheads that it would mount on its missiles. Nuclear warheads initially would be mounted on North Korean Nodong and Scud missiles. Later, Pyongyang possibly could mount them on the intermediate range Musudan missile and a longer range missile that it is attempting to develop that could reach U.S. territory, at lease Alaska and Hawaii.

Indicators of North Korean Progress

There are four such indicators: (1) the technology North Korea received from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan and his network; (2) the sophistication of North Korea's uranium enrichment program as shown to Sigfried Hecker; (3) numerous reports of North Korean- Iranian collaboration in developing uranium enrichment technology and nuclear warheads that could be mounted on Iran's Shahab-3 missile, a twin of Pyongyang's Nodong missile; and (4) statements by U.S. and R.O.K. officials that North Korea is close to production of nuclear warheads.

North Korea's collaboration with Pakistan's A.Q. Khan has been well documented publicly. Three elements of this collaboration are especially important. Khan supplied North Korea with the designs for a highly enriched uranium program and components for a pilot centrifuge facility. Second, North Korean nuclear and missile scientists reportedly spent considerable time at Khan's facilities in Pakistan. Third, there is a considerable likelihood that Khan gave North Korea his design for the uranium nuclear warhead that he developed for the intermediate range Ghauri missile. The Ghauri missile, in fact, was jointly developed by Pakistan and North Korea under the original Khan-North Korean deal. Like the Shahab-3, the Ghauri is a twin of the Nodong. The initial Ghauri missiles probably were complete and assembled Nodong missiles that North Korea supplied to Pakistan between 1994 and 1997. 2 North Korean missile technicians in Pakistan were involved in the development of the Ghauri from the beginning. Moreover, the North Korean Government was fully aware that Pakistan, Khan in particular, was developing the Ghauri to carry nuclear warheads. North Korean nuclear experts reportedly attended Pakistan's multiple nuclear tests in 1998, including at least one device tested that outside experts estimated to be a prototype of a nuclear warhead. Within three years after the nuclear tests, Pakistan had mounted uranium nuclear warheads on its Ghauri missiles.

A.Q. Khan no doubt gave North Korea access to the information gained from the 1998 nuclear tests that gave rise to the Ghauri missile warhead. North Korean experts were believed to have worked in the Khan laboratories for at least four years after the 1998 nuclear tests, including work in developing and producing the uranium nuclear warheads for the Ghuari missile. 3 A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) of 2002, disclosed in the New Yorker Magazine, reportedly stated, according to author Seymour Hersh, that North Korea and Pakistan shared "warhead design information" and "weapons-testing data." 4 According to Hersh, the N.I.E. stated that "Pakistan also provided data on how to build and test a uranium-triggered nuclear weapon." Hersh also quoted "a former senior Pakistani official" that after 1997, Pakistan heloped North Korea conduct a series of "cold tests," which simulated nuclear explosions, using natural uranium.

The N.I.E.'s account of Pakistani-North Korean collaboration in uranium warhead development matched A.Q. Khan's account, given to British journalist Simon Henderson and published in the Washington Post of December 28, 2009. Khan described part of his arrangement with North Korea that "the North Koreans would help Pakistan in fitting the nuclear warhead into the Ghauri missile." North Korea, according to Khan "taught us how to make Krytrons"--electrical switches used in nuclear detonations.

There can be little doubt that, as a result of this collaboration, North Korea received from A.Q. Khan the blueprint design of the nuclear warhead mounted on the Ghauri missile. Khan earlier had supplied Libya with the blueprint design of an older atomic bomb. In 2008, it was revealed that blueprints for nuclear warheads were found in Swiss computers possessed by Swiss people linked to A.Q. Khan. U.S. nuclear expert David Albright assessed that the blueprints were similar to Pakistan's nuclear warhead designs and that the warheads detailed in the blueprints could fit on North Korea's Nodong missile and Iran's Shahab-3 missile. 5 Relatedly, in September 2011, a report obtained from the International Atomic Energy Agency asserted that an extension of the A.Q. Khan network of nuclear technology exchanges operated by people in the original Khan network "may still be active" in disseminating nuclear weapons technology. 6

The Swiss revelation showed that Khan was not restricting such blueprints to secrecy and that there was a fairly wide circulation of them. This increases the likelihood even more that North Korea acquired the blueprints. The Swiss revelations and the IAEA report show that since 1998, North Korea has had ample access to designs for nuclear warheads, including the design for the warhead A.Q. Khan developed for the Ghauri missile. Thus, from all of this evidence, I conclude that North Korea has the design to produce a nuclear warhead for its Nodong missile in a reasonably short time--probably one to two years-- after it has produced the highly enriched uranium as the core of a warhead--just as Pakistan did between its nuclear tests in 1998 and the mounting of warheads on the Ghauri missiles in 2001-2002. 7

Sigfried Hecker concluded that North Korea was close to producing highly enriched uranium when he saw the centrifuge complex at Yongbon in November 2010. He described his access to the complex as "stunning." He described a centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges as "astonishingly modern." North Korean scientists told him that the plant contained 2,000 centrifuges. The plant, according to Hecker, "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel." 8

U.S. officials in Washington appeared equally surprised. Hecker's report led them to conclude that North Korea's uranium enrichment technology was more advanced than that of Iran and that the plant at Yongbyon could not have been constructed unless there was a sophisticated network of other uranium enrichment sites hidden. 9

The tour of the uranium enrichment plant North Korea gave to Dr. Hecker reveals another element about North Korean strategy. Pyongyang conducts its nuclear development activities in considerable secrecy. However, when it attains a major level of accomplishment, it will show this to the outside world, especially to its adversaries. North Korea claims the status of a nuclear weapons power; it knows that, in order to gain international recognition of this status, it has to demonstrate to outsiders that it has nuclear warheads that can be delivered against enemy targets. Thus, if North Korea develops nuclear warheads and mounts them on missiles, it will announce this to the outside world. Dr. Hecker and others likely would receive new invitations to visit and witness this accomplishment.

North Korea's collaboration with Iran also increasingly may be based on the advanced state of North Korea's uranium enrichment program. The collaboration is an extension of collaboration in the development of Iranian missiles modeled on North Korean missiles or encompassing North Korean missile technology. Missile collaboration accelerated after 1993; since then, North Korean assistance has been vital in the development of several Iranian missiles. A cross-over of collaboration into the development of nuclear warheads that could be mounted on these missiles was a logical extension of cooperation between Iran and North Korea. A key cross-over point was in the early 2000s, triggered by the successful joint development of the Iranian Shahab-3 missile, a model of the North Korean Nodong. 10 Subsequent reports, citing German intelligence sources, other western intelligence sources, and Iranian sources, described North Korean nuclear experts in Iran. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group that correctly revealed secret Iranian nuclear facilities in 2002, issued a report in February 2008 that detailed North Korean-Iran collaboration in nuclear warhead development, including the location of facilities where this work was ongoing. Since 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency has presented Iran on several occasions with evidence pointing to an Iranian program to develop nuclear warheads for the Shahab-3 missile.

Iranian nuclear experts reportedly have been on-site observers of North Korean nuclear tests. European and Israeli defense and government officials stated in 2007 and 2008 that North Korea and Iran had concluded a new agreement for North Korea to share with Iran data from its October 2006 nuclear test. 11

More recently, three new reports have emerged which point to a heightened level of collaboration. In May 2011, the Japanese newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun, reported that more than 200 North Korean technicians are in Iran working on nuclear weapons and missiles. The North Koreans, according to the report, are working in 12 locations, including Natanz, the site of a major Iranian complex of centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium.

A second report of deepening North Korean-Iranian collaboration in developing enriched uranium came from the Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, in February 2011. Correspondent Takashi Arimoto, who followed North Korean-Iranian relations while stationed in Washington until 2009, reported a secret Iran-North Korea agreement under which North Korea would ship to Iran part of its future production of enriched uranium if Iran's own uranium enrichment production faltered. Arimoto's report showed a marked link with the reported conclusions of U.S. officials two months earlier that, given what the North Koreans had shown Hecker, North Korean's uranium enrichment program probably was more advanced than the Iranian program.

Third, the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, cited "western intelligence sources" in reporting on August 24, 2011, that North Korea had supplied Iran with a computer program that could be used to construct nuclear weapons. The computer program, called Monte Carlo N-Particle Extended, has been subject to Western export controls because of its potential use in developing atomic weapons.

The reality is that the United States and its allies face a North Korean-Iranian nuclear alliance. If North Korea and Iran jointly produce nuclear warheads for the Nodong twin Shahab-3 missile, a portion of those warheads will be shipped to North Korea for mounting on Nodongs.

When one considers how the multifaceted collaboration strengthens Iran's role in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that the financial benefits to the North Korean Government are huge. Iran finances the joint projects and pays North Korea handsomely for its assistance. I have estimated that the Pyongyang regime earns between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion annually from its multi-faceted collaboration with Iran (including support for the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas). Takashi Arimoto's report of a North Korean-Iranian agreement to share North Korean enriched uranium included payments by Iran of about $2 billion to North Korea during the 2008-2010 period. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung report said Iran may have paid North Korea more than $100 million for the Monte Carlo N-Particle computer program. The reality is that Iranian money is a fundamentally important part of Kim Jong-il's strategy of subsidizing the North Korean leadership and elite in order to maintain the regime.

North Korea's precise level of progress toward developing a nuclear warhead for its missiles is uncertain, but South Korean and U.S. government statements over the past 18 months have been alarmist. The head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service reportedly told the Korean National Assembly's Intelligence Committee on June 27, 2010, that North Korea could develop nuclear warheads within two years. 12 Kim Tae-hyo, President Lee Myung-bak's Secretary for National Security Strategy, stated on October 6, 2010, that North Korea's nuclear threat has reached an "alarming level" and was "evolving even now at a very fast pace." He described North Korea as seeking to develop nuclear warheads and deploying them. 13 According to the widely read Nelson Report and South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, both on March 11, 2011, the Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the DIA believes that North Korea may have "weaponized" missiles through producing nuclear warheads. He reportedly asserted that North Korea may have several nuclear warheads based on plutonium. One has to assume that these statements, coming together over a short period of time, reflect new intelligence that North Korea has made considerable progress toward producing nuclear warheads.

The U.S. and R.O.K. governments reportedly have made an initial application of these warnings in the reported joint military exercise scheduled for December 2011 at the U.S. Extended Deterrence Policy Committee in Omaha, Nebraska. This exercise reportedly will be the first ever based on the scenario of a direct North Korean threat to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons. 14 Such an exercise clearly is based on a North Korean nuclear warhead capability.

North Korea clearly has a workable design to produce a uranium-based nuclear warhead based on A.Q. Khan's design for the Ghauri missile warhead. All it needs now is to enrich uranium to a high enough level to produce weapons-grade uranium. Hecker witnessed that the North Koreans are within reach of that achievement. This could come as early as 2012, North Korea's year of big celebration, or 2013 or 2014.

Military Implications of Warhead Capability

North Korea immediately would have a nuclear delivery capability that could reach South Korea and most of Japan with Nodong and Scud missiles. It would be within reach of a delivery capability to reach Okinawa and Guam, major U.S. military bastions in the Western Pacific. Until now, the North Korean nuclear threat has been more hypothetical; possession of nuclear warheads would make the threat real. North Korea would become a genuine nuclear weapons power. North Korea also would gain more proliferation opportunities--with Iran and Syria and possibly other governments that in the future would turn toward development of nuclear weapons.

Implications for North-South Korea Relations

However, demented the North Korean leadership's attitude of superiority and legitimacy toward South Korea, the development of nuclear warheads for its missiles pointed southward would reinforce these attitudes. It likely would result in more intimidation tactics in North Korean diplomacy toward South Korea, including pressure for unconditional financial and economic benefits from Seoul. To at least some elements in the North Korean leadership, nuclear warheads would present more opportunities for singular military strikes against South Korea similar to the strikes in 2010, or possibly terrorist attacks against South Korea repetitive of the Rangoon bombing of 1983 and the blowing up of the Korean airliner in 1987. At least some North Korean leaders would view nuclear warheads as providing them with an effective deterrent against South Korean military retaliation for singular military strikes of the kind that Pyongyang actually faced in December 2010.

All of this said, one should not extend these conclusions to postulate a much heightened danger of a full-scale North Korean invasion of South Korea. Nuclear warheads will not compensate for the marked deterioration of North Korean conventional military forces that has taken place since 1990 because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of North Korean's economy, and China's unwillingness to extend large-scale transfer of modern weapons to North Korea. North Korea's weaponry is obsolete, its oil supplies are marginal and cannot even support regular large-scale military exercises, and food shortages reportedly affect rank and file troops significantly and do not provide the higher level of food consumption that would be needed in the North Korean army in a full-scale war. In short, nuclear warheads would not provide Pyongyang with a realistic opportunity for full-scale invasion of South Korea.

Nevertheless, a North Korean nuclear warhead capability likely would have a profound impact on South Korean defense policy and Seoul's overall policy toward Pyongyang. There would be three elements in the impact on defense policy. First, the South Korean Government could be expected to consider new measures to strengthen its conventional military capabilities as a means of enhancing deterrence. The R.O.K. Government already is considering removing South Korea from the restrictions of the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR). The MCTR limits the range of South Korean missiles to 300 kilometers, which leaves much of northern North Korea uncovered. Second, the emerging debate in South Korean over developing nuclear weapons would be expanded. Political and public support for this "nuclear option" could grow in the new situation facing South Korea. Third, the South Korean Government and political leaders no doubt would call on the United States to increase its military capabilities in and near the Korean peninsula. This would include the current proposals of some South Korean political leaders that the United States re- station tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea.

These defense policy issues would be within the context of a heightened debate over policy toward North Korea. Proponents of the "sunshine policy" of Kim Dae-jung and No Moo-hyun likely would intensify their argument that South Korea should return to the policy of "buying peace" with North Korea through the extension of unconditional economic and financial aid to Pyongyang. If North Korea unveiled nuclear warheads during its celebration year of 2012, the issue would become central in the South Korean presidential election campaign culminating in the election in December 2012. If the opposition Democratic Party should win the presidential election and North Korea subsequently unveiled nuclear warheads, the new R.O.K. administration would face the difficult choice between expanding the sunshine policy (its current inclination) or reverting to the harder line policy of the Lee Myung-bak Administration. My guess is that a Democratic Party administration would opt for expanding sunshine offers of benefits to North Korea.

Implications for China

Despite the Chinese Government's official position opposing North Korea possessing nuclear weapons, its actual attitude has been ambivalent. China has advocated that North Korea has a "right" to a peaceful nuclear program. Throughout the six party talks, Chinese officials urged the Bush Administration to downgrade the issue of uranium enrichment; the Bush Administration's decision in 2008 to omit uranium enrichment from North Korea's declaration of nuclear programs was taken under heavy Chinese influence. But perhaps the most telling examples of China's ambivalence--some would say permissiveness--have been (1) China's permission to North Korea and Iran to conduct countless air flights across Chinese territory clearly connected to North Korean- Iranian collaboration on nuclear weapons and missiles, and (2) the activities of North Korea's Nam Chongang Trading Company, operating in the central business district of Beijing under the nose of Chinese authorities since the early 2000s, as Pyongyang's main arm in facilitating the importation into North Korea of parts and equipment for North Korea's advanced uranium enrichment program. 15

All of this means that China would not weaken its support for the North Korean regime if Pyongyang mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles. There would be greater debate in China and calls for policy changes from influential Chinese. These Chinese, however, are not at the center of government decision-making on North Korea, which is housed in the international division of the Communist Party and no doubt also in the Chinese military. China also likely would continue to disregard North Korea's proliferation activities with Iran and other countries.

China likely would still call for six party talks and press the Obama Administration for concessions in the negotiations. China no doubt would continue its policy of influencing North Korea to institute economic reforms, and it would look for opportunities to increase the Chinese economic role in North Korea. It is this economic side of Chinese policy that contains China's hope to moderate North Korea's behavior and eventually reform the internal structure of North Korea.

The key question for China (and South Korea and the United States) is: Will North Korea's possession of nuclear warheads weaken China's ability to influence North Korea to moderate its behavior toward South Korea. China's record on this is mixed, but it does contain some successes--the last one being apparent Chinese warnings to Kim Jong-il against launching a second shelling of Yeongpyeong island on December 20 and 21, 2010. North Korea's deployment of nuclear warheads would create a danger that an emboldened regime in Pyongyang might be less susceptible to Chinese warnings in the future.

Implications for Japan

The shock effect of North Korean nuclear warheads on Nodong missiles would be felt greatest in Japan. For the first time since World War II, the Japanese Government and people would know that Japan is targeted specifically for potential nuclear attack by an adversary nation. Japan currently is unprepared for such a shock. It has been preoccupied by recovery from the earthquake and tsunami from earlier in 2011. Its government, now led by the Democratic Party, is a weak administration with three prime ministers in the last two years. It has no coherent foreign policy, including no apparent strategy toward North Korea. Even before the Democratic Party took power, Japanese policy toward North Korea was dominated by the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.

The new Prime Minister, Noda Yoshihiko, is a strong supporter of Japan's alliance with the United States. Nevertheless, the Japanese Government and public are unprepared for a day when North Korea would unveil nuclear warheads and make clear that a substantial portion of them are targeted at Japan.

The Japanese Government no doubt immediately would seek additional assurances from the United States that the U.S. defense commitment to Japan under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty remains firm. Beyond that, however, one could expect a national debate in Japan over its own defense preparedness. It seems to me that the main line of the debate would not be over whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons. The main line of the defense debate likely would be over whether Japan should develop long range conventional military strike capabilities--missiles, longer range fighters, and bombers--that could reach targets in North Korea. Such proposals have arisen before, and the Bush Administration encouraged them. However, these proposals also have encountered resistance because they would stretch the limits on Japanese military operations and capabilities imposed by Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Japanese opponents of these proposals also have cited opposition from South Korea and China to Japan developing long range strike weaponry.

So far, the opponents of these proposals have prevailed in the policy debate. However, the shock of North Korean nuclear warheads targeted at Japan could alter this balance. A new round of U.S. encouragement could also move Japan toward a more substantive rearmament. Japan's reactions could prove to be one of the most decisive results of North Korean nuclear warheads. South Korea, in particular, needs to recognize the potential impact on Japan.

Implications for the United States

The first implication for the United States would be the end of denuclearization diplomacy. Any realistic assessment would have to conclude that there would be no prospect of negotiating an end to North Korean's nuclear programs or even a measured reduction in them once the North Korean leadership has accomplished this fundamental strategic-military goal of mounting nuclear warheads on missiles. Simply, North Korean leaders never will give up such an achievement. Granted, some U.S. officials, especially in the State Department, and some outside Korean experts would continue to argue for nuclear negotiations; but their arguments increasingly would take on a tone of futility.

The United States would need to develop a new strategy toward North Korea that gives greater priority to other issues in an attempt to influence North Korea to turn its policies in a more positive direction--especially internal policies. Economic reform issues and human rights issues--almost completely ignored by three successive U.S. administrations--have this kind of potential. It seems to me that a new American strategy should condition any economic and financial aid to North Korea--including food aid--to North Korean commitments to carry out economic reforms along the lines instituted by Deng Xiao-ping in China in the 1980s. This should start with agricultural reforms.

There are good rationales for developing an economic reform agenda in future dealings with North Korea. One is that the economy is North Korea's most vulnerable weakness, as currently shown by the North Korean Government's "full court press" for food aid from South Korea, the United States, and a host of other countries. The regime might well be more susceptible to pressure on its economy than on its nuclear weapons.

A second rationale is that China escalated pressure on North Korea in 2009 and 2010 for economic reforms. China reportedly has denied North Korea's repeated requests for increased food aid. Thus, there may be greater potential for U.S.-Chinese cooperation on economic reform--at least agricultural reform--than there is on denuclearization. A U.S.-South Korean-Japanese economic reform agenda--calling for "Chinese- style" economic reforms--would create a policy line in parallel to China's and could establish a line of cooperation with China. At a minimum, it would influence favorably the strata of Chinese officials and scholars who believe that China should reduce its support of North Korea.

A third rationale is that an economic reform agenda and conditionality for aid would give the South Korean Government a strong argument to resist domestic pressure and pressure from North Korea to resume unconditional financial and food aid to North Korea. In November 2010, President Lee Myung-bak stated that future international economic aid to North Korea should be conditioned on economic reforms. President Lee and other R.O.K. officials have called on North Korea to adopt "Chinese-style reforms and open its markets."

A fifth rationale goes back to Kim Jong-il's rationale for his nuclear programs: the place of nuclear programs in Kim's multi-faceted strategy for regime survival. His strategy begins with his unwillingness to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms. With a succession regime in North Korea likely in the near future, there may be an opportunity to turn North Korean leaders toward economic reforms.

The timing is right for such a strategy. If North Korea's quest for nuclear warheads cannot be turned back, the best alternative is to develop policies aimed at changing Kim Jong-il's internal system. Internal reforms, it seems to me, are the key to ultimately solving the nuclear question.

Another part of the shift away from denuclearization diplomacy would have to be the development of diplomatic mechanisms to manage nuclear crises with North Korea. The U.S. Government would need better means of communicating quickly with the Pyongyang regime when North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons. Infrequent visits by prominent Americans to Pyongyang and the so-called New York channel of contact with North Korea's United Nations mission would be inadequate to this task once North Korea has nuclear warheads on its missiles.

The real U.S. strategy to manage crises with North Korea is to rely on China. Washington calls on Beijing to convey U.S. messages to Pyongyang. It urges the Chinese Government to voice its own concerns and warnings to North Korea. The weakness of this strategy always has been the reliability of China. China apparently issued a strong warning to North Korea during the crisis of December 20-21, 2010; but China has been less effective in several past crises and/or less willing to pressure North Korea. With nuclear warheads on North Korean missiles, a potential weakness would be the extent that China could influence a North Korean regime emboldened with this nuclear capability. A direct U.S. voice to North Korea would be stronger and certain.

A permanent U.S. diplomatic mission in Pyongyang may be the best and perhaps the only answer to creating a diplomatic mechanism for dealing with nuclear crises through establishing a means of direct, immediate U.S. communication with the North Korean leadership. Granted, Kim Jong-il would boast that U.S. "recognition" signifies recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power. Americans would have to "swallow hard" and let Kim have his two months of propaganda boastfulness. However, he soon would face the reality that mounting nuclear warheads on missiles would gain him no material benefits from the United States; in fact, the U.S. reaction, especially in Congress, would more likely be to tighten sanctions against North Korea.

The United States also would have to respond to pressures from South Korea and Japan for greater assurances of military support and U.S. military measures to back up those assurances. The Obama Administration had agreed in 2009 to discuss with South Korea and Japan ways to enhance deterrence. Such discussions reportedly are underway with South Korea. This would require an examination of the adequacy of U.S. instruments of military deterrence. Deterrence, to be effective in the new situation of North Korean nuclear warheads, would have to combine concrete military measures and pointed verbal warnings to North Korea. It seems to me that there are several possible U.S. military responses that would enhance the deterrence message to North Korea: ---A more direct U.S. role in possible North Korean military provocations against South Korea. This already is happening with the Obama Administration's sending of U.S. Marine observers to South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea islands and U.S. giving targeting information to the R.O.K. Air Force during the crisis of December 20-21 2010.

---A buildup of U.S. air power, including rotation of advanced aircraft into South Korea and the permanent deployment of U.S. heavy bombers to Guam. Nothing impressed North Korea more about U.S. military power in the 1970s and 1980s than the B-52 bombers based on Guam and their frequent exercises near the Korean peninsula. (The B- 52s were withdrawn from Guam in 1991, and frequent heavy bomber exercises related to Korea ceased.)

---Visible U.S. military exercises with South Korea related to provocation-retaliation scenarios.

---Regular, public warnings by U.S. officials of U.S. intent to destroy North Korea if North Korea uses nuclear weapons against U.S. allies. North Korean nuclear warheads would make appropriate a new invocation of the Eisenhower Administration's doctrine of "massive retaliation" against communist states that used nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies.

---U.S. support for an R.O.K. decision to remove South Korea from the restrictions on its missile ranges imposed by the MCTR. This perhaps could be done if North Korea rejected an offer to place its missiles under the MCTR, made either by South Korea or jointly at renewed six party talks.

A key objective of enhanced deterrence must be to create certainty in the minds of North Korean leaders that South Korea will retaliate against singular North Korean military assaults against South Korea and clear acts of North Korean terrorism against South Korea with the full backing of the United States. Creating this certainty in the minds of Chinese leaders would be almost equally important.

Implications for Six Party Talks

The shadow of North Korean nuclear warheads hangs over any near term resumption of six party talks. The fundamental impact is this: the closer North Korea gets to producing nuclear warheads for its missiles, it will be less likely to make serious concessions in nuclear talks. The United States, South Korea, and Japan could make short term gains, but these would be relative to the plutonium program, which Pyongyang already has put aside in favor of uranium enrichment. These gains could include a completion of the disabling of the plutonium installations at Yongbon, probably linked to the completion of heavy fuel oil deliveries to North Korea. South Korea has demanded that Pyongyang allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to Yongbyon; North Korea might allow this; but it likely would negotiate much tougher over whether the IAEA should have access to the uranium enrichment facility shown to Dr. Hecker. That access, however, should be a firm demand from the United States and South Korea.

State Department officials have broached the idea of seeking a North Korean moratorium on nuclear testing. A moratorium could delay the development of a uranium warhead. However, U.S. officials should know that North Korea would demand big U.S. concessions to agree to and continue any moratorium. Moreover, a moratorium would not necessarily prevent North Korea from manufacturing nuclear warheads based on enriched uranium. Pyongyang's undoubted possession of the data from Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests and their application to the development of nuclear warheads for the Ghauri missile already gives North Korea testing information to proceed with warhead production. A related idea, another North Korean missile moratorium, would have limited usefulness. Pyongyang's 1999-2006 moratorium meant little, as North Korea found surrogates like Pakistan, Iran, and Syria to test its missiles. Iran and Syria still are available.

It seems to me that the test for the United States and its allies is whether they would give immediate priority to two issues: verification-inspections and proliferation. The U.S. past record on priority to these issues has been inadequate. If the allies give priority to verification-inspections, will China and Russia give support? Several of their recent statements suggest that they might support a stronger verification system. A first step might be to review the draft proposals on verification that the Bush Administration offered in July 2008 and China offered at the December 2008 six party meeting. The United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia endorsed the Chinese proposal. North Korea rejected it. The question now is whether these proposals are strong enough to deal with the new situation of a revealed uranium enrichment program based on likely hidden sites in North Korea.

Verification is the key test of North Korea's intentions and sincerity. Intrusive inspections appear to be the only mechanism that would prevent North Korea from manufacturing nuclear warheads and mounting them on missiles. If Pyongyang continues to reject intrusive verification, six party talks would accomplish only minimal goals and not prevent the inevitable.

The Obama Administration needs to reverse the Bush Administration's decision in 2008 to keep North Korea's proliferation activities out of the agreement it negotiated with Pyongyang, which was unveiled in June 2008. The Obama Administration needs to go even further and order the State Department to end its refusal to acknowledge the North Korean-Iranian nuclear alliance and start dealing with it in any new round of nuclear negotiations. State Department evasions go back to 2007 when I wrote my first major report on North Korean-Iranian collaboration at the Congressional Research Service. Since then, State Department officials have responded to queries about this by either denying any knowledge, saying they cannot comment on intelligence information, or speaking of North Korean activities like arms shipments in "the Middle East." This policy came into the 2008 U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations when the Bush Administration did not acknowledge Iran's involvement in the Syrian nuclear reactor assisted by North Korea--and bombed by Israel in 2007. The Bush Administration agreed to delete from North Korea's declaration of nuclear programs any admission of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. All of this belies repeated statements by U.S. officials that the United States has a deep concern over North Korean proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The State Department may believe that raising North Korean-Iranian nuclear collaboration in six party talks would make reaching a denuclearization agreement too difficult. One can make that argument, but State Department officials cannot talk about ending the North Korean nuclear program without ending the Pyongyang-Tehran nuclear alliance. Moreover, there is another target to deal with on this issue: China. The Obama Administration could condition acceding to Chinese entreaties to resume six party talks by insisting that China negotiate with the United States over shutting down the transporting links between Pyongyang and Tehran. We know from Wikileaks that the Bush Administration made attempts to secure action from the Chinese, but these attempts were sporadic and were not brought into six party talks.

New six party talks probably are too late to halt North Korea's march toward nuclear warheads. However, if they are resumed, the United States should make the strongest case possible for the record on both verification and proliferation.

The best result that could come out of new six party talks appears to be that the United States, South Korea, and Japan could "buy time" and delay North Korea's goal of mounting nuclear warheads on missiles. But the time bought would not be indefinite and would be limited in scope. But if time is bought, the United States, South Korea, Japan--and even China--should use the time to begin preparing new policies for the coming day when North Korea unveils nuclear warheads.

1 Dr. Larry Niksch is an Adjunct Fellow with the Institute of National Security Strategy. He also is a Senior Associate with the Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a fellow with the Institute of Corean-American Studies. In 2010, he retired from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, where he served as a Specialist in Asian Affairs.
2 U.S. Congressional Research Service, Weapons of Mass Destruction: Trade Between North Korea and Pakistan. CRS Report, March 11, 2004.
3 Gaurav Kampani, Second Tier Proliferation: the Case of Pakistan and North Korea, Non-Proliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2002.
4 Seymour Hersh, The Cold Test, New Yorker Magazine, January 27, 2003.
5 Blueprint for nuclear warhead found on smugglers' computers, The Guardian, June 16, 2008.
6 Fredrik Dahl, North Korea atom drive may rely on smugglers: IAEA, Reuters, September 2, 2011.
7 The U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council estimated in 2001 that Pakistan had produced 24 to 48 uranium nuclear warheads. The U.S. Navy Center for Contemporary Conflict estimated in 2003 that Pakistan had 35 to 95 nuclear warheads.
8 Scientist: North Korea secretly built new nuclear facility, Associated Press, November 21, 2010.
9 North Korea's nuclear program, New York Times (internet), December 14, 2010.
10 Douglas Frantz, Iran closes in on ability to build a nuclear bomb, Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2003, p. A1. Military source: DPRK, Iran planning joint development of nuclear warheads, Sankei Shimbun (internet), August 6, 2003.
11 Jin Dae-woong, Concerns grow over missile links between N.Korea, Iran, Korea Herald (internet), January 28, 2007. UK press: North Korea aids Iran in nuclear testing, Dow Jones International News, January 24, 2007. Takashi Arimoto, Iranian delegation observed North Korea's nuclear test, Sankei Shimbun, June 25, 2009. Israel PM to charge NKorea link with Iran, Syria, Agence France Presse, February 26, 2008.
12 Reported in Chosun Ilbo, June 28, 2010.
13 Reported by Joongang Daily, October 6, 2010.
14 Reported by Donga Ilbo, November 5, 2011.
15 The activities of the Nam Chongang (NCG)Trading Company were detailed in the October 2010 report, Taking Stock: North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Program, issued by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) in October 2010. According to the report, "NCG thrived in China."

This page last updated January 31, 2012 jb