SEOUL, South Korea – For 20 years, fears about North Korea's headlong pursuit of nuclear bombs have been watered down with smirking admonishments not to overestimate an impoverished dictatorship prone to bragging and tantrums.
Few are laughing now.
After three nuclear tests of apparently increasing power and a long-range rocket launch that puts it a big step closer to having a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to American shores, many believe that in a matter of years — as little as five, maybe, though the timeframe is a point of debate — Pyongyang will have a very scary nuclear arsenal.
Though it's a view not embraced by everyone, one respected South Korean expert says North Korea could be working toward 80 to 100 nuclear-tipped missiles. Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in North Korea, provides a less dramatic but still bracing assessment: If the path is A to Z, with Z being nuclear missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland, North Korea is maybe at T.
Proof of the new seriousness with which Pyongyang's intentions are now seen can be found in the Obama administration's announcement in March that it will spend $1 billion to add 14 interceptors to the U.S.-based missile defense system. It said it was responding to what it called faster-than-anticipated North Korean progress on nuclear weapons and missiles.
"Where in the past, there may have been some ambiguity about what North Korea was seeking to achieve, there is a clear recognition that they are pressing toward a nuclear capability with a potential longer-range delivery," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia from 2009 until earlier this year, said at a forum last week in Seoul. "Such an approach represents a strategic, almost existential threat to the United States."
The sense of urgency is new. What hasn't changed is the fierce, seemingly paralyzing debate about how to discourage North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Some call for unconditional talks. Others say it's time for tougher, Iran-style sanctions and for China to cut off aid to its ally.
Pyongyang emerged in a new light after it put a satellite into orbit on the tip of a long-range rocket in December — beating much richer Seoul to that goal. Then in February, it conducted a nuclear test that, while details remain unclear, appeared to be its most powerful yet. It followed those moves with a torrent of threats in March and April in response to U.N. sanctions and huge U.S.-South Korean military drills.
"It's quite understandable that people are spooked. The only mystery is why it's taken so long," Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, wrote in a blog post in mid-April.
Analysts now put the North's arsenal at four to eight plutonium bombs. They also suspect it is making fuel for uranium bombs, but they don't know how much.
The suspected bombs aren't thought to be small enough to put on long-range missiles, but some analysts believe Pyongyang may be able to arm shorter-range missiles with warheads.
Pyongyang's weapons probably aren't meant to carry out nuclear threats, analysts say, but instead to protect against perceived outside hostility while extracting diplomatic and aid concessions. Pyongyang insists that it needs nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. attack. Washington insists it has no such intention.
Here's how one prominent analyst sees the future of Pyongyang's atomic arsenal. North Korea's leaders have been closely studying their nuclear history, and Pakistan, which helped Pyongyang's nascent nuclear program and which built its own atomic arsenal outside international treaties, is probably an inspiration, said Hahm Chaibong, president of the conservative Asan Institute in Seoul.
With that model in mind, the goal then could be a "minimum operational nuclear capability" of 80 to 100 nuclear missiles, including some that could reach the United States, Hahm estimated. The weapons would be hidden around the country to prevent detection, in caves, tunnels, amid conventional missile stockpiles, in dense population centers and on mobile launchers, Hahm said in an interview. He speculated that such an effort could take five to 10 years.
One hundred warheads in five years is probably alarmist, Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear expert at Georgetown University, wrote in an email, but "it would be naive to assume that Pyongyang will keep a small and primitive arsenal forever. Rather, it is likely that they will rapidly move to expand their arsenal and means of delivery."
Many analysts believe it has taken so long to come to terms with North Korea's intentions because of a long history of chronic underestimation.
This may stem from the North's poverty — it has a GDP rivaling Senegal — or from the images of goose-stepping soldiers and leadership-worshipping masses that can seem to foreigners to be frozen in the amber of Cold War stereotype.
"It's not a pretend nuclear-strike capability," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. "We're past that point where you can just laugh it off."
Some of North Korea's recent threats were widely dismissed, including vows of nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul. But another announcement was more worrying: It promised to restart all nuclear fuel production, including a mothballed reactor that could eventually make a bomb's worth of plutonium annually. Estimates on how long it would take to restart plutonium facilities vary from three months to a year.
An even bigger fear is a uranium enrichment program unveiled in late 2010 that could provide a second, more easily concealed source of bomb fuel, quickly augmenting Pyongyang's arsenal, Klingner, the former U.S. intelligence official, said in an interview in Seoul.
"We've underestimated them," said Klingner, now an expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. "People made fun of their long-range missile until it didn't fail. There was sort of this, 'Why wasn't I informed there was a long-range missile threat?' Well, we've been warning you for 15 years."
North Korea has yet to prove it possesses an arsenal of flight-capable, nuclear-tipped missiles. But in a statement that still reverberates, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in early 2011 that Pyongyang will have a limited ability to deliver a weapon to U.S. shores within five years using intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To Lewis, the Monterey Institute expert, the North's December rocket launch clearly showed what it can do. "If you think North Korea lacks the basic capabilities to build long-range missiles, guess again. A space launcher is not exactly the same thing, but it's most of the way there," he said.
What to do is as tough to determine now as it was when President Bill Clinton considered bombing a North Korean reactor in 1994, when worries over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its refusal to admit U.N. inspectors sparked the first North Korean nuclear crisis. No strikes were ordered. Former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and diplomats later struck a deal, now defunct, to freeze Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for U.S. aid.
Campbell, the former U.S. diplomat, said mounting "serial provocations" from Pyongyang have "caused a quiet rethinking in a variety of capitals about just how difficult it is to construct any engagement strategy with North Korea."
For many, the key is China, which is Pyongyang's economic and diplomatic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade.
A frustrated new Chinese leadership has recently displayed willingness to work with Washington to apply pressure on Pyongyang. But Beijing's primary goal is stability. A crisis could damage its economy; a collapse in Pyongyang could push refugees into China or leave a U.S.-friendly unified Korea on its borders.
Campbell said Washington has told Beijing "that if this process continues, we will be taking defensive and other steps in Northeast Asia that will not be in China's strategic interests."
There's also a push by U.S. lawmakers for strong unilateral steps similar to sanctions issued against Iran, and similar to what the Bush administration used against a Macau-based bank that held about $25 million in North Korean funds. The Macau measure was seen as effective because it caused a ripple effect among other banks worried about being shut out of the international financial system because of dealings with Pyongyang. The measure, however, proved complicated to undo when nuclear negotiations with North Korea finally got back on track.
At the other end of the spectrum is dialogue. But both sides have preconditions. North Korea is interested in talking as one nuclear power to another with the United States. Washington rejects Pyongyang's claim to be a nuclear state and insists on total denuclearization as the basis for any dialogue — a condition that dooms talks before they begin, according to Delury.
It's still possible, Delury said, for Washington to sit down with the North and negotiate a partial nuclear freeze, laying the groundwork for an eventual rollback and ultimately elimination. He said that aggressive policy measures by Washington will "only justify faster movement" by North Korea "to strengthen all those capabilities."
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