National Security & Defense

Why North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs Are Far More Dangerous Than They Look

Missiles on parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. (Reuters photo: Sue-Lin Wong)
Kim Jong-un’s weapons could cause widespread devastation even if they don’t hit their targets.

On Friday, the news media were so sure North Korea would conduct a nuclear test over the weekend to celebrate the 105th birthday of Kim Il-Sung that they almost started a countdown clock. The test never happened. Some experts said this was because President Trump caused North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to “blink.”

On Saturday, North Korea did attempt a celebratory ballistic-missile test, which failed seconds after launch. There has been speculation in the media that this failure was due to U.S. sabotage, possibly a cyberattack.

While I believe the above explanations of both events are unlikely, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs still pose serious and growing threats because they represent an unstable regime developing and testing increasingly advanced WMDs based on poor engineering and badly inadequate R&D. This is why a new U.S. approach to the threat from North Korea is long overdue.

I did not believe a nuclear test would occur as part of North Korea’s weekend celebration. I was not convinced by commercial-satellite imagery cited by some experts as evidence of an imminent nuclear test, since there is constant activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site that often leads to predictions of nuclear tests that do not occur. On the other hand, when North Korea actually conducts nuclear tests, these same experts are usually caught off guard.

Predicting North Korean nuclear tests is difficult, because Pyongyang is aware it is being watched by U.S. spy satellites. North Korea probably engages in subterfuge at its test site to make the world think nuclear tests are imminent when they are not, and to conceal preparations for actual tests.

North Korean nuclear tests during major celebrations like the 105th birthday of Kim Il-Sung are unlikely because, as North Korea’s nuclear program becomes more sophisticated, the chances of failed tests increase. North Korean leaders probably wanted to avoid the humiliation of a failed nuclear test on an important holiday when the eyes of the world were fixed on the Hermit Kingdom.

There also is a more likely and simpler explanation for North Korea’s April 15 missile test and its subsequent failure. North Korean officials probably decided to conduct a missile test as a demonstration of their nation’s military might that had a higher likelihood of success than a nuclear test.

While some experts are speculating the missile test failed because of U.S. sabotage or cyber warfare, the more likely explanation is that the failure was due to the poor state of North Korean science and engineering. Arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis is “deeply skeptical” that the U.S. was responsible for the failed missile test, and he said in a recent Axios.com interview, “The failures we’ve seen are better explained by the pains of the R&D process. There is a reason that ‘rocket science’ is a metaphor for something that is hard to do.”

About 50 percent of North Korean missile tests — and 88 percent of its intermediate Musudan missile tests — have failed. This is what happens when a brutal totalitarian regime tries to pursue a complex weapons program using borrowed and stolen technology and relies on third-rate scientists.

It goes without saying that the world’s leading experts in rocketry and physics are not flocking to North Korea to work on the WMD programs of an evil totalitarian regime with a serious job-security problem — Leader Kim may have you executed if your project encounters failures or setbacks.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs prove the old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The research-and-engineering deficiencies of these weapon programs make them more dangerous and unpredictable, since this unstable rogue nation is rapidly developing increasingly advanced WMD technologies that its scientists may not fully understand and have been poorly designed. This increases the chances of a catastrophic accident, possibly when an ICBM test goes off course and strikes a neighboring country.

Moreover, more powerful North Korean underground nuclear tests could accidentally release large amounts of radioactive gases that could threaten neighboring states. According to former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory Siegfried Hecker, “one of the risks Pyongyang takes in trying to demonstrate a [nuclear] test at a higher level is that they may produce fissures that allow radioactive seepage or possibly cause a major blowout from the tunnel.”

Only North Korea’s leaders know exactly how advanced their nuclear-weapons program is. It does appear, based on seismic data after previous North Korean nuclear tests, that its nuclear devices are increasing in yield. The world must assume the worst: that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is making rapid advances in developing more powerful nuclear warheads that will eventually be mounted on missiles, including ICBMs capable of hitting the United States.

Similarly, despite setbacks in its ballistic-missile program, there are signs that Pyongyang is accelerating this effort and making significant progress. While the parade of missiles and missile canisters displayed over the weekend in Pyongyang may have included mockups of missiles that are not operational or empty canisters, the parade included what appeared to be two brand-new ICBMs and solid-fueled intermediate-range missiles that can be launched quickly and are easy to hide. The submarine-launched KN-11 missile also was displayed; it could pose a serious threat to Japan and South Korea.

Despite setbacks in its ballistic-missile program, there are signs that Pyongyang is accelerating this effort and making significant progress.

The short- to medium-term risks from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs probably will not be ICBMs carrying nuclear warheads fired at the United States. They are more likely to stem from catastrophic failures of missile or nuclear tests.

North Korean long-range missile tests will be especially provocative, since the United States and regional states may try to shoot them down out of concern that these missiles could accidentally strike a neighboring state and because they cannot be sure they are not North Korean attacks. This could spark North Korean retaliation and a dangerous military confrontation.

A future underground North Korean nuclear test that vents significant amounts of radioactive gases might be a game changer and could fundamentally change Beijing’s approach to the North Korean nuclear program if these gases drift over Chinese territory. The Trump administration must explain this possibility to Beijing, and why it must act before such a disaster occurs.

North Korea has learned over the last 25 years that developing, testing, and threating to attack with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is a successful strategy to extort concessions from the international community in exchange for pretending to halt these programs. I believe the Trump administration understands that the Kim regime’s missile and nuclear programs are becoming too dangerous to allow this pattern of appeasement to continue. Hopefully China also realizes this too, and will begin cooperating with the United States to implement more aggressive steps to pressure Pyongyang to halt these programs and work with Washington on the only real solution to the North Korean problem: regime change.

— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz

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Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.

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