- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

North Korea’s Nuclear Capability

By NBR Staff

January 15, 2015

Recent high-profile cyberattacks on Sony Pictures and subsequent U.S. sanctions against North Korea have refocused international attention on the threat posed by the Kim Jong-un regime. Although North Korea’s cyber capabilities are likely to dominate discussions in the near term, greater concern should surround the country’s other emerging asymmetric capability: its slowly advancing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea is moving toward the operationalization of a small nuclear force. With its conventional forces falling into disrepair and the conventional military gap against the combined forces of South Korea and the United States expanding, Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons capability as a trump card over the impressive forces arrayed against it. As such, the North’s nuclear weapons have taken on a central role in what the regime views as its struggle against “imperialist aggression.”

Should North Korea achieve a credible nuclear capability, the United States and its allies will face a different security challenge on the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea developed a credible nuclear weapon with intercontinental range—a capability thought to be not far off—U.S. allies may fear that Washington would be deterred from coming to their aid in a conflict. Instead, in the event of a crisis, U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific may choose to acquiesce to North Korean demands that they evict U.S. forces from their territories or deny the U.S. access to crucial facilities rather than risk their capitals—a choice that would undermine allied security relations with the United States. Such a scenario would fundamentally challenge U.S. extended deterrence, the foundation on which the current regional security architecture rests.

There is some reason to believe that in a conflict with the United States, North Korea is likely to perceive that the early use of nuclear weapons is in its best interest. Of crucial importance is the structural asymmetry in the capabilities and stakes involved for each side that could make deterring North Korea from using nuclear weapons extremely difficult. Facing a threat it views as existential from a superior adversary, the North Korean regime could be willing to take any drastic action to ensure its survival. The stakes involved for the United States, meanwhile, would be lower and Pyongyang may believe that Washington could be less willing to pursue actions that might lead to significant losses.

Although U.S. and South Korean officials have recently stated that they suspect North Korea is close to acquiring or may even already possess the technical ability to miniaturize a warhead to fit atop a ballistic missile, North Korea has several considerable hurdles to clear before it possesses operational nuclear capability. For example, it will need to conduct additional nuclear tests to ensure the effectiveness and reliability of its warhead designs. North Korea will also need to develop a re-entry vehicle suitable for carrying a nuclear payload as well as strengthen, and in some cases develop, the necessary command, control, and targeting infrastructure. Despite the suspected maturation of its weapons program in recent years, these areas, among others, represent significant obstacles to Pyongyang’s realization of an operational nuclear capability.

North Korea is therefore likely to continue work in each of these areas in 2015. Expect to see additional missile tests, and potentially another underground nuclear test, tied to important dates in the North Korean calendar or in response to perceived acts of international “aggression”—such as the unlikely referral of the regime to the International Criminal Court over human rights violations or the annual military exercises carried out by the United States and South Korea.

Pyongyang’s steady progress toward an operational nuclear weapon poses a significant threat to regional stability and security. The United States must therefore take measures to sustain the capabilities underpinning its extended deterrence commitments, thus reinforcing the credibility of these commitments to both its regional allies and adversaries. It must place renewed emphasis on addressing this gathering storm through a mixture of economic and diplomatic pressure and inducement in close consultation with other concerned regional powers. Pyongyang’s acquisition of an operational nuclear weapon would be hugely destabilizing to the region and ultimately in no country’s interest. This issue is nearing a crucial tipping point and greater urgency is required if North Korea is to be stopped from going nuclear.

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This is one of 15 essays examining how 2015 will shape the economy, political systems, and geopolitical arena in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Download all 15 essays in PDF format or access them online below.

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