The State Of North Korea's Nuclear Arsenal

Aug 9, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 6:38 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

North Korea may be the most serious national security challenge of the young Trump presidency. And the stakes are rising. President Trump delivered this warning to Pyongyang yesterday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

CHANG: Within hours, North Korea delivered a reply. It's considering a missile strike against the U.S. territory of Guam. And in a separate development, there is word that North Korea may have produced a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered by a missile. That's according to The Washington Post, which broke the story. With us now is NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks for being here.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's start with this news that North Korea successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead. If that's true, is that a game-changer?

KELLY: If that is true, that is a key threshold that we know North Korea has been trying to cross. I mean, we know that they have conducted five nuclear tests - two in the last year. We know they have been testing missiles at an unprecedented rate, including two just last month.

Now, there are still challenges. Can this nuclear armed missile - can it survive re-entry, for example? However, if you were looking at the thresholds North Korea needs to cross on the path to being a full nuclear weapons power, this is a big one.

CHANG: Yeah, a big one. Well, how does U.S. intelligence even know North Korea's gotten this far? How reliable is their intel?

KELLY: Well, The Washington Post, which broke the story, is citing new analysis from the DIA. That's the Defense Intelligence Agency - one of the Pentagon's spy agencies. There is, of course, always uncertainty when you're talking about intelligence estimates of weapons of mass destruction. That's the nature of the business.

But I will tell you, Ailsa, there are differences over the exact size of the arsenal, over the exact location of their facilities, over the precise pace at which they are racing along. But there's consensus within U.S. intelligence and also within global intelligence. I mean, every serious intelligence service in the world is tracking this. And they all agree. North Korea has nuclear weapons. They are racing to build more and more sophisticated ones.

CHANG: OK, that may be so. But U.S. spy agencies, I mean, they've gotten it wrong before on weapons of mass destruction.

KELLY: Absolutely.

CHANG: Remember Iraq and Saddam Hussein's supposed stockpile that turned out not to exist?

KELLY: That flawed Iraq estimate continues to haunt U.S. intelligence and continues to bring its credibility into question and fairly so. U.S. intelligence officers will tell you, if anything, North Korea is a more challenging target than Iraq ever was.

CHANG: How so?

KELLY: Well, it's harder to get U.S. spies in and out. It is - there are no businesspeople going in. There are no tourists going in. It's just - the forms of information that you have in any other country don't exist. That said, one silver lining to all of these recent tests - if you're looking for one - is that every time North Korea carries out a test, military gear is being moved around. There are photographs. There are satellites. There is this wealth of raw data that's pouring in, which is informing these updated assessments.

CHANG: Another piece of data - U.S. intelligence reportedly believes that North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear weapons. Is that right? Sixty...

KELLY: Sixty - six, zero - that would mark a sharp rise from what they were believed to have had. I - when I read that yesterday, I went back and looked at what experts were telling me just this past fall. And the consensus then was that Kim Jong Un had fissile material for maybe 10 to 20 nuclear weapons.

So, if - and let's inject a note of caution, here. The worst-case scenario is - it does not always turn out to be the correct scenario, when it comes to North Korea. But if North Korea does in fact have 60, that would be another piece of evidence that they are making more rapid progress than had been understood.

CHANG: So what are we to make of President Trump's warning about fire and fury like the world has never seen? I mean, that sounds like he's threatening war.

KELLY: He is threatening war. The Trump administration, as the Obama administration did before, has always said all options are on the table. And those options would include a pre-emptive military strike. The problem with that is that North Korea's war plans call for going down fighting. So if the U.S. strikes first in order to avert a nuclear confrontation, the risk is that you spark the very confrontation you were seeking to avoid. So that is a complicated option.

But military is very much on the table. There's also cyberattack - some sort of covert option to try to slow down the program. There's economic pressure - sanctions leaning on China. Although, it must be said, a lot of North Korea's sources of income fall outside the net of what can be captured by sanctions. And then there's diplomacy. And that's - you know, we've heard this trash talk back and forth between the leaders of North Korea and the U.S.

CHANG: Yes, yes.

KELLY: One danger is the U.S. and North Korea don't have diplomatic relations. There is no U.S. embassy in Pyongyang. North Korea does not have an embassy here in the U.S., which means words - when we hear President Trump talking fire and fury - they carry more weight because there are no diplomats working behind the scenes to soften things and look for nuance and walk leaders back from the brink.

CHANG: Thank you so much. That was Mary Louise Kelly in the studio with us this morning.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.