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North Korea's nuclear arsenal
Donald Lee Granberry
Lee Wha Rang may well be right when he says that the CIA estimates of how much fissile material the DPRK has on hand are low. I don't know how he acquired the information concerning DPRK's acquisition of fissile material from a former Soviet Bloc country, but it is plausible. Unfortunately, I don't know of a way to confirm or refute this claim. I will, therefore, discount it and look at what the DPRK can and could have been doing on its own over the past decade.
Hmm, let me put in perspective. How long have Graphoil filled spiral wound gaskets been available? Since about 1990 or so, I cannot now remember offhand. Bellows sealed valves of various kinds have been around in commercial quantities since, 1988, or 1989, primarily from Great Britain. If I had a way of tracking orders for those kinds of materials making their way into the DPRK, I could assure that the production of fissile materials while remaining largely undetected. What I can say with certainty is that this threat coincides nicely with these vaguely remembered dates, okay?
In my opinion, the DPRK was likely turned down on its attempt to obtain fissiles and developed the means necessary to obtain fissiles in house. I think they have done so and have done it successfully. Ironically, the "green" movement has probably contributed greatly to Kim's program by allowing his techs to produce fissile materials without being detected by the usual means at our disposal.
Lee has a number of minor mistakes in this piece. As I understand it, the centrifuge technology is French in origin, not German. The possibility of the DPRk being able to use lasers to separate fissiles from other materials in useful quantities is so small it is not worth considering. The CIA has been relying upon IAEA reports for its estimates of the DPRK's inventory, not their own intelligence--at least publicly. Lee may think that the IAEA is one and the same with the CIA, but he's very, very wrong.
So, how many nukes does Kim Jong-Il have? I donıt know. I have to think it is greater than two and probably well under a hundred. Do I think Kim & Co. have produced thermonuclear weapons? No. And, indeed, one must wonder why he would go to the trouble and expense of developing them. That class of weapon is a major league maintenance headache. Mind you, it is the kind of headache that would likely give your program away by making it much easier for your opposition to detect.
Even the shelf life of WWII era atomic bombs leaves a great deal to be desired. They deteriorate over time and if not maintained, become a definite danger to their owners. Fixing these problems as they arise, increases the size of your weapons program, thereby making it much simpler to detect. Oddly enough, the smaller the weapon, the more problematical maintenance becomes, just as the thermonuclear weapons are at the outset. Isotope ratios in the smaller pits become a problem sooner than it does in the older weapons designs. For one thing, the smaller pits must be made of "hotter" stuff. You could, conceivably, make a nuclear weapon the size of a 50 caliber bullet. Such a round would devastate any tank built, including the formidable Merkova. However, such weapons have a painfully short shelf life and would be dangerous to handle.
So, I don't think that the DPRK has thermonuclear weapons in its inventory, even if their technicians have the know-how. I don't think that they have been able to build a warhead that will match the missile technology native to the DPRK. However, it is entirely possible that they could mount the warheads they could safely produce on that SSN6 clone. Doing so will almost certainly reduce the system's range, but there is no reason for me to think that they could not mount a DPRK warhead on that particular system. Japan now definitely faces a potential threat from that system. The question that must be running through Kim & Co.'s mind, however, is how reliable is that system? Would you want to bet your ass and all its fittings on it? My answer to that is a resounding, "No!"
Kim's best delivery options are the use of shipping containers and his submarines. Obviously, he does not want to advertise this. He wants everyone's attention on his missiles. That's why he is revealing them. His diesel-electric subs are his best delivery platform, assuming that his brags about having suicidal crews available are true. Those submarines are damned hard to detect in Korea-Chinese-Japanese waters. The water is shallow and heavily trafficked. As good as our anti-submarine warfare equipment is, this is the one thing no one wants to talk about. Worse, all US, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and even some European ports, such as Rotterdam, are highly vulnerable to an attack by shipping container. To eliminate that threat, the entire system must be overhauled and the resistance to the necessary changes is massive.
Oh, and this problem with the shipping containers makes a number of leaders like Kim Jong-Il vulnerable to a threat that they probably have not considered. Any attempt to eliminate the shipping container problem will also put enormous pressure on the smugglers. They might well decide to start taking a hand in this game. They have done it before. Check the records on WWII.
My best estimate is that Kim has between ten and twenty atomic weapons available right now. He has no intention of delivering them by missile. If his technicians have enough savvy to confuse the issue by making a weapon appear to be from Iran, he might well double-cross his colleagues in Tehran by giving such a weapon to Al Quaeda or some equivalent group. More trouble in the Middle East for the US plays in the DPRK's favor. Here of late, he has been trying to establish himself as the "leader" of the "non-aligned" states. If he can provoke more heavy-handed action by the US without getting caught, he will do exactly that. He is watching political developments in the ROK like a hawk, and is waiting for the right time to try and force the reunification issue. Judging from what I can see, the situation in the DPRK is developing just the way he wants it to develop. Unless things change soon, we are headed for a great tragedy. Said tragedy might be limited to the Korean Peninsula, but I am not counting on that.
Donald Lee Granberry is a featured writer on Korea WebWeekly.
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