The North Korean 'Threat'

15 May 2013

The shrill cries from Washington of an impending attack being endlessly repeated by hired pundits and ignorant news media serve only to further obfuscate the true motivations of the North Korean leadership. The gross ­misrepresentation of this sabre rattling by a failed state can only be interpreted as purposeful disinformation being spread by the West to distract its own populations from the massive economic fraud being perpetrated by the western “banksters” – think the LIBOR scandal or the mid-April naked shorting of gold and silver by Goldman Sachs. But I digress – this article is about the “Evil” from North Korea.

So what are the hard facts, and what are the North Koreans really doing? To answer this we must address three key issues: (1) North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability; (2) functionality of their missile systems; and most importantly, (3) North Korea’s motivation for bellicose war threats.

Nuclear Bomb(s)
It is somewhat of a historical irony that the first nuclear bomb test on North Korean soil actually occurred on the last day of World War II, when Japanese scientist detonated their nuclear weapon called “genzai bakudan” (greatest fighter). But what of the North Korean weapon(s)? We know that underground tests occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Keeping in mind the technical difficulties in accessing such explosions by remote sensing means, there is still ample evidence to show that North Korea is having technical issues with even basic nuclear bomb designs that hail from the World War II era.

Based on all evidence, the test on 9 October 2006 was a low yield bomb and, as then U.S. Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said, “the explosion yield was less than a kiloton” (about a tenth of the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). While there is some debate that this first test may be considered a failure – a “fizzle test” (the bomb not exploding to create the full nuclear chain reaction), the technical analysis of Dr. Hui Zhang of Harvard University, indicates that the idea was for a smaller yield bomb, thus smaller in size, in anticipation for missile weaponization and miniaturization.

As to the 25 May 2009 test, though there was much hand wringing and even more hyperbole from western politicians and mainstream media, it would seem that this test failed. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists observed, “North Korea tried and failed to get a simple plutonium bomb to detonate correctly.” Moreover, reports in the journal Science indicated that the level of radioisotopes detected did not indicated a successful explosion. Furthermore, a report from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission (CTBTO) stated that “none of the CTBTO’s noble gas stations have detected xenon isotopes in a characteristic way that could be attributed to the DPRK event so far.” In short there is no evidence to show the May 2009 bomb worked.

Fast forward to 12 February 2013. This most recent test proved to be successful. However, estimates of the indicated yield vary from 6 kilotons to 40 kilotons.

The political hyperbole continued as outgoing U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta stated in his farewell speech to the Pentagon, that North Korea “represent[s] a serious threat to the United States of America. And we’ve got to be prepared to deal with that.” This statement lacks credibility. The average measurement – from various sources, including South Korea’s defense ministry, the CTBTO, the Korea Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, the Russian Defence Ministry, Norwegian Seismic Array (NORSAR) and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources – is about 10 kilotons. This is far less than the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan in World War II (the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were approximately 20 kilotons). So what we know is, as of early 2013, North Korea has an incredibly inefficient nuclear device that is technologically less cable than bombs built in WWII.

According to the US Congressional Research Service, it is estimated that North Korea has between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least six nuclear weapons, however there is no indication that any further bombs have been built.

The credibility of Panetta’s statement of North Korea somehow being a threat to the USA, the state that has the most powerful military in the world, falls further into the realm of fear-mongering when we look at the ability of North Korea to miniaturize its weaponized ‘bomb’. As David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) observed after the February 2013 test: “The U.S. intelligence community has also not been of one opinion on the issue of North Korea’s ability to miniaturize and deploy a warhead on a missile. According to a U.S. Official, key members of the U.S. intelligence community have, for many years, given North Korea credit for being able to produce missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. However the official said that this conclusion is based on an assessment and not concrete evidence of such capability.”

There has also been much hullabaloo about Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons, especially from rightwing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, who are trying to score political points against the Obama White House. The fact is, most of this analysis is speculative and based on half-baked theories. There is simply no reliable evidence to show that North Korea is looking at EMP weapons (keeping in mind that EMP occurs when a nuclear bomb is exploded).

So the fact remains that there is no credible evidence that North Korea can miniaturize its current low yield nuclear weapon(s). And if they cannot do this, its ability to deliver such a weapon on a missile system has to be questioned.

Missile Capability
The previous points lead to the question of North Korea’s missile capability. Again, we see the pattern of statements made by western politicians and mainstream media (and the questionable analysts they use) about the “threat” that North Korea poses. And we find that the reality is nothing close to the uninformed rhetoric that abounds.

On 11 April 2013, Representative Doug Lamborn created a media uproar when he read out a secret assessment, which was mistakenly marked as unclassified, to the House Armed Services Committee. This assessment stated that the “DIA [Defence Intelligence Agency] assesses, with moderate confidence, the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability
will be low.” This quote came directly from the classified DIA Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013) report. However, here is the rub, the Pentagon noted that the report was inaccurate and this was supported by James R. Clapper the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the top intelligence official in the US. He stated: “I concur with the earlier Department of Defense statement that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully developed and tested the kinds of nuclear weapons referenced in the passage [...] I would add that the statement read by the Member is not an Intelligence Community assessment. Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.” This, of course, begs the question: What exactly are the missile capabilities of North Korea?

What we quickly find is that hard evidence does not match the shrill cries of what a massive threat this failed state poses to America and its regional allies. The table below provides an estimate of the types of “operational” missiles North Korea apparently has (note that capability estimates may vary depending on sources used). What is clear, is that most of the IRBM and ICBMs were/are technology testers rather than actual operational systems. And, as a 2012 RAND report observes, “the North Korean programs have experienced a very small number of test launches before the missiles were apparently declared operational and deployed with the armed forces or exported to other countries.” The RAND report further points out that, based on observed launches and the needed experience to assemble such missiles by its work force, the reliability of Korean missiles is highly suspect.

Keep in mind that all of North Korea’s missiles are derivatives of Soviet/Russian and Chinese missile systems. In fact, an independent 2009 German report observed North Korean Scud and Nodong (known as Shahab 3’s in Iran) missiles that had been sold to Iran, had Cyrillic lettering on them, which is an indication that they were using old Soviet systems rather than indigenously manufactured missiles. So, we can see indications of a North Korean shell game in regards to their actual missile manufacturing capabilities.

The actual numbers of missiles of the various types discussed is highly suspect, as most open source data cannot be verified as to the original source. In short, one can effectively ignore these numbers for a rather simple reality – the training of North Korea’s elite missile forces. You have to test fire missiles to have reliable crews, and ­current evidence shows that even if North Korea has some 1,000 missiles (my very high ‘guesstimate’) of varying types and capabilities (most would be the low-tech SCUD SRBM variety), they do not have the trained crews or launch systems to fire them off in any great numbers.

Granted, MRBMs like the Rodong missiles (Nodong 1) can hit Japan, but they are essentially a dumb missile with limited guidance capability (worse than a SCUD), so the chance of it actually hitting a target is low. Also, all reports indicate that few were produced, as the missile seems to be a prototype. In regards to the Taepodong 1 missile, in 2003 Congressional hearings the U.S. DIA reported that, “We have no information to suggest Pyongyang intends to deploy the Taepo Dong 1 (TD-1) as a surface-to-surface missile in North Korea. We believe instead that the vehicle was a test bed for multi-stage missile technologies.”

It has become clear that these missiles are made up from Russian missile parts and thus reliability becomes an issue. The BM25 Musudan has, to date, never been launch tested and, according to RAND, what was shown in 2010 was clearly a mockup. The Taepodong-2 has been tested once, and failed 35-40 seconds after launch.

If we take a hard look at North Korea’s much-vaunted missile program, we see a lot of smoke and mirrors, and in reality, a questionable capability with technology that has been imported and modified to some limited extent, with limited and problematic test results.

The DNI’s statement that North Korea does not have a viable nuclear weapon, nor can it be delivered by missile in any reliable sense, seems an accurate assessment. However, if this is indeed the case, why would Pyongyang go to all this trouble and expense to have systems that are fake, do not work or are at best unreliable?

North Korean Motivations
So if the technology is questionable, then we must consider the motivations of the North Korean leadership in playing a game of nuclear missile blind-man’s bluff (buff if you are old enough). What does North Korea gain by making what are fundamentally empty threats? To even begin this discussion, we must immediately disregard western paradigms of what is logical. Our logic simply does not apply to the North Korean mindset. But what is clear (and is also applicable to even the most democratic of systems), is that those in power always want to stay in power – for as long as they can, and by whatever means they can get away with.

A clear pattern has emerged over the past two decades, whereby North Korea makes belligerent threats to the international community. For example, on 12 April 2013 the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned that “Japan is always in the cross-hairs of our revolutionary army and if Japan makes a slightest move, the spark of war will touch Japan first”. What is also clear, is the escalation of threats (see table). Inevitably, the international community responds with concessions such as the October 1994 “Agreed Framework”, in which North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in ex­change for economic cooperation, fuel oil, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants.

It is pretty clear to any competent analyst that North Korea throws out threats predicated on the strategic political goals of the leadership rather than on the technical merits and actual capabilities of its missiles or nuclear weapons – in short it is always a ‘bluff’. As RAND observes, “the main objective of the North Korean missile program is to create the illusion of a sophisticated threat for domestic and foreign policy reasons, with the actual operational status and capability of North Korea’s missile force being of ­secondary importance or none at all.”

From the perspective of North Korea’s leadership, this is about showing power to its own population and military. This is about survival of the ruling class, showing that their rule is about technological advancement and thus strength, as Kim Jung Il stated in a 2011 interview with Russia’s ITAR-Tass “We have possessed nuclear deterrent to protect our sovereignty from the blatant nuclear threat of the United States and its increasingly hostile policy.” But of course there is no real nuclear threat from the U.S., so the statement is more for internal consumption. The position of the North Korean regime is only strengthened domestically when the West demands and imposes sanctions against North Korea. The very fact that the West reacts is used as an illustrative example of how powerful and important the North Korean leadership is – as their logic goes, if North Korea was not important or a threat, why would powerful nations like America demand such things? This is reflected in a comment on 8 May 2013 by the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which said: “Their [U.S. and South Korea] escalating war drumbeats against the DPRK once again reinforce its determination to mercilessly foil their nuclear war moves with powerful nuclear deterrent of justice. Should the U.S. imperialists and south Korean trigger-happy forces dare preempt firing at the DPRK, it will deal prompt counter-blows at them and wipe them out to the last man.” Again, this type of rhetoric is clearly for internal consumption, but the fact that it appears in English ­indicates it is also directed at a western audience, to show the resolve of the North Korean Regime. As the U.S. DoD observed in a 2012 report to Congress, “the regime’s greatest security concern is opposition from within, and outside forces – primarily South Korea – taking advantage of internal instability to topple the regime and achieve military and security developments involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea unification of the Korean Peninsula.”

Given that North Korea is functionally a failed state, many believe that if Chinese economic and technical support is withdrawn from North Korea, it will collapse within a year.

As U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry observed, during testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 17 April 2013, “China provides almost three-quarters of the fuel to the North. China is a significant banking conduit for the North. China provides significant food aid to the North. I think it’s fair to say that without China, North Korea would collapse.”

China continues to prop up the North Korean regime because it uses North Korea as a foil to keep America distracted from larger and much more important regional issues which are China’s priorities, such the domination of the South China Sea, the development of ‘blue water’ naval capacity, and the reacquisition of lost historical territories like Formosa (Taiwan). So in this context, the North Koreans have little incentive to change their position. Especially when, by making bellicose threats, the West seemingly quakes in its collective boots and gives political and economic concessions to the North. As the previously referenced RAND report observes, “North Korean [missile] launch campaigns are primarily done for political purposes: to increase domestic support for the regime, and to draw U.S. and global attention.”

Various analysts and think tanks have speculated that the current rhetoric from Pyongyang is really directed at China when it seemed that China’s position had changed when it supported UN sanctions against North Korea after the regime’s February 2013 nuclear test. But again, we see more smoke and mirrors – it has become clear that China is only giving lip service to these sanctions as trade has continued unabated.

Ultimately, if North Korea were to actually launch a nuclear attack of some kind, it would instantly become an international pariah (that is, more than it is now) and the regime would be openly challenged and lose power.

Loss of power is not the intention of the North Korean leadership, thus its threats of war cannot be taken seriously, as they have nothing to follow up with and are physically trapped on a peninsula with a large but essentially obsolete coastal navy.

So is there a serious threat from North Korea? The simple answer is NO. They have the capability to construct low tech and certainly unreliable nuclear weapons that still have not been miniaturized to be viable for missile delivery. The missile capability of IRBMs, MRBMs, and ICBMs is highly speculative and, in reality, the aim is not about technical capability but more about internal propaganda to maintain an illusion of power by the ruling elite. North Korea is truly a land outside of history and time.

It is beyond the scope of this article to consider why certain American interests insist there is a “real” threat from North Korea, when clearly there is at best a ­limited one. Yet one can speculate that the ongoing “kabuki” theatre being played out on the world stage is a function of the interests of the military-security industrial complex, which has much to lose if a real peace were to occur.
Prof. Sunil Ram teaches in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University and at the Peace Operations Training Institute. He is also Director of Intelligence for a private group based in the UAE.

© FrontLine Defence 2013