North Korea continued efforts to develop its missile and nuclear capabilities during 2014. Although the opacity of this Northeast Asian country makes any attempt to meaningfully assess the strategic potential of either North Korean program a difficult task, open source information can provide some insights into the progress it has made. Of particular importance are its advancements in nuclear infrastructure, the quantities of nuclear fuel produced, and the country’s ballistic missile program.
As 2013 drew to a close, new information emerged on the North Korean expansion of facilities linked to plutonium production. Satellite imagery showed significant advances in two new facilities used to produce fuel for the 5 MW reactor and the 25-30 MW Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR). Already in April 2013 North Korea had announced its intention to restart the 5 MW plutonium reactor, after it had been suspended in 2007. This claim was confirmed in the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” report presented in January 2014 by James Clapper. Nine months later, the IAEA confirmed the operational status signs present in the North Korean 5MW reactor.
Throughout 2014, several accounts mentioned a reactor shutdown. That procedure usually raises concerns in policymaking circles as it is usually associated with the withdrawal of spent fuel for plutonium reprocessing. Expert analysis of the available evidence indicated that there were no signs of spent fuel removal and that the shutdown was most likely linked to maintenance procedures. Still, recent disclosed, yet inconclusive, data suggested that the ten-week suspension of this reactor could have included activities that went beyond maintenance work. Considering progress on the ELWR, reports by the middle of 2014 were claiming that, once finished, the facility could generate between 30 to 40 kilograms of plutonium – enough for five to six nuclear warheads – several times more than the 5 MW reactor can currently yield.
Advances were also made in uranium-enrichment. Pyongyang first admitted to possessing a uranium-enrichment program in September 2009. A year later, it decided to disclose its uranium-enrichment pilot plant in the Yongbyon complex. Initially, it was estimated that this facility could produce 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium per year, enough for two nuclear weapons. By mid 2013, satellite images had identified the expansion of these facilities, to double the enrichment capacity. Additional satellite imagery in 2014 showed that the uranium-enrichment facilities exterior modifications had been finalized, potentially meaning that installation of centrifuges and other indoor construction activities were underway, with the possibility of being completed by the end of the year.
Perhaps based on this information, recent statements by South Korean officials acknowledge that North Korea may already possess the knowledge and technical capabilities needed to assemble a uranium-based nuclear device. A rudimentary nuclear device made with highly enriched uranium – such as a gun-type nuclear fission bomb – may not pose significant technical obstacles to a country that a degree of experience in the nuclear arena, such as North Korea. However, strategic-yield nuclear weapons entail more complex challenges that are likely beyond the ken of North Korean scientists for the time being.
Other security concerns were linked to a hypothetical fourth North Korean nuclear test. First detected in May of 2013, excavation of a new tunnel at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site accelerated in early 2014, raising fears that a new nuclear test was being prepared. When North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN declared that his country would conduct a new form of nuclear test, several possibilities were advanced, including simultaneous nuclear tests within the tunnels or atmospheric tests. Months later, Pyongyang renewed its threat to conduct a new nuclear test. At one point, South Korean officials even acknowledged that North Korea had made all the necessary preparations for a nuclear test, lacking only the political will to proceed.
Notwithstanding these statements, satellite imagery continued to demonstrate that a nuclear test was not imminent and Pyongyang has yet to deliver on its pledge of a “new form” of nuclear test. Analysts see the initial three nuclear tests as unlikely to have provided significant scientific data and were probably more significant politically than technically. Still, the danger of additional nuclear tests remain, as it could allow North Korea to advance its warhead miniaturization efforts for future placement in one of its ballistic missiles. Moreover, experts argue that even if North Korea is able to develop a miniaturize nuclear warhead, there are other technical complications that need to be overcome before the North Korean military can have an operational nuclear weapon.
North Korea has also made progress in the realm of ballistic missiles. At the beginning of the year the first satellite images suggested likely ICBM first and second-stage engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Similar tests followed in March/April, June/July and early August, raising to five the number of KN-08 first-stage tests in 2014. The road mobile KN-08 – possibly based on Soviet SS-N-6 technology – was first identified in 2011 and is believed to be under development. Still, the absence of any fully assembled ICBM tests makes it premature to assume that this kind of ballistic missile will be part of Pyongyang’s arsenal anytime soon. Inconsistencies concerning this missile’s fuel type and design have also puzzled analysts, while observers have noted that North Korea lacks experience dealing with the solid fuel technology that supposedly accompanies this three-stage ballistic missile. North Korean engineers will face other obstacles in developing an ICBM, namely those linked to the re-entry vehicle and operational flexibility requirements.
Also contributing to the North Korean ICBM speculation was the 2014 upgrade of the Sohae launch station, which can now be used to test ballistic missiles or launch space vehicles. Initially detected in 2013 at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the modifications in the gantry tower and launch pad were completed in September 2014, according to satellite imagery. As the upgrades are completed and analysts declare that the facilities are once again operational, North Korea will be able to test another Unha-3 rocket or even a larger model, once it achieves operational status.
Pyongyang may have also tested a new surface-to-surface missile, the KN-02. Based on the Russian SS-21 Scarab, the KN-02 was designed to reach longer distances (220 kilometers) and it is considered the most accurate missile in the North Korean arsenal. North Korea has yet to master the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for a missile, but the KN-02 could be a suitable candidate since Russia is known to have previously placed a 100 kiloton nuclear warhead on a SS-21.
Second Strike Capability
Other advances may be linked to the North Korean wish to develop a second strike capability. South Korean sources revealed that North Korea may be developing a vertical missile launch tube for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Confirming these claims, recent satellite images identified a new test stand at North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard that could be used to develop vertical missile launch platforms for submarines. In late November, accounts raised the possibility that an ejection launcher test may have already occurred. Nonetheless, it is anticipated that it will be a number of years before North Korea can overcome the technical hurdles inherent in the domestic development of an operational SLBM force.
Also unconfirmed is the hypothesis that contemplates North Korea’s ability to equip its submarines with SLBMs. According to Jane’s, North Korea could fire an SLBM from the Chinese Type 033 submarines by equipping them with a horizontal launch tube. Albeit with operational limitations, both the Hwasong 6 and the KN-02 missiles could be likely candidates for this method. Another possibility would comprise the adaptation of the Golf-class submarines that North Korea previously purchased from Russia. Joseph Bermudez, however, argues that there are three main factors preventing North Korea from developing a domestic SLBM capability: 1) The current North Korean Romeo and Whisky class submarines are not capable of SLBM launches; 2) North Korea lacks technical experience in developing or using SLBMs; and 3) the North Korean arsenal lacks a ballistic missile that it is adequate for SLBM conversion.
More missile-related events were detected this year, as several ballistic missile and rocket launches were identified, mostly in response to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises or the U.S.-Japan-South Korea meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. The Rodong medium-range ballistic missile tests are probably the most significant of these. Experts believe that the two mid-March tests were conducted with a Rodong modified version with the ultimate aim of transporting a nuclear warhead, although further testing will be required to evaluate their reliability. Another advanced possibility links this particular test to an attempt to develop a missile shield evasion tactic. Analysts noticed that the used firing angle allowed the missiles to reach a higher altitude (160 kilometers), which can be interpreted as a method to prevent interception by Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3)-3 systems – limited to 40 kilometers altitude – which U.S. Forces in Korea use. Additionally, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry, the Rodong missiles were launched from mobile platforms. If confirmed, the more mobile launch platforms will make it tougher to monitor their location and will also give North Korea some second strike capability, as the latter are more challenging to destroy in a preemptive strike.
In response to the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles upgrades, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. pursued several initiatives during 2014. In terms of active defenses, South Korea has decided to upgrade its missile interception capabilities and acquire new systems, such as improving its currently placed PAC-2 interceptors as well as purchasing PAC-3 systems in 2015. These interceptors are more suited for targeting nonstrategic ballistic missiles that fly at a lower altitude; doubts remain about their ability to intercept strategic missiles.
To overcome this defense gap, in May 2014, the Pentagon proposed the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. However, Seoul has voiced its preference for the development of its own ballistic missile defenses (BMD) system to intercept missiles at higher altitudes (above 40 kilometers). This BMD would likely be based on THAAD-compatible long-range surface-to-air missiles. For lower altitude missiles, South Korea is already developing the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). Since its inception in 2006, KAMD has evolved to include PAC-2 systems, Aegis-equipped destroyers, and Green Pine radar systems. All this hardware is intended to be supported by the “Kill Chain” program – a set of domestically manufactured satellites that will support KAMD’s missile launch detection capabilities. It is anticipated that this system will be operational in 2021.
Notwithstanding a previous agreement between Seoul and Washington for further interoperability between the South Korean and the U.S.-Japan BMD system, key stakeholders in South Korea have yet to acquiesce. This reluctance to accept a joint missile shield can be explained by the expense of a THAAD system, the likely Chinese reaction given the implications of a THAAD antimissile system for Beijing’s own missile arsenal, and South Korea’s troubled relations with Japan.
Japan also reacted to recent missile launches. Tokyo already has PAC-2 interceptors and seven vessels with BMD systems in place, but continuous missile testing by North Korea led the U.S. to decide to deploy, until 2017, of two additional Aegis destroyers to Japan. The Aegis systems will be equipped with Standard-Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors capable of destroying short and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Earlier, in October 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the placement of a second AN/TPY-2 radar in Kyoto to increase Tokyo’s ability to detect and track potential North Korean missiles. A year later the radar was installed. Additionally, the U.S. and Japan have been looking to deploy a THAAD system to enable the Japanese military to intercept ballistic missiles during the reentry phase.
China, North Korea and Russia have all voiced concerns about the deployment of THAAD and other BMD systems, which they foresee leading to an arms race and further instability of the region. This reflects the strategic concerns caused by the far-reaching capabilities of the X-band radar included in the THAAD battery – close to two thousand kilometers – as well as the interception capabilities of THAAD batteries, which could jeopardize the strategic value of Beijing and Moscow’s missile arsenals.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea have adopted other tactics to discourage or prepare for any North Korean belligerence. The joint military exercises, for example, held between February-April 2014 and in August 2014 always serve as a display of Washington’s commitment to South Korean defense. This assurance was reinforced by the decision to delay the transfer of the U.S. wartime control of US-South Korea’s troops, due to deteriorating security conditions on the Korean Peninsula.
In parallel to these defense measures, diplomacy continues to be directed at North Korean denuclearization. With the Six-Party talks currently at a standstill, Washington is maintaining its position on resuming nuclear talks with North Korea: Without no significant denuclearization efforts, the U.S. will not discuss nuclear weapons issues with Pyongyang. Recently, the State Department’s special representative clarified what “denuclearization efforts” would entail. Instead of requiring complete denuclearization, restarting the Six-Party talks would be conditional on North Korea commencing a denuclearization process and abiding by the terms agreed in February 2012: ceasing the nuclear program including uranium enrichment, allowing IAEA inspections, and ending nuclear and missile testing.
For its part, China continues to appeal for a resumption of the nuclear talks, but it has also been exerting political pressure on North Korea to change some of its behaviors, especially actions linked to further nuclear tests. Interestingly, China has focused considerable diplomatic attention on South Korea over the past 12 months. Not only have Seoul and Beijing jointly shared “deep concern” over the North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities, but Chinese authorities also supported a Security Council resolution reinforcing sanctions against North Korea in the aftermath of its third nuclear test. The stronger ties between these countries has been identified as one factor behind North Korea’s most recent diplomatic tour.
As the world watches the nuclear and ballistic progress achieved by North Korea, it becomes increasingly obvious that it will not relinquish its nuclear status. In fact, some of the known advances in both programs demonstrate that Pyongyang is aiming to have a reliable nuclear deterrence capability through the development of a regional second strike capability, regardless of the embryonic nature of some of its efforts. As a result, South Korea and Japan have been bolstering their active defenses against ballistic missiles and the U.S. continues to strengthen its extended deterrence commitments.
Since the resumption of the Six-Party talks seems improbable and given that there are deep strategic divergences among the major regional powers (such as the U.S and Russia, or China and Japan), any major political or diplomatic turnaround that can persuade the North Korean leadership to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs is likely to prove elusive. In short, preserving long-term strategic stability in the Northeast Asia will remain a difficult task.
Francisco Galamas is an international security and nonproliferation analyst from Portugal. He is member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group of the U.S. Atlantic Council as well as of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.