A new research project warns that North Korea’s nuclear stockpile could grow from roughly 10-16 nuclear weapons at the end of 2014 to 100 by the year 2020. The North Korea Nuclear Futures Project, a joint collaboration between the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and National Defense University, aims to predict possible futures for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs over the next five years. The major findings were announced to the press by Joel Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute and David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security on Tuesday.
The project provided three scenarios for the growth of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs over the next five years. Under the “minimal growth, minimal modernization” scenario – a best care scenario for concerned observers – North Korea conducts no further nuclear or missile tests and its technology progresses slowly. Even under this scenario, North Korea is expected to roughly double its stockpile of available nuclear weapons, from 10 to 20.
In the moderate scenario, which postulates North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue to develop at the same pace as they have so far, Pyongyang will have 50 nuclear weapons by 2020 and will be able to mount them on both mobile intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMS) and possibly even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The worst-case scenario, assuming an increased commitment to the nuclear and missile programs, would involve rapid growth, including successful efforts to gain foreign technologies and information). Wit described this as a “pretty scary scenario” of “dramatic expansion” that would see North Korea armed with 100 nuclear weapons by 2020 to go along with 20-30 ICBMs.
The report also warns that North Korea already has the capability to mount miniaturized warheads on both its short-range Nodong missile (which can cover most of the Northeast Asian theater) and its Taepodong-2 missile, which has the potential to be used as an ICBM. Wit notes that, given current capabilities, North Korea could amass a nuclear arsenal of around 100 weapons and mount them on Nodong missiles able to reach South Korea and Japan by 2020 even without ever conducting another nuclear or missile test.
The analysis of both the current situation and possible future developments make it clear that the current approach to North Korea’s nuclear program has failed. Both Wit and Albright noted that North Korea can routinely access the Western technologies it needs via Chinese companies willing to smuggle them over the border. The assumption that sanctions are affecting North Korea’s ability to get nuclear technology is wrong, Wit said. Albright added that a crackdown on smuggling along the Chinese-North Korea border “could make life much harder for North Korea,” but noted that currently China simply doesn’t have mechanisms in place to enforce relevant laws.
From a geopolitical perspective, perhaps the most interesting takeaway is Wit’s point that the United States is failing in its attempt to force North Korea to choose between nuclear weapons and economic prosperity. “They’re not having to choose… they’re doing both,” Wit said. And economic sacrifices are even less of a factor now that North Korea has built up the necessary infrastructure for its nuclear and missile programs. It’s “not that expensive” for North Korea to continue along its current trajectory, Albright said.
Meanwhile, North Korea is winning the battle for acceptance as a nuclear state, as a number of regional countries (Russia, China, and the ASEAN states) seem content to conduct normal political and economic relations with North Korea despite pro forma protests over its nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s recent “charm offensive” resulted in warmer ties (to varying degrees) with Russia, ASEAN, and even Japan. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has even been invited to join Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in Moscow for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. With the Kim regime strengthening ties with at least some neighbors, it will only become more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to find a way to stem the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.