A report in the Wall Street Journal released on Wednesday notes that “China’s top nuclear experts” have upped their threat assessments of North Korea’s nuclear weapons production. Per the report, which is based off comments made by those experts at a “closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists,” these Chinese experts perceived North Korea to pose a greater nuclear threat than even most contemporary U.S. assessments. The report comes not long after the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies released a new report suggesting that North Korea could, in an extreme scenario, possess up to 100 nuclear warheads by 2020 (if you missed it, Shannon Tiezzi and I spoke to Joel Wit, one of the authors of that report, on The Diplomat’s podcast).
The Journal’s report suggest that the latest Chinese estimates place North Korea’s active nuclear arsenal as of April 2015 at 20 warheads. This number is unconfirmed as no one outside of North Korea—not even China, Pyongyang’s erstwhile closest partner—knows the specifics of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Interestingly, the report notes that the Chinese experts believe that North Korea is capable of producing sufficient amounts of weapons-grade uranium to “double its arsenal by next year.” That claim doesn’t quite line up with most studies of North Korea’s uranium program in the West. North Korea’s nuclear tests have all so far been plutonium-based devices, and while the country has long been known to have an interest in enriching uranium for use in a weapons program, there is considerable disagreement regarding the extent to which this program is operational or even viable. David Albright offers the most recent independent U.S. take on the Pyongyang’s progress on weapons-grade uranium (see pages 6-10 onward in this document).
Siegfried Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the lead U.S. technical expert at the meeting with Chinese experts, told the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese “believe on the basis of what they’ve put together now that the North Koreans have enough enriched uranium capacity to be able to make eight to 10 bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium per year.” Though it is likely based on unverified information and educated estimation, that’s quite a spectacular claim regarding North Korea’s abilities.
The sounding of the alarm by representatives of the Chinese government and Chinese experts on North Korea’s nuclear program is not a new phenomenon, but the new alarmism about Pyongyang’s growing arsenal and uranium program suggests that China is keen for the United States, and other countries, to take the North Korean nuclear issue back to the negotiating table. In the years since the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program fell apart, China has been actively campaigning for a return to negotiations while the United States has refused to do so until the North Korean government demonstrates in good faith that it is willing to negotiate by taking action to increase its transparency or cooperate with international investigators, from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for example.
Based on statements by senior U.S. diplomatic officials, the United States will likely be unconvinced by heightened threat perceptions of North Korea’s capabilities. In recent months, senior U.S. military officials, including Admiral William Gortney of U.S. Northern Command, have suggested that North Korea’s nuclear program is likely sophisticated enough to the point where it is worth taking Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability seriously. Gortney, in March, suggested that North Korea could mount a nuclear device for delivery via its 5,600 mile-range KN-08 ICBM. Meanwhile, Admiral Cecil D. Haney of U.S. Strategic Command suggested that North Korea was making progress toward operationalizing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability as well.
With threat assessments rising in both the United States and China, it is at least certain that North Korea will remain an area of discussion of the two countries in their bilateral dialogues, even if they continue to disagree about the utility of multilateral talks. Chinese President Xi Jinxing is scheduled to visit Washington later this year. He will likely bring up Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions in his talks with U.S. President Barack Obama. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on official Chinese statements on North Korea to determine if there is common ground between the official Chinese government position on North Korea and the opinions of Chinese nuclear experts. Generally, China, while concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, hasn’t taken Pyongyang’s abilities too seriously. That could be changing soon.