Report: North Korea's nuke arsenal larger than thought, Chinese experts say

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North Korean soldiers walk down the stairs of the Panmungak building at the Joint Security Area, North Korea, July 27, 2013. North Korean soldiers regularly venture out of the building to observe their South Korean counterparts. (Armando R. Limon/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
North Korean soldiers walk down the stairs of the Panmungak building at the Joint Security Area, North Korea, July 27, 2013. North Korean soldiers regularly venture out of the building to observe their South Korean counterparts. (Armando R. Limon/Stars and Stripes)

Report: North Korea's nuke arsenal larger than thought, Chinese experts say

by: Wyatt Olson | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 25, 2015

Chinese nuclear experts estimate that North Korea possesses 20 nuclear warheads and the capability to produce double that number by next year, an assessment that widely exceeds most U.S. estimates, according to a report Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

The Chinese estimate was revealed during a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists in China in February, the report said.

U.S. estimates of North Korea’s capability range from 10 to 16 nuclear bombs, the report said.

One of the U.S. experts in attendance, Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor and former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the Journal that Chinese experts think North Korea has a greater domestic capacity to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level than previously assumed.

In an email response to Stars and Stripes, Hecker described the meeting as “a non-governmental, non-official dialogue on U.S.-China security issues,” of which North Korea’s nuclear program was one of many security topics discussed. Both Chinese and American experts made presentations at the meeting.

Until recently, the Chinese “had a pretty low opinion of what the North Koreans could do,” David Albright, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, told the Journal. “I think they’re worried now.”

China’s foreign and defense ministries and diplomats at North Korea’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment. The White House, State Department and Pentagon declined to provide the Journal with U.S. estimates of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

The Chinese estimates were disclosed during a meeting at the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese foreign ministry’s think tank. Attending the meeting were Chinese technical, political and diplomatic experts, as well as military representatives, sources told the Journal.

Hecker told Stars and Stripes he conferred regularly with nuclear experts in China and Russia as part of his Nuclear Risk Reduction project at Stanford. He first visited the Yongbyon Nuclear Center in North Korea in 2004, during which officials there showed him plutonium metal they’d reprocessed from spent fuel rods.

“I visited North Korea seven times in total, with four of those visits to the Yongbyon complex,” Hecker said. “After each of these visits, I compared observations and analyses with Chinese nuclear experts. During the first few visits, the Chinese experts and Chinese international relations scholars were quite skeptical of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. I believe that my observations helped to inform their subsequent analysis since Chinese experts did not have access to Yongbyon at the time.

“The latest estimates by Chinese nuclear experts now exceed mine. I believe that we base our estimates on the same open-source data. In both cases, there are huge uncertainties in estimating the enrichment capacity that is likely present at covert sites.”

Greg Thielmann, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.,-based Arms Control Association, told Stars and Stripes that it was hard to gauge the reliability of the higher estimate, because the public details are murky.

Even if the Chinese estimate is accurate, the additional value for North Korea of more warheads is “pretty marginal,” Thielmann said.

“Twenty is an interesting number since it’s higher than what U.S. experts have been thinking North Korea has right now, but is it really a lot more significant than the number 10 or number 15? I would say no,” Thielmann said.

“If they have five, if they have 10, that’s very bad news. If they can put them on Nodong missiles, that’s very bad news for Japan and South Korea in particular.”

North Korea’s operational Nodong missiles have a top range of 1,500 miles.

North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, known as the KN-08.

Earlier this month Adm. Bill Gortney, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told reporters he thinks Pyongyang has achieved a breakthrough to make the KN-08 an operational road-mobile missile. He declined to cite evidence for his conclusion.

“That’s nice speculation,” Thielmann said. “But North Korea has not once ever flown an intercontinental ballistic missile. We have to be somewhat evidentiary here.

“I’m a little skeptical that the North Koreans have everything figured out in terms of how to put a nuclear warhead on, and they certainly haven’t figured out how to launch an ICBM and get the warhead safely to its target and working properly.”

Hecker agreed.

“I believe North Korea would require more long-range missile tests and more nuclear tests to pose a direct threat to the United States,” he told Stars and Stripes.

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