North Korea Still Far From Working ICBM, Experts Say

South Koreans on Monday watch file footage of North Korean rockets rolled out for a parade. A recent finding by a U.S. intelligence agency that Pyongyang has probably developed the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads does not mean the North has also acquired the necessary ballistic missile capabilities to deliver those weapons in attacks on the United States, according to independent experts (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).
South Koreans on Monday watch file footage of North Korean rockets rolled out for a parade. A recent finding by a U.S. intelligence agency that Pyongyang has probably developed the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads does not mean the North has also acquired the necessary ballistic missile capabilities to deliver those weapons in attacks on the United States, according to independent experts (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).

WASHINGTON -- One U.S. intelligence agency’s assessment that North Korea can produce miniaturized nuclear warheads does not mean the isolated nation is on the verge of possessing an ICBM, issue watchers say.

The North has not proven it has developed a long-range ballistic missile that can reliably hit its target and is also not known to have designed a warhead re-entry vehicle tough enough to withstand the trip back through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) at a Thursday hearing on Capitol Hill read a portion of a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency that found with "moderate confidence" that North Korea possesses "nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however, the reliability will be low." The disclosed portion of the DIA analysis did not include any supporting evidence to back up the finding, making it difficult for independent analysts to judge how much weight to give the agency’s assessment. The White House, though, quickly walked back from the finding.

The Los Angeles Times noted in a Friday article that the Pentagon agency had in past decades overestimated the Soviet Union’s missile power and then more recently wrongly believed Iraq held nuclear weapons prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The phrase “moderate confidence” in the intelligence world essentially means that North Korea has made this claim and it is plausible that it is true, according to Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The North since 2006 has conducted three underground nuclear trials; it said the most recent test in February involved a “miniaturized” device that achieved a “greater explosive force” than the two prior tests. Based on these tests, North Korea can be understood to possess a nuclear weapon with a yield similar to the atomic bomb used by the United States on Nagasaki in 1945, Lewis told Global Security Newswire.

“That is a legitimate nuclear weapon,” he said.

There is still considerable debate among independent nuclear-weapon experts on whether North Korea has acquired the ability to make warheads small enough for mounting on ballistic missiles. Lewis said he believes Washington should accept that this is plausible: “They have said they want to do that, they have programs to do that and they are making progress.”

The question remains, however, whether the North has put together the remaining ingredients for carrying out a successful nuclear missile attack on the United States or other countries.

The DIA finding that a North Korean nuclear-armed ballistic missile at this point would have a “low” reliability suggests the chances of successfully sending the missile to its target in a successful nuclear attack are not good, according to Lewis.

North Korea in several attempts has carried out only a single successful long-range missile test, which took place last December and involved a Taepodong 2 missile modified to work as a space launch vehicle. Pyongyang will have to duplicate that success many more times before it can derive any military confidence in its long-range ballistic missile ability.

It is foolish to believe that Pyongyang, with its severely constrained industrial resources, would be able to somehow leapfrog the testing steps followed by previous ICBM holders such as the United States, Russia, and China, according to the large majority of experts.

The United States carried out 125 tests of its first ICBM before it was declared operational in the 1960s, Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative, noted at a Monday forum on North Korea. Similarly, the Soviet Union tested its first ICBM 90 times before it was seen as operational. In the 1980s, the two Cold War rivals maintained busy test-launch programs for their next-generation ballistic missiles, according to Pifer.

The three North Korean missiles that could pose direct challenges to U.S. territory and the continental United States are the intermediate-range Musudan missile, which could be used against U.S. military forces on Guam; the Taepodong 2; and the mysterious road-mobile KN-08. Of those three missiles, only the Taepodong 2 has definitely been flight-tested.

On top of that, Lewis is skeptical that Pyongyang plans to use the Taepodong 2 as a nuclear warhead delivery vehicle; he sees the KN-08 or future missiles derived from the KN-08 as more likely nuclear delivery vehicles. The Taepodong class of missiles was originally derived from Scuds -- a tactical weapon not known for its speed or its accuracy -- while the KN-08 and the Musudan appear to be based on a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile that has a greater flight distance.

Also necessary for a successful strategic missile is a warhead strong enough to survive the rigors experienced upon re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere at the extremely fast speeds needed for an ICBM.

“This is rocket science,” Pifer said. “We really have to ask ourselves the question: Are North Korean engineers so good that they can glean from a handful of tests or one test or in some cases no test, the information about these missiles that would give them confidence that they can be reliably used?

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned. I think the North Koreans are making progress but I think we need to keep this all in perspective,” he added.

A number of top U.S. defense officials in recent years have warned of North Korea’s progress toward an ICBM. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early 2011 memorably said the North was within five years of wielding a strategic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. In March, both National Intelligence Director James Clapper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld warned that the KN-08 poses a serious ICBM threat.

While recent propaganda videos produced by Pyongyang of coming nuclear attacks on the United States have largely been met by derision, Lewis advised against taking the amusement too far.

“The appropriate response is not to laugh at them,” he said. “It’s to note that there are still more things they need to do to have high confidence” in an ICBM.

Lewis contended that North Korea’s claim of an ability to mount nuclear attacks on the United States is a “plausible near-term future.” For this reason, he said he supports renewed U.S. diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang.

“They’ve done three nuclear tests toward that end and sooner or later they are going to be able to figure it out and so we should try to discourage them to do that,” Lewis said.

Some North Korean missiles “will not work well the first or second time but it is not impossible for them to continue working toward putting a deliverable nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the United States,” he added.

North Korea could also decide it does not need an intensive testing program to have a strategic deterrent adequate for repelling any U.S. attacks and therefore to give it the confidence to mount aggressive conventional strikes on South Korea.

The North’s medium-range Nodong could be on the verge of being armed with a miniaturized warhead, RAND Asia expert Bruce Bennett said in a Monday interview. He noted that the Nodong has been tested much more vigorously than longer-range North Korean missiles.

April 15, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- One U.S. intelligence agency’s assessment that North Korea can produce miniaturized nuclear warheads does not mean the isolated nation is on the verge of possessing an ICBM, issue watchers say.

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