Reenergizing North Korea Policy in a New Administration

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The United States and its allies in East Asia have had sound reasons for the current approach to dealing with North Korea.  However, it carries with it a danger exemplified by the latest and largest North Korean nuclear test.  North Korea has been rightly dubbed by many experienced diplomats, the land of lousy policy options.   As such, the Obama Administration chose early in its first term, after initial rebuffs in diplomatic outreach to the North, to work with the international community to place increasingly harsh sanctions on North Korea while encouraging China to use its leverage to bring the North back to the table ready to trade away its ambitions to become a nuclear power.  But the latest North Korean nuclear test is a vivid reminder that Kim Jong-un has not been deterred and in fact is making progress, as he pursues the capability to strike the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

Beginning in 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency publically credited North Korea with possessing “one or two” simple fission-type nuclear weapons, and the current estimates are that the North has enough fissile material for 10-16 nuclear weapons.  However, designing and deploying a reliable intercontinental missile with a nuclear warhead is a far more difficult scientific accomplishment.  There are many obstacles, such as miniaturization of the nuclear device to fit the capabilities of the launch vehicle and ensuring that the nose cone, and thus the warhead, will survive intact the reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.  To use a rough comparison, China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, but it was not until 1980 that it was considered to have its first operational, nuclear-tipped ICBM.   If North Korea can duplicate this timeline, it is still six years away from an operational nuclear-tipped ICBM, because its first nuclear test was in 2006.  More sophisticated analysis suggests that North Korea might achieve this goal by 2020.

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