"North Korea's recent activities are actually the predictable result of years of work"
No developments "are particularly surprising or shocking"
Publicizing of tests and launches is more about propaganda for a shaky North Korean regime
Editor’s Note: Joel S. Wit is a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea Insitute at SAIS and Senior Fellow at Columbia University Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies. Sun Young Ahn is a Research Assistant at SAIS. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile activities have once again been making headlines, prompting much speculation over the country’s capabilities and intentions.
But is young dictator Kim Jong Un really, as some experts have ominously suggested, now engaged in a nuclear sprint?
The short answer is, no.
Rather than coming as a surprise, North Korea’s recent activities are actually the predictable result of years of work. Meanwhile, the North’s concerted effort to advertise these developments for its own political reasons has proven to be an information bonanza for outside analysts, providing greater insight into the status of North Korea’s WMD programs.
While there is no denying that the rapid progression of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) activities since North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January gives the impression that it is accelerating the pace of its efforts, none of these developments are particularly surprising or shocking.
Throughout 2015, our institute conducted an extensive study – the “North Korea Nuclear Future’s Project” – that examined publicly available evidence on Pyongyang’s programs and looked five years into the future.
Lifting the shroud of secrecy
All of what has happened – from Pyongyang’s dabbling with a hydrogen bomb to its work on a ballistic missile to be launched from submarines – has been anticipated because of evidence that Pyongyang was already working on them, and because they represent normal technological improvements pursued by any country seeking to build a nuclear arsenal.
Instead, a big part of what is going on is that North Korea has decided to step up its advertising.
Aside from the extensive media coverage of submarine launched missile tests, with Kim front and center at the launches, North Korea’s leader has also taken part in a ground test of a missile reentry vehicle, a critical technology that will ensure that nuclear weapons are able to hit their targets. Such a test is usually not publicized, but on this occasion the North Koreans decided to lift the shroud of secrecy.
But why is Pyongyang mounting this new advertising campaign? With the first Party Congress since 1980 taking place this week, it showcases North Korea’s technological prowess, and perhaps more importantly, the decisive leadership of Kim.
Yet this advertising can also be seen as a direct response to the large-scale joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises just held across the border, which themselves are designed to a clear message to the North in the wake of all its WMD activities, as well as to reassure our jittery ally South Korea.
The North Koreans almost certainly felt the need to send their own message back: don’t mess with us because we have nuclear weapons.
That said, there may be one other reason why the North has stepped up its advertising – its weakness.
Despite the public boasting, North Korea’s nuclear deterrent at this moment is still small, fragile, and perhaps vulnerable to a preemptive attack in time of crisis or war.
However, in a few years, given the likely growth of its stockpile of nuclear weapons and its missiles force, that will no longer be the case. The North will have the capability to launch nuclear retaliation even if it is attacked first.
Therefore, logic – as well as the North’s normal act as a regional tough guy – dictates that during this transitional period, Pyongyang should boast of capabilities it does not yet have in order to make its enemies think twice.
Pyongyang’s promotion has also provided greater insight into the status of its nuclear and missile programs. Extensive film footage, as well as the showcasing of otherwise secret activities, has given outsiders an analytical window that was never available before.
For example, the color and shape of the exhaust flame from North Korea’s recent test of a submarine launched ballistic missile enabled an aerospace engineer writing for our web site, 38North, to conclude that the engine used solid-fuel, a significant technological step forward for the North Koreans.
In addition, an examination of North Korea’s recent test of a large liquid rocket motor revealed the types of propulsion units used and the revelation that with this technology a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile would have greater range than expected, enabling it to even reach the U.S. east coast.
It is hard to believe that until recently, there has been a school of thought among private experts that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are an elaborate ruse, a Potemkin village built for the benefit of the international community. At the opposite extreme are those who claim that the recent developments mean North Korea’s WMD programs are accelerating and who now sound the alarm.
But the reality is that this has been a slowly but inexorably growing threat for some time now, and it will continue to grow.
In doing so, it will pose an increasing danger to the United States, our allies in Northeast Asia and the international community.