Should we be nervous about North Korea's nuclear weapon tests?

Experts share whether there's a current threat from North Korea, as it has been publicly attempting to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Posted at 9:02 PM, Mar 28, 2023

The issue of nuclear weapons has been in the news cycle a lot lately, mostly due to what's happening on the Korean peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for an "exponential increase" in his country's nuclear weapons arsenal this year and is reportedly building a fleet of "super large" mobile rocket launchers. This comes after it already logged nearly 100 missile tests last year, a record for the country.

Defense experts have noted several tests involved weapons capable of traveling thousands of miles after launch. Both last November and earlier this March, the regime launched a Hwasong-17, an intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the United States.

It's left questions surrounding North Korea's motivations behind pursuing nuclear arms and what the threat level is for its adversaries, like the U.S. or neighboring South Korea.

Erik Mobrand, a political scientist and the Korea policy chair at the RAND Corporation, says this story dates back to the Korean War.

"So much of what is happening on the Korean Peninsula now relates to the militarization of the peninsula that happened decades ago," Mobrand said.

Mobrand explains that back in the 1940s, the regions now known as North and South Korea were fighting for their independence from Japan as one nation, but that fight against Japan also exposed divisions within Korean society itself, ultimately leading to the Korean War. 

"Then overlaid on this tension was the geographic division of the peninsula that came with Soviet control or advice in the northern part and American control and advice in the southern part of the peninsula," Mobrand said. 

Those divisions had lasting impacts that no doubt contributed to North Korea's nuclear arsenal today. 

A TV screen shows footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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To understand how, Scripps News spoke to Siegfried Hecker, an internationally recognized expert in plutonium science and nuclear security. He's one of the few international experts to have seen North Korea's nuclear facilities up close and documented his experience in the recent book "Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea's Nuclear Program."

"North Korea was certainly a most difficult country, and they had interests in nuclear weapons essentially during and right after the Korean War," Hecker said.

The U.S. was one of five nations that already had nuclear weapon technology back then.

At this point, world nations had yet to create a global set of rules around these weapons. It wasn't until the establishment of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, that there was more regulation.

The NPT is an international treaty meant to curb nuclear arms production and usage while promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. After taking effect in 1970, the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995 and has 191 state parties involved.

North Korea had also signed the NPT back when it didn't even have nukes. But at the same time, it continued to work toward nuclear weapon capabilities by building up certain infrastructure.

"In other words, the type of facilities that would be required to make the bomb fuel — and that is plutonium — and perhaps to dabble in the area of going the second route to the bomb — which is uranium, which would take enrichment — plutonium takes reactors, and so they began to build those in the 1980s," Hecker said.

In the late 80s and 90s, U.S. intelligence became aware North Korea was building these facilities and ultimately wanted to build nuclear weapons, which is why efforts to curb the country's capabilities began. Things looked promising at first.

"They actually struck a deal with the Clinton administration, and the essence of that deal was, is, that they would give up those facilities that the Americans had found through satellite imagery and other means if indeed the Americans would actually help them build an electricity producing nuclear reactor," Hecker said. "This deal that was signed in 1994 was called the Agreed Framework."

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

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Fast forward to the early 2000s, the Bush administration inherited the Clinton deal, but it said North Korea's facilities were violating the NPT and accused North Korea of also pursuing the path to nuclear weapons with nuclear energy. So in 2003, North Korea opted to exercise the Supreme National Interest clause in the NPT, known as Article 10.

Around the same time, North Korea also closed off its nuclear facilities to international investigators and became much more secretive about its advances.

But different North Korean regimes have also tried for peace agreements with South Korea and the U.S., which have placed heavy economic sanctions on Pyongyang. These talks have all fallen apart.

Nonetheless, some recent attempts have also seemed pretty promising. The last example was in 2018, when President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea. Trump became the first sitting president to step into North Korea in his third meeting with Kim since taking office, but ultimately, talks turned sour.

"It was a hinge point where the wrong decision was made," Hecker said. "Then that opened the door, you know, politically, where then by the time that President Trump went out of office, President Biden came into office, the North Koreans had said, 'We are going to have to go on the nuclear path.'"

Since 2018, there's been little progress on the diplomacy front, while North Korea has continued work to expand its nuclear arsenal. 

As for the South, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN earlier this month that it would not pursue nuclearization as a deterrent.

"South Korea has a very impressive conventional arsenal — that is to say that it has instruments of defense that are non-nuclear," Mobrand said. "It also has the assurance from the United States so that if South Korea is attacked, then the United States will come to its aid, and there are U.S. forces stationed in Korea."

A U.S. bomber and fighter aircraft over South Korea

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While tensions are high in the region, experts Scripps News spoke to caution against alarm. 

North Korea's capabilities are still not fully known. Take the nuclear missile Hwasong-17, which can reach the U.S.: It has several pieces to it, including the smallest part that carries the actual nuclear bomb.

"They know how to design and build big bombs," Hecker said. "Whether they can make them small enough for the third piece, and that is the delivery to put them in a missile, that's still a question."

That seems to line up with the official response, as Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, noted in response to North Korea's tests earlier this month.

"We're still studying it, making an assessment of what it means in terms of their capabilities," Sullivan said. "But, of course, we're not going to let any steps North Korea take deter us or constrain us from the actions that we feel are necessary to safeguard stability on the Korean Peninsula."

It's important to consider, however, that North Korea is run by dictatorship, which aren't typically known for being forthcoming with facts — especially facts that don't reflect well on their goals. Also, for strategic reasons, the U.S. or other global intelligence agencies may not be disclosing exactly how much they know about North Korea's nuclear plans with the general public, even as the state continues to openly test its nuclear capabilities.

"Does that make me concerned that we're going to be attacked, or South Korea is going to be attacked tomorrow? No, but it's a dangerous situation because they've just continued to build up the capability," Hecker said.

Ultimately, history and these experts seem to suggest North Korea's nuclearization is about establishing itself in the world order against what it perceives to be opposing interests, both from a major superpower like the U.S. and also from neighboring South Korea.

"Autonomy is historically and today a rather sensitive issue on the Korean Peninsula," Mobrand said. "I think there is a shared feeling among Koreans on both sides of the peninsula that they have they do not have the autonomy that they deserve as a nation, and so the sorts of symbols that the North Korean leadership uses probably plays to that sentiment."