Within the next two years North Korea could have enough fissile material to build a nuclear arsenal of about 20 weapons, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a senior fellow an affiliated member at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has visited North Korea several times over the past decade, believes that the nuclear policies of the past five US presidents, coupled with vacillating South Korean policies and a dearth of Chinese pressure, has allowed North Korea to reach an advanced point of nuclearization.
Hecker notes that “Pyongyang likely has roughly 12 nuclear weapons with an annual manufacturing capacity of possibly four to six bombs.” He believes the arsenal is primed for even greater growth in the next couple of years: “By the time the president leaves office, North Korea may conduct another nuclear test and have an arsenal of 20.”
He is unsparing in his assessment of the past three decades’ of presidential administrations and their failure to restrain North Korea’s program: “Five US administrations determined to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapon state through various combinations of diplomacy, threats, ultimatums, and sanctions all failed. The George W. Bush administration failed miserably and, to date, the Obama administration has done as badly.”
North Korea first laid the foundations for its nuclear program during the Reagan administration of the 1980s. At the time, Pyongyang’s drive for nuclear weapons focused on the construction of plutonium production reactors and facilities capable of extracting bomb-grade plutonium.
North Korea followed this progress by researching an alternate track to weapons through uranium centrifuges during the George H.W. Bush administration. The centrifuges would enrich uranium to weapons’ grade, providing a second method of creating a nuclear blast.
Under Clinton, Pyongyang mothballed its plutonium reactors through a negotiated freeze as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework. But North Korea merely shifted its focus to uranium centrifuges and shared nuclear technology and expertise with Syria, Libya, and Pakistan.
Under George W. Bush, North Korea scrapped the Agreed Framework and restarted its plutonium reactors. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Since then, North Korea has continued to develop nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang has declared itself a nuclear state.
As North Korea continues its push for additional and more easily deployable nuclear weapons, Pyongyang becomes increasingly dangerous to its neighbours and the world at large. In October, the US general in charge of forces on the Korean peninsula said that Pyongyang has likely managed to miniaturize nuclear weapons, bringing the regime closer to being able to place nuclear weapons on top of rockets or missiles.
Even though these technologies are in development, the completion of a successful launch is still thought to be beyond North Korea’s current capabilities.
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