In January 2004, the director of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center handed me a sealed glass jar with plutonium metal inside in an effort to convince me that his country had a nuclear deterrent. To make the same point last week, Pyongyang lofted a missile 2,800 miles into space and declared it had a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach all of the United States. Has the country’s nuclear program really come that far?
As global anxiety over North Korea grows and the war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un escalates, it is more important than ever to be precise about what we know, and what we don’t, about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and delivery systems. In 2004, nothing I saw on my visit persuaded me that Pyongyang could build a bomb and deliver it. But more recent visits, along with several kinds of open-source analysis, leave little doubt of North Korea’s impressive progress in producing bomb fuel, building powerful nuclear devices, and test-launching a wide variety of missiles—and its determined efforts to integrate all three into a nuclear-tipped missile.
Extensive experience with shorter-range missiles and 11 years of nuclear tests most likely enable North Korea to mount a nuclear warhead on missiles that can reach all of South Korea and Japan. That capability, along with massive artillery firepower trained on Seoul, should be enough to deter Washington. By my assessment, however, North Korea will need at least two more years and several more missile and nuclear tests before it can hit the U.S. mainland.
WHAT IT TAKES
A credible nuclear deterrent requires not just fuel for a nuclear bomb, but also the ability to weaponize (that is, design and build the bomb) and to field delivery systems that can get the bomb to a target. It also requires demonstrating these capabilities—and the will to use them—to an adversary. There may be little doubt of Kim’
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