North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs

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September 12, 2006

Indications Persist that DPRK Moving Toward Underground N-Tests, Despite PRC, Russian Opposition

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. With input from GIS Stations Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere. High-level sources in Pyongyang have intimated that the DPRK Government may press ahead soon with an underground nuclear detonation, merely to establish, beyond doubt, that it has a military nuclear capability. This follows exclusive reporting on September 5, 2006, that the DPRK was moving toward an underground nuclear test and new tests of its missile-based national command authority (NCA).

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, September 5, 2006: DPRK Upcoming “Tests” Linked to Iranian Interests and Japanese Changes.

In many respects, despite strong opposition to the move by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il has felt that an actual explosion would be the only way in which he could obtain “respect” and an ironclad immunity from a US-led military attack on his country.

Continued US — and therefore Western — apparent denial that either the DPRK or Iran have nuclear weapons has caused both countries to find ways to hint at their nuclear weapons capabilities (in Iran’s case with externally-acquired weapons at this stage) without incurring an attempted pre-emptive strike by US forces. In both cases, the perception that the US was prepared to launch pre-emptive military strikes against them stemmed from earlier US Clinton Administration claims that if either North Korea or Iran were found to have nuclear weapons, then the US would do something about the problem.

Thus, the DPRK and Iran have attempted to ensure that their nuclear weapons capabilities were seen to have arrived — and been deployed — as ŕ fait accompli, too late for external intervention without risking a full-blown, two-way nuclear exchange.

Russian Government sources have been certain for some time that the DPRK had the capability to demonstrate its nuclear weapons with a live test, and, indeed, that it had a significant number of deployed nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles and, probably, aircraft.

One Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying that Kim Jong Il was “irritated” by financial sanctions imposed in 2005 by the US, including the blocking of bank accounts abroad believed to have been used for money laundering and other illegal deals, including arms and drugs trading. Kim was said to have threatened “to use all necessary means" — including further development of the nuclear deterrent — to make Washington change its position. Six-party talks with the PRC, the US, South Korea (RoK), Japan and Russia, aimed at persuading Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions were suspended in November 2006.

These expressed sentiments, if correctly portrayed, are yet another example of just how far the DPRK leadership is from understanding the Western political framework, and just how far the US leadership has been from understanding the decisionmaking logic of the DPRK (and Iranian, for that matter) leaderships.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis noted, on September 5, 2006:

... [A]s of the early hours of September 5, 2006, East Asian Time, the special train of DPRK leader Kim Jong-il was known to be in the city of Sinuiju, in the North Pyongan Province, just across the border from Dandong, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Normally, when Kim makes a rail visit to the PRC, Dandong is put on an Urgent Situation notice for the passage of the DPRK special train. Dandong, as of September 5, 2006, was not on Urgent Situation notice.
Moreover, North Pyongan Province is the site of considerable DPRK nuclear weapons work, including a “hole” which could be being prepared for an underground nuclear test explosion. Iranian officials were also understood to be in the area.

The DPRK July 2006 tests, and probable coincident Iranian moves, were also likely to represent attempts by North Korea and Iran to seize the strategic initiative as Iran was likely to face international sanctions over its nuclear programs, and as Japan began moves to transition power to Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who was expected to take over as Prime Minister from the retiring Junichiro Koizumi. Mr Abe is known to favor a harder line against North Korea than that taken by Prime Minister Koizumi.

Significantly, the linked Iranian-DPRK actions indicate that neither state was backing down in their intentions to pursue an unequivocal position with regard to their nuclear weapons defenses. The open question, in early September 2006, however, was the extent to which joint DPRK-Iranian actions would go at this time to confront their perceived opponents with the reality of their nuclear weapons capabilities.

Indeed, although DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il believes that the US policy of denying the existence of a DPRK (and Iranian) nuclear capability has been aimed at allowing an ambiguous situation to exist, so that the US could attack, the reality, from US institutional sources, is that the US “denial” of DPRK/Iranian nuclear capabilities has been, in fact, undertaken in order to avoid having to “do something about it”, when officials are not clear, in fact, what to do about it. Significantly, while overwhelming evidence from multiple, credible sources has indicated the presence of operational nuclear weapons in DPRK and Iranian arsenals — including all of the expensive infrastructure specifically linked to nuclear weapons command and control and launch systems — the US (and Western) intelligence and military operational communities have largely been prohibited from considering strategies to deal with the reality.

Such Pacific powers as Australia and Japan, for example, which believe that they have been engaged in a comprehensive intelligence exchange with the US on matters of mutual strategic interest (and in the case of Australia as part of a “full disclosure” under the UKUSA Accords between the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) have been given no indication of US intelligence confirmation of DPRK or Iranian nuclear weapons. And when Japan acknowledged the success of the July 5, 2006, DPRK NCA and missile tests, the US placed significant pressure on Japanese officials to recant their opinions, and to declare the tests a failure. Japanese officials privately were angry at being forced to “re-interpret” their intelligence on the July 5, 2006, DPRK-Iranian tests.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, July 20, 2006: The DPRK Missiles: Preparation for the Middle East Crisis, and July 6, 2006: DPRK Strategic Command and Control, Missile Launch Exercise Marks Operational Watershed.

Importantly, as well, the anticipated DPRK underground nuclear tests, monitored by the Iranian weapons experts currently in the DPRK, are almost certain to be used as a strategic distraction by Iran to allow it undertake — while Washington’s attention is diverted in East Asia — some additional strategic initiatives of its own, even if its original timetable for a strategic escalation against Israel was possibly disrupted by the strong Israeli military reaction, in Lebanon in August 2006, to the HizbAllah kidnapping of two Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers.