Jeffrey Lewis

How About We Take Their Word For It

Do we really want the North Koreans to prove they can launch a nuke with a missile?

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low."

Well, it’s not quite 16 words, but this sure created a ruckus.

During an April 11 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, quoted this mistakenly unclassified passage from a March 2013 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency entitled Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.

"Dynamic Threat Assessment" is a silly name for an intelligence product. (Can you imagine a "static" threat assessment?) Essentially, the Defense Department has a number of contingency plans — the DIA generates these threat assessments to support the planning process.

In theory, these assessments are coordinated through the intelligence community, but DIA is the author. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has pointed out, others do not agree with what the DIA wrote.

Let me walk you through the language and explain what I think this argument is about. (I’ve also posted a Guide for the Perplexed at

Let’s start with the term "moderate confidence." Moderate confidence, according to a handy chart published with the 2007 National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, "generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated to warrant a higher level of confidence." In other words, if the North Koreans, and perhaps a defector or two, say so, and it is not impossible, that’s moderate confidence.

The two important phrases are "capable of delivery by ballistic missiles" and "reliability will be low."

"Capable of delivery" refers to size — the mass and dimensions of the warhead. I presume this means the DIA believes North Korea’s warheads are small enough, which is not a surprise. In 1999, the DIA believed that North Korea could manufacture a warhead as light as 750 kilograms. That’s about the weight that a Nodong missile could carry, although it’s still pretty heavy for an ICBM, especially given the need for a couple hundred kilograms of heat shielding. Still, it’s far below the 6,000-kilogram device we dropped on Nagasaki.

The issue of reliability refers to whether the warhead will work, particularly after being subjected to the very bumpy ride of missile delivery. In other words, the warheads are small enough, but they may not be tough enough to survive the trip.

It seems that this is where the disagreement lies. General Clapper explained that difference in confidence concerns "the actual ability of the North Koreans to make a weapon that will work in a missile…[N]either we nor the North Koreans know whether they have such capability. D.I.A. has a higher confidence level than the rest of the community on that capability. That’s the difference."

At issue seems to be a view that unless the North Koreans prove it to us, we aren’t buying it. Statements by both the Pentagon and DNI emphasize that North Korea has not "fully" demonstrated a nuclear-armed ICBM:

Pentagon: "[I]t would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage."

Director of National Intelligence: "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile."

It is worth noting that at least one other country has never fully tested its ICBM capabilities: the United States.

Yep, that’s right, we’ve never put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM and fired it the full distance. In the 1960s, we had a big debate about this in the United States. Here is how a 1961 Senate Armed Services Committee report explained the situation:

Who knows whether an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will actually work? Each of the constituent elements has been tested, it is true. Each of them, however, has not been tested under circumstances which would be attendant upon the firing of such a missile in anger. By this the committee means an intercontinental ballistic missile will carry its nuclear warhead to great heights subjecting it to intense cold. It will then arch down and upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere subject the nuclear warhead to intense heat. Who knows what will happen to the many delicate mechanisms involved in the nuclear warhead as it is subjected to these two extremes of temperature?

(I am indebted to Donald Mackenzie for digging up this gem and publishing it in Inventing Accuracy.)

Ultimately, the United States conducted a partial demonstration — something called Operation Frigate Bird. Frigate Bird was the only time the United States fired a live nuclear warhead on a ballistic trajectory. (There was also a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions where the warheads only went up.)

This didn’t settle the issue. Barry Goldwater actually campaigned in 1964 warning that absent a full test "we are building a Maginot line of missiles." He explained in Where I Stand: "The fact is that not one of our advanced ICBMs has ever been subjected to a full test (of all component systems, including warheads) under simulated battle conditions."

At some point, everyone realized that this was an insane conversation to be having and it just sort of went away.

The Chinese had the same concern about their nuclear program in the 1960s. Initially they tried driving their warheads over bumpy roads in trucks, trying to simulate the shock and vibrations of flight on a missile. (How would you like to be a Chinese teamster?)

Ultimately, the Chinese decided to conduct an operationally realistic test. They put a live nuclear weapon on a DF-2 ballistic missile and fired it across China. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Which brings me back to North Korea. Why are we demanding that they show us each and every little increment of progress? Do we really want them to put a live nuclear warhead on a Musudan and fire it over Japan just to shut us up? The North Koreans have preferred to test underground — whether to deny the United States intelligence about their weapons program or out of some heretofore undetected concern for the environment.

One of the reasons Clapper was reluctant to share more information about North Korea’s miniaturization program was that he wanted to avoid "further enhancement of Kim Jong Un’s narrative" — something that strikes me as a pretty lousy reason. Let’s not fool ourselves. The North Koreans have said they have miniaturized a warhead, which is certainly plausible given that th
ey’ve taken three shots at it.

For what it is worth, I believe the takeaway ought to be not that the harmless North Koreans can never do these things, but that they can and will continue to build a larger, more sophisticated arsenal until we make it worth their while to do something else with their limited resources.

Double-dog daring them to prove it, on the other hand, is not helpful.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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