America Is in Denial About North Korea’s Nukes

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that Pyongyang wants weapons capable of attacking the United States.


In 2004, Sig Hecker made the first of what would be seven visits to North Korea at the invitation of that country’s government. During this first visit, Hecker, a metallurgist by training, was given a small glass jar. Inside, North Korean officials told him, was a sample of the country’s plutonium. Hecker wasn’t allowed to test the material, but it looked like plutonium. The jar was warm, and a small Geiger counter confirmed it was radioactive.

Li Gun, one of North Korea’s diplomats, later asked Hecker what he thought of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. Hecker, as he later wrote in a trip report, said he hadn’t seen a deterrent. A deterrent, he explained, required more than plutonium in a glass jar; it also required the ability to build a nuclear device and arm a bomber or missile with it. Hecker “saw nothing and talked to no one” ­­­that would allow him to determine that North Korea had a deterrent. Li agreed to see what other demonstrations he might arrange, but later told Hecker that “time was insufficient to make such arrangements.”

Turns out they just needed another decade, give or take. This week, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un posed for photographs in a room full of ICBMs. Kim had gone there to announce that North Korea had completed a standardized nuclear device that could arm those missiles. As I stared at him and his smiling lackeys, I imagined one of them turning to the camera in an aside and asking “Can we show you anything else, Dr. Hecker?”

We’ll talk about the specifics of the bomb in a bit, but there was a lot other information revealed on the visit. One image of Kim shows the bottom of a KN-08 ICBM, which confirms my colleague John Schilling’s hypothesis that the first stage of the ICBM is a pair of engines, probably from the Nodong missile. North Korea also showed off a “reentry body” that looks a lot like some early U.S. reentry vehicles.

On any other day, either one of these technological advances would have captured my full attention. But then there was the silvery sphere with cables running into it – a nuclear bomb. Well, it was probably a model — but that does not mean it’s a fake. The model looks to be about the size of the device I argued North Korea has been building, with a diameter of about 60 centimeters.

The whole thing is pretty explicit, leaving not much to the imagination — which is probably all for the best. Hecker has, for some time, been giving a great presentation where he argues that we’ve overlooked how much North Korea’s capabilities have advanced since his first visit in 2004. I take his point to be that we’ve grown accustomed to each and every step the North Koreans make, without realizing quite how far they’ve gone and how distant the prospect of disarmament has now become. Hecker has tried mightily to draw attention to the problem, though I am not sure he’s made much headway.

I like to tease the North Koreans about not being terribly subtle, whether it is making films about the centrality of nuclear weapons to the regime or having the Moranbong Band shimmy in front of missile mockups. And yet for all that, the North Koreans may yet be too subtle for our thick Western heads. Every time the North Koreans test another bomb or a missile, I get calls asking what message the North Koreans are trying to send.

Well, let’s see: They’ve paraded two different ICBMs through Pyongyang, conducted four nuclear tests, showed us a compact nuclear design sitting next to a modern reentry vehicle in front of one of those ICBMS, and hung a giant wall map of the United States marked with targets and titled “Mainland Strike Plan.”

Here’s a wild guess: They are building nuclear-armed ICBMs to strike the United States! Why is this so hard to grasp?

Part of the problem is that U.S. officials generally take the attitude of demanding the North Koreans prove they have a capability before grudgingly crediting them with it. General James Clapper offered up the most concise summary of the view, when asked about North Korea’s ability to strike the United States: “North Korea has not, however, fully developed, tested, or demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile.”

There is a sense in which this is probably reassuring to our allies. And Lord knows I am the first person to hurl “threat inflation” about as a term of abuse. But this is also how the Johnson administration approached the issue of China’s nuclear weapons and to show us what a great idea that policy was, the Chinese altered their test schedule to add one extra test. They put a live nuclear warhead on a DF-2 missile and fired it across their country.

Our studied skepticism of North Korea’s capabilities is not in our long-term interest. We should be in the business of seeking moratoria in North Korea on nuclear and missile tests, not daring Pyongyang to do more.

But trying to cap North Korea’s nuclear programs requires abandoning that country’s denuclearization as a goal, something that is not an easy sell in Washington. One challenge is that we don’t recognize North Korea’s legal right to have left the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and begin building nuclear weapons in the first place. Some people are afraid that if we recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear state, de jure recognition will follow and result in the collapse of the whole nonproliferation business. And while I might have argued this concern is exaggerated, there are 1.3 billion nuclear-armed Indians to suggest otherwise. We’re stuck – and when you are stuck it’s tempting to resort to denial.

For example, at past NPT Review Conferences, someone would set out a placard for the DPRK even though North Korea pulled out of the treaty in 2003. The chairman would then discreetly pocket it before anyone could ask for a definitive ruling on whether North Korean had really left the treaty. In 2015, the placard seems to have disappeared from the conference, without comment. Hiding the placard may seem silly, but it’s a symbol of how the United States and other NPT members have avoided reckoning with North Korea’s present reality. And, if you can’t guess, I think it’s also a pretty good metaphor for American policy toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

The problem with admitting that the DPRK is a nuclear-armed state, goes the argument, is South Korea and Japan will panic. There are always voices in South Korea arguing in favor of redeploying U.S. nuclear weapons or “temporarily” withdrawing from the NPT. Admit the obvious about Seoul’s next-door neighbor and who knows the result? Some former U.S. officials even argue that we privately admit the obvious, but that we don’t say so publicly.

The alleged beneficiaries of this little white lie are the Japanese and South Korean publics. Usually, though, white lies are really in the service of the liar. By setting the hopeless goal of denuclearization and insisting upon unstated preconditions the United States is mostly giving itself an excuse not to do anything. (I know, the administration insists on pre-steps, not preconditions.) We tell ourselves that we have to insist on denuclearization so as not to alarm the South Koreans. But the variety of missiles under development in South Korea and that country’s growing calls for nuclear weapons suggest they aren’t reassured. We’re not really managing the problem, so much as managing our inability to manage the problem. Those are two different things.

And this policy of denial is going to become harder and harder to sustain as the North Koreans continue to develop, test and deploy new nuclear capabilities. We can count on North Korea to continue building more and better nukes. The only question is how they show off those capabilities.

It has been nearly six years since the North Koreans have invited Hecker back to look at their facilities. The last time was in 2010, when North Korea led Hecker into an observation room above a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility.

In the years since then, North Korea has relied on its propaganda apparatus to broadcast a steady stream of updates about North Korea’s space, missile and nuclear programs. This propaganda barrage increased after a stroke shoved Kim Jong Il off this mortal coil and it culminated in this week’s decision by Kim Jong Un to pose with a bomb.

If the propaganda doesn’t persuade us to start dealing with this problem, I shudder to think what Kim will do to get our attention next.


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. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk