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Is It Already Too Late to Stop North Korea?

In the wake of this shocking report in the Washington Post on North Korea's nuclear and ICBM program being far more advanced than we previously believed, Foreign Policy published an article by one of the premier nuclear experts in the U.S. that essentially says the game is over and North Korea has won.

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control and nuclear arms expert, has been following the North Korean nuclear program for decades. He makes a convincing case that the Kim regime has more nuclear weapons than we thought and that from the very start of their nuclear program, they decided to build miniaturized bombs to fit on top of long-range missiles.

Lewis believes that the North Koreans went about building their nuclear program differently than some other nuclear powers. Instead of beginning with an implosion device -- a bomb using highly enriched uranium -- they strove to build small, compact plutonium bombs.

Plutonium bombs are significantly more powerful than bombs that use highly enriched uranium, and the fact that they have achieved a certain level of dependability with these weapons means that any attack on their facilities could precipitate a launch where at least a few of their missiles would get through to devastate some cities.

What makes this analysis so troubling is that Lewis used to analyze the progress of rogue-regime nuclear programs for a living and was an expert at reading between the lines of intelligence assessments and other data to find what others may have missed.

The fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons used less fissile material than we expected helps explain the second judgment that North Korea has more bombs than is usually reported. The defector claimed that North Korea’s first nuclear weapon contained only 4 kilograms of the limited supply of plutonium North Korea made, and continues to make, at its reactor at Yongbyon. (For a long while, experts claimed the reactor was not operating when thermal images plainly showed that it was.) The North Koreans themselves  claimed the first test used only 2 kilograms of plutonium. Those claims struck many people, including me, as implausible at first. But they were only implausible in the sense that such a device would probably fail when tested — and the first North Korean test did fail. The problem is North Korea kept trying, and its later tests succeeded.

We also must take seriously that North Korea has perhaps stretched its supply of plutonium by integrating some high-enriched uranium into each bomb and developing all-uranium designs. North Korea has an unknown capacity to make highly enriched uranium. We’ve long noticed that the single facility that North Korea has shown off to outsiders seems smaller than North Korea’s newly renovated capacity to mine and mill uranium; we naturally wondered where all that extra uranium is going.