Jeffrey LewisHow many bombs in North Korea?

Well, this is an interesting little development.

As you know, ArmsControlWonk was a little uncertain about estimates that North Korea has produced “at least eight” nuclear weapons. There are two reasons for uncertainty.

1. That’s a lot of bombs, given North Korea’s fissile material production.

ArmsControlWonk explained on April 29, 2004 that these estimates are based on worst case analyses of capability. “By restarting the re-processing plant, North Korea created the excuse to up the estimate.”

Now it looks like some other people have their doubts. Choi Young-jin, South Korea’s vice foreign minister, recently claimed that South Korea had a much lower estimate: “We estimate that the North has plutonium that can produce two or three nuclear weapons.”

Charles Kartman, Executive Director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) that was created to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework, was even more sanguine. “There is a maximum amount of plutonium that could have been reprocessed, and if that is true, then depending on the state of North Korean technology, it would have been sufficient for one, or at most, two,” he said.

There is pretty decent evidence that capability estimates (which ignore human factors like limited technical expertise and poor management) may exaggerate fissile material production.

2. We don’t actually know if North Korea has manufactured weapons from the fissile material.

Kartman also noted that “They feel comfortable with the numbers because they imply facts. These aren’t facts. They’re worst-casing all sorts of stuff. There may be zero. The number of proven weapons is zero.”

This point is important—there is no evidence that the North Koreans have actually built a bomb.

Oddly, John Kerry seems to be getting for saying that “North Korea has moved from one bomb, maybe, maybe to four to seven bombs” under the Bush Administration.

Take this from from Time magazine’s review of exaggerations in one of the presidential debates: “There is no evidence that North Korea has built any nuclear weapons since Bush took office. Before then, the CIA suspected that Pyongyang had a weapon or two but had no firm proof. Over the past two years, experts believe, Pyongyang has significantly stepped up its nuclear program. … But no outside observer knows whether North Korea has actually finished the job.”

Let’s be clear: The Bush Administration revised the NIE to state that North Korea “validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests” in December 2001 (the report was made public in August 2003). If someone is fibbing, it isn’t John Kerry.

It is also the Bush Administration that reportedly revised the NIE (via the Washington Post) to raise the estimate of the number of North Korean nuclear weapons from “possibly two” to “at least eight” based on fissile material counts. Again, how is that John Kerry’s problem?