Joshua PollackN. Korea: Deadly in a Snowball Fight

Part Two of a two-part series on the 2010 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community. See Part One.

Well, it’s been a long, snowbound weekend here in the Nation’s Capital and its general vicinity. There’s not much to do while waiting for the Super Bowl commercials — assuming that your home has power this fine evening — so why don’t we take a few minutes to consider the views of the U.S. Intelligence Community on North Korea’s military capabilities?

According to the IC’s Annual Threat Assessment, the North Koreans now have three kinds of weapons: those that no longer work, those that they may or may not have built, and those that they may or may not be working on anymore.

Let’s start with the first sort.

The Conventional Arsenal, Such As It May Be

The ATA contains what must be the toughest assessment on record of the combat readiness of the Korean People’s Army (KPA):

The KPA’s capabilities are limited by an aging weapons inventory, low production of military combat systems, deteriorating physical condition of soldiers, reduced training, and increasing diversion of the military to infrastructure support. Inflexible leadership, corruption, low morale, obsolescent weapons, a weak logistical system, and problems with command and control also constrain the KPA capabilities and readiness.

It’s been said that North Korea has long had the practical equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the form of massed artillery in range of Seoul. But how much of a threat can such a decrepit force pose? Certainly, it doesn’t sound like it could put up much of a fight, which brings us to the next point:

Because the conventional military capabilities gap between North and South Korea [never mind the U.S.! —JP] has become so overwhelmingly great and prospects for reversal of this gap so remote, Pyongyang relies on its nuclear program to deter external attacks on the state and to its regime. Although there are other reasons for the North to pursue its nuclear program, redressing conventional weaknesses is a major factor and one that Kim and his likely successors will not easily dismiss.

Because, as everyone knows, you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. The implication? That North Korea is unlikely to move too far down the path of nuclear disarmament while it perceives any serious external threat.

But just how far has North Korea moved down the path of nuclear armament?

Which Brings Us To The Nukes

Let’s start with some definition of terms. On page 14, the ATA says:

The North’s October 2006 nuclear test was consistent with our longstanding assessment that it had produced a nuclear device, although we judge the test itself to have been a partial failure based on its less-than-one-kiloton TNT equivalent yield. The North’s probable nuclear test in May 2009 supports its claim that it has been seeking to develop weapons, and with a yield of roughly a few kilotons TNT equivalent, was apparently more successful than the 2006 test. We judge North Korea has tested two nuclear devices, and while we do not know whether the North has produced nuclear weapons, we assess it has the capability to do so.

There are a couple of dichotomies worth examining here.

First, nuclear test vs. probable nuclear test. The difference is radionuclides. In October 2006, ODNI announced that they were found:

Analysis of air samples collected on October 11, 2006 detected radioactive debris which confirms that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on October 9, 2006. The explosion yield was less than a kiloton.

In June 2009, as discussed previously here and here, the ODNI press release said nothing on this point:

The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on May 25, 2009. The explosion yield was approximately a few kilotons. Analysis of the event continues.

The association of the word “probable” or “probably” with the second test can be traced directly to the silence on radionuclides.

Second, nuclear device vs. nuclear weapon. A device can go “bang” in a test shaft, but a weapon is something built for combat, implying that it would reliably achieve the expected yield, fits within a suitable casing, has a fuze, and so forth. The ATA says that North Korea is now able to make weapons, a possibility discussed recently here. But the text does not make clear whether the IC judges that these weapons could be mated to a suitable delivery system.

Dept. of Revisions and Ambiguities

There are two nagging little spots in the discussion of North Korea’s nuclear R&D. In one place, the IC appears to have tweaked a previous assessment — not a problem in itself, certainly! — but isn’t calling attention to the change. In the other place, it’s unclear whether or not the IC is adhering to a previous judgment. These estimates have a way of shifting around on you, if you don’t watch them carefully.

The first point is the reference to the IC’s “longstanding assessment that [North Korea] had produced a nuclear device,” as opposed to a nuclear weapon. As Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval War College* observed in his memorable 2003 article on the demise of the US-DPRK Agreed Framework, IC assessments during the early years of the George W. Bush administration did claim that North Korea was in possession of nuclear weapons. Previous assessments didn’t go quite so far. For the details, see pages 12 and 13 — I’ll put the excerpt in the comments.

(*Around here, we call him “Pollack the Elder.”)

Second, the ATA’s discussion of North Korean uranium enrichment activity is somewhat vague. Mostly, it’s consistent with the reading of North Korea’s declarations that you could find here, and shrugs, “The exact intent of these announcements is unclear, and they do not speak definitively to the technical status of the uranium enrichment program.” Quite so.

So much for the open sources. Does other intelligence shed any light on whether North Korea is actually making any headway on enrichment? The ATA makes reference only to the past:

The Intelligence Community continues to assess with high confidence North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability in the past, which we assess was for weapons.

It’s silent on the matter of what North Korea is up to now up to. Joe DeTrani, DNI’s mission manager for North Korea, made a bit of a stir back in March 2007, when he signalled a lack of strong consensus on whether meaningful work continued:

The intelligence in 2002… made possible a high confidence judgment about North Korea’s efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability. The Intelligence Community had then, and continues to have, high confidence in its assessment that North Korea has pursued that capability.

We have continued to assess efforts by North Korea since 2002. All Intelligence Community agencies have at least moderate confidence that North Korea’s past efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability continue today.

[Update: To avoid confusion, I’ve expanded the quote above.]

An August 2007 IC report (quoted here) put the pieces together like so:

We continue to assess with high confidence that North Korea has pursued efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability, which we assess is intended for nuclear weapons. All Intelligence Community agencies judge with at least moderate confidence that this past effort continues. The degree of progress towards producing enriched uranium remains unknown, however.

The February 2008 ATA contained a streamlined version of the statement above. The February 2009 ATA put a different spin on the lack of consensus:

The IC continues to assess North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability in the past. Some in the Intelligence Community have increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium enrichment program.

So, as you can see, the latest ATA returns to the language of the August 2007 report about the past, but leaves us hanging on the question of the present.

OK, then. You’ve read enough blogs for awhile — go back to shoveling snow, or to shoveling nachos while the Saints pound the Colts in the fleeting moments between commercials in sunny Miami.


  1. Josh (History)

    From Jonathan D. Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3, pp. 12-13:

    As North Korea’s nuclear activities increased during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. intelligence community devoted growing attention to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons potential. The reporting on the North’s nuclear weapons program varied little during the 1990s, but estimates released since 2001 have been highly inconsistent. In 1993, the Central Intelligence Agency first concluded that in the late 1980s “North Korea … ha[d] produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.” This judgment was reaffirmed in all unclassified intelligence assessments throughout the latter half of the 1990s, up to intelligence reporting in mid-2001.1 Though the CIA assessment was widely interpreted as evidence that North Korea had one or two nuclear weapons in its possession, neither the intelligence community nor any senior U.S. official offered a definitive statement to this effect during the remainder of the 1990s. However, the intelligence community assessment shifted noticeably in December 2001, when an unclassified version of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) asserted that “[t]he Intelligence Community judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons.”2 Subsequent intelligence reporting further altered earlier estimates. In an unclassified assessment provided to the Congress on 19 November 2002, the CIA stated: “The U.S. … has assessed since the early 1990s that the North has one or possibly two [nuclear] weapons using plutonium it produced prior to 1992.”3
    The initial Bush administration intelligence estimates thus offered more definitive claims about North Korean nuclear capabilities. They also moved back the date that intelligence analysts believed North Korea had fabricated one or two weapons, or the supposed date when the CIA made this determination. However, a CIA estimate provided to the Congress in January 2003 reverted to the more equivocal language of the 1990s, asserting that “North Korea probably has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.”4 The January 2003 document did not reiterate the assertions of late 2001 and late 2002 that Pyongyang already possessed one or two weapons, let alone claim that the intelligence community arrived at this judgment at a much earlier date. Intelligence inconsistencies and uncertainties concerning the North’s nuclear program were not surprising. However, decade-old estimates were now being sharply recast, with direct implications for future U.S. policy toward Pyongyang.
    1. Unclassified Report to the Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January through 30 June 2001 (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, January 2002), p. 5; Glenn Kessler, “No Support for Strikes against North Korea,” Washington Post, 2 January 2003.
    2. Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015 (Washington, D.C.: National Intelligence Council, December 2001), p. 12. Emphasis added. The wording in this document is ambiguous. If the report was claiming that U.S. intelligence analysts had concluded that North Korea had produced these weapons in the mid-1990s, it reflected either reinterpretation of old data or the inclusion of new information in older estimates. If the authors were claiming that the CIA had made this determination in the mid-1990s, then the claim is patently false, or all intelligence assessments published in the 1990s were false, in as much as the December 2001 claim contradicts all intelligence assessments published during the latter half of the 1990s.
    3. CIA Report to the U.S. Congress on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Potential, 19 November 2002, as published on the website of the Federation of American Scientists ( Emphasis added.
    4. Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Related to Weapons of Mass Destruction, 1 July Through 31 December 2001 (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, January 2003), p. 5.

  2. Nick Nolan

    How about those chemical weapons they can deliver with artillery and missiles? How about biological weapons?

  3. Josh (History)

    Beats me. The report says “WMD,” but only discusses nuclear.

    A subject worthy of its own post, someday.

  4. John Schilling (History)

    As someone who routinely flies an airplane built in 1965, which I suspect is rather older than most of North Korea’s artillery, I am less than reassured by talk of North Korea’s “aging weapons inventory, production of military combat systems … obsolescent weapons” and the like. Artillery and airplanes are not consumer goods, with planned obsolescence as a design feature. Hardware built to industrial standards, if not grossly mistreated, will last the better part of a century and still do what it was designed to do. And as the North Koreans don’t seem to have been waging any wars since they bought their present artillery inventory, it’s hard to see how they could have mistreated it that badly.

    There are things modern artillery can do that North Korea’s stuff just can’t. And yes, problems with command, training, and logistics will keep them from fully exploiting the capabilities of what they do have. But it would be quite foolish to doubt that they can fire off their ready supply of ammunition, in accordance with predefined war plans, about as well as they ever could – and it’s not like their strategic situation requires any great flexibility in war planning.

    Whether those plans involve nerve and mustard gas in the tubes aimed Seoul-ward, is indeed a subject worthy of its own post. I honestly don’t know, and I’d be surprised if anyone here did.

Pin It on Pinterest