North Korea is a nuclear weapons nightmare: How did we get here?

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North Korea’s nuclear nightmare: A former top CIA official reflects on how we got here and what to do about it

There are times when I feel I might be responsible for starting a chain reaction that cascaded into a nightmare on the Korean peninsula. More specifically, I wonder whether a briefing I gave the president of the United States led in strange ways to the heavily armed and isolated nuclear North Korea we confront today.

The story begins with a phone call I received one afternoon in September 2002 from then-White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. She asked whether, in my capacity as deputy director of Central Intelligence, I could come to the White House the next morning and brief President George W. Bush and the national security team on the latest intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear posture. The Bush administration was considering whether to keep President Bill Clinton’s commitment to give Pyongyang much-needed fuel supplies and help in the building of peaceful nuclear reactors — in return for Pyongyang’s pledge to abandon its weapons-related work on plutonium. This was all part of the “Agreed Framework” negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994. Bush wanted to make sure North Korea was honoring the deal before continuing.

Many details of what I said the following morning remain classified. What I can say is that my briefing kept strictly within the bounds of what we knew with reasonable confidence and did not speculate beyond that. My key point was that we had learned that North Korea had begun seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities. Centrifuges are used in the enrichment of uranium for peaceful and weapons purposes; if true, the finding would mark a significant development — as clear a sign as the world had to that point that the North had secretly resumed its march toward a nuclear capability.

It was also enough to start that chain of events.

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First, the administration decided to send then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Jim Kelly to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans. Kelly was armed with talking points summarizing what I had said — without revealing how we knew. Kelly met the North Koreans on Oct. 3, and by all accounts they were shocked — and scrambled overnight to respond. After some arguments among translators, it was apparent they had acknowledged their plan to enrich uranium.

Now, the U.S. had proof.

Kelly’s mission — and the North Korean response — shut down any consideration of concessions to the North and triggered a series of North Korean moves that still reverberate today: the December 2002 ejection of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); the January 2003 withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and the North’s announcement, in February 2003, that it had reactivated its nuclear facilities. By April 2003, the North Koreans were reprocessing spent fuel rods to make weapons-grade plutonium.

That spring — roughly nine months after my White House briefing — the North was openly back in the business of producing nuclear explosive material usable for weapons.

They have never looked back.

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North Korea today — what you need to know

Watching the news in recent years from North Korea can seem like a slow and hard-to-follow drip of developments. Here are three takeaways that matter.

The yield of North Korea’s nuclear tests has risen exponentially.

Clearly we were right to worry about those centrifuge materials and the North’s plans for its nuclear program. In 2010, North Korea invited Stanford University physics professor Siegfried Hecker and a colleague to view its now-completed uranium enrichment facility. “Our jaws just dropped,” Hecker said. They “couldn’t quite believe” what they saw — 2,000 centrifuges in a modern enrichment facility. And the North Koreans were showing off the accomplishment to a Western visitor.

North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests since 2006. Its first test that year had a yield of only 0.7 to 2 kilotons. But the yield has kept growing; in the North’s last test, in late 2017, the yield had jumped to 250 kilotons — 16 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb — enough to level all the residential buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. The blast caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake near the test site.

Another test may be in the offing. Analysis of satellite imagery from last month shows tunnel construction that looks to me — and other observers — like preparation for a nuclear test. And this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he stood ready “to deploy the country’s nuclear deterrent.”

A paradigm shift in what the North’s missiles can do.

Kim was 27 when he took power. On the one hand, he carried out what struck me as a textbook case of how extreme authoritarian leaders tighten their grip: create an inner circle of loyal followers who control the means of coercion, reward them handsomely, and imprison or kill any would-be competitors who begin to build power bases or stray from absolute loyalty. In following this playbook, Kim has kept up a pace of executions that experts generally agree exceeds that of his predecessors (over 300 in his first five years alone).

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On the other hand, Kim lacked the experience or charisma of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him. Kim needed something more to lock in his authority and prove his ability to lead and protect the country. That “something more” turned out to be an unrelenting push for advances in the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Kim has increased the range of North Korea’s missile force — enough so that it poses a threat to the continental United States. He has pushed testing relentlessly, racking up well over 100 missile tests, compared with only 31 conducted during the reigns of his father and grandfather. The turning point came in 2017, when the North succeeded for the first time in launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This was the Hwasong 14, followed four months later by the Hwasong 15 — a missile that is considered capable of flying 8,000 miles. That would put it in range of the entire continental United States.

I took some sour satisfaction from this. My analysts had taken heavy criticism from Congress’s missile defense advocates in 1995 for estimating then that the North could not get this far for at least 15 years. It took them 22 years to hit this milestone.

The North’s latest test, last March, appears to have built on and exceeded these successes, achieving the longest duration yet.

These missiles can probably carry nuclear warheads — though there is debate about whether the missiles’ reentry vehicles (the parts that deliver a nuclear warhead to a land-based target) can survive the heat of reentering Earth’s atmosphere. And little is known publicly about the sophistication of guidance systems for these weapons.


Meanwhile, the amount of nuclear material the North can produce is increasing, and by extension so is its nuclear warheads inventory. The U.S. Army’s 2020 estimate of 20 to 60 North Korean nuclear weapons is generally in line with expert public estimates.

Tech upgrades: Kim is making his weaponry more sophisticated

Kim is also focusing on advances likely to render his weaponry more dangerous, harder to locate and more difficult to deter. The U.N. says the North successfully tested a hypersonic glide missile earlier this year; these travel at least five times the speed of sound, typically fly lower than other missiles, and their greater maneuverability makes them nearly impossible to defend against. The North is also working to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which would complicate detection.

The takeaway: North Korea has become a fully functioning nuclear weapons state, with work underway to increase the quantity, sophistication, stealth and survivability of its arsenal — all while developing a formidable program of missiles capable of reaching halfway across the globe.

Nightmares — short and long term

Clearly, Kim sees these weapons as the best way to ensure regime survival in a world he regards as hostile. As my successors in the intelligence community noted during the time of then-President Donald Trump’s meetings with Kim in 2018 and 2019, there is almost no chance of Kim voluntarily surrendering these weapons. He has doubtless noted the vulnerability of states that either did give them up (see Libya — or Ukraine) or failed to acquire them (Iraq and Syria).

In terms of what to worry about, I have a short-term set of concerns — and then a range of issues that may last a decade or more.

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In the short term, my major worry is the country’s record of proliferation. North Korea is perennially cash-strapped because of its backward economy and sanctions; sales of weapons technology have proved to be one of the country’s very few reliable revenue sources. And it’s a highly profitable one.

Versions of the North’s Nodong medium-range missile remain the workhorses of the Iranian and Pakistani missile forces. North Korea has also sold missiles to Libya, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Syria. The North helped Syria build the nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007; it is providing Iran with the two-stage missile technology it used for its longer-range Hwasong missiles, and the two countries have collaborated on missile engine development. Kim plows the profits back into his missile and nuclear programs and into the system of rewards and privileges for the elite that sustains his regime.

Longer term, I think the key challenge is to accurately assess Kim’s intentions. For intelligence agencies/analysts, what’s in the adversary’s head is always more elusive than capabilities — the things we can locate and see. In Kim’s case, I’m convinced he is not a madman; he is rational within the strategic construct he has created. Although there can no longer be much doubt that he has acquired the capability to strike the U.S. homeland, he also knows that such an attack would be suicidal. As a CIA official said in 2017: “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.” I believe that’s still an accurate assessment — and it’s important in crafting policy and responses going forward.

But this hardly means Kim’s purposes are benign. Among other things, the arsenal he has built buys him some assurance that other countries will not attack his country. He also now has impressive muscle to bolster North Korea’s traditional pressure tactics in the region — tactics aimed at intimidating neighbors and gaining economic concessions and assistance. And if negotiations ever resume between North Korea and the U.S. (President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to talk), or with a larger U.S.-led group, Kim has gained far more leverage to bargain for sanctions relief. Our negotiators and intelligence professionals will just have to be aware of the history: Along with demanding the maximum and delivering the minimum, the North has a record of cheating on agreements.

Finally, though North Korea’s stated goal of reunifying the peninsula on its terms seems far-fetched at the moment, there is no evidence that Kim has given up on it. In the North Korean mind, superior military power is certainly a prerequisite — as is a U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula. While the latter is unlikely in an era of U.S. emphasis on Asia, Kim now has more tools to make life increasingly difficult and dangerous for U.S. forces there, and he can reasonably hope that U.S. politics will shift toward a more isolationist stance. Kim probably has not forgotten that his grandfather went to war to unify the peninsula — and almost succeeded.

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What can the U.S. — and the rest of the world — do?

I think often about what the U.S. should do about North Korea — or what I might advise, were I summoned back to the Oval Office.

Although the North’s military capabilities have changed dramatically, one reality remains for any American leader dealing with North Korea: No one option is sufficient, and Washington will be forced to use all of them simultaneously to at least keep the North Korea problem from getting worse. This amounts to a strategic mix of sanctions, deterrence, containment and negotiations. Each option has drawbacks, risks and limitations, but when orchestrated skillfully, they can keep the North off balance and preserve the possibility of progress when the time is ripe.

Negotiations

Biden has stated his willingness to negotiate — and there is nothing wrong in principle with another U.S.-North Korea summit. But I would not contemplate it unless it was so well prepared as to know in advance the outcome, and to know clearly what we are willing to accept — full denuclearization or something less, such as a freeze on nuclear and missile development and testing? There would also have to be clear agreement on an international mechanism for ensuring compliance by the North with any agreement, along with a declaration by the North of its existing inventory — a particularly onerous requirement for highly secretive Pyongyang.

Sanctions

The U.S. and international organizations have levied economic sanctions on North Korea since the 1950s, adjusting them as conditions have changed. The impact, though, has been felt mainly by the populace rather than the governing elite. It has also encouraged a thriving gray market and spurred smuggling networks. No doubt sanctions have hurt, but the North has become deeply expert at evading them, as a recent study of illicit oil deliveries showed. As Grid has reported, the country has also reaped riches from cryptocurrency crime; according to the 2022 Crypto Crime Report from Chainalysis, the regime obtained nearly $400 million in stolen cryptocurrency last year alone. China also comes to the rescue regularly, sending in vital commodities such as fuel and food.

There are additional sanctions that might plug gaps — but given that 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, adding sanctions without Chinese cooperation is fruitless. And one of the unfortunate side effects of recent Chinese-Russian cooperation is the added difficulty of sanctioning a country like North Korea, which counts China and Russia among its very few allies.

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Deterrence

Deterrence is always complicated, but when it comes to North Korea, the classic “three Cs” of deterrence are in place, and each can be strengthened:

First, capability: Kim knows the U.S. has superior force, but he must see it orchestrated effectively with our South Korean partners through close and visible military and political coordination. A major Pyongyang goal is to divide Washington and Seoul, so keeping that connection tight is key to frustrating the North’s policies. The U.S. and South Korea do not always agree, but in my experience, nothing is more counterproductive than a sense in Seoul that the U.S. is circumventing the South.

Second, communication: the international community must convey clearly and convincingly to the North that there will be no sanctions relief without certifiable progress on denuclearization.

Third, credibility: This should be strengthened by the Biden administration’s efforts to more closely align policies among Asian allies and by the somewhat tougher stance South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk Yeol, is taking toward the North, such as his pledge to develop more advanced missiles for South Korea.

There’s a fourth “C” in play here — one that hangs over it all: “containment.” This was diplomat George Kennan’s term during the Cold War, the word that informed U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for decades, and in a different way it’s relevant now, when it comes to North Korea. Containment should inform all that we do when it comes to North Korea — be it those other “three Cs” or in-person diplomacy, and in particular our efforts to establish some understanding with China about the boundaries of acceptable behavior by North Korea.

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China — North Korea’s longtime ally — is generally content with the status quo of a divided Korean peninsula that absorbs U.S. resources. But China has also participated in talks to limit North Korea’s nuclear program and would not want Kim doing anything that would be destabilizing in Asia or provoke war on the peninsula. For all the troubles in today’s U.S.-China relationship, this offers a critical opportunity for common ground; I doubt that China wants to see another North Korean nuclear test, for example. Bringing China into some harmony with the U.S. on such issues would markedly strengthen containment strategy.

Nearly 20 years after that 2002 White House briefing, I often reflect on how much the world around North Korea has changed. South Korea is a strong democracy and economic powerhouse; China is moving into peer competitor status with the United States; the U.S.-China relationship writ large has sharply deteriorated; and the U.S. has tried a “pivot to Asia,” only to be followed by Trump’s open disdain for our Asian allies. And now of course we face a major conflict in the heart of Europe.

Yet North Korea remains a seemingly unending, intractable and increasingly dangerous problem for the international community. Which makes it all the more challenging, both for intelligence officers seeking to understand it and policymakers seeking to manage or eliminate the danger. We must use every lever we have to meet that challenge, as difficult as it is.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • John McLaughlin
    John McLaughlin

    Special Contributor

    John McLaughlin is a former acting director of the CIA and a distinguished practitioner in residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.