North Korean nuclear warhead?
Speaking at a news conference on October 24, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of US forces in South Korea, said that the North Korean regime likely has the ability to produce a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a ballistic missile. "They've had the right connections, and so I believe [they] have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have," Scaparrotti was quoted as saying.
The general pointed out that he had no evidence to back up his view, but added Pyongyang probably has the background to do this. But while the general's comments seem to be in line with a Defense Intelligence Agency report leaked last year, this view is not shared by all experts, either inside or outside the US intelligence community.
North Korea is widely believed to be seeking to develop such a nuclear warhead, but many analysts doubt the authoritarian government under Kim Jong Un already has the nuclear weapon design and manufacturing skills necessary to build such a warhead. There also seems to be considerable skepticism about the reliability and operational readiness of the country's existing ballistic missile force. Officially, the US Government's current assessment, shared by South Korea, is that North Korea has not yet mastered this step.
Lack of information
Pyongyang has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006 and a string of long-range rocket launches. But compared with the missile program of other countries, North Korea has carried out only a small number of test and training launches of its indigenously produced missiles before declaring them operational, Shannon Kile, nuclear arms control and non-proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told DW.
Given the opacity of the regime's nuclear program, it is very difficult to credibly assess where the country's strategic weapon programs stand at any particular moment, so even basic questions about its nuclear weapon capabilities are shrouded in considerable uncertainty.
For example, there is no public information to verify how many operational nuclear weapons the country might possess - or indeed, whether it even has produced operational nuclear weapons as opposed to rudimentary nuclear explosive devices, says Kile, who is also head of the Nuclear Weapons Project of the SIPRI Arms Control and Non-proliferation Program.
Does Pyongyang have the knowhow?
North Korean officials and military officers have repeatedly stated that the country's most recent nuclear test explosion, carried out in February 2013, involved a smaller and lighter "miniaturized" device with a higher explosive yield than the devices used in the two previous tests. However, these claims could not be independently confirmed.
Experts argue that while the development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead would represent an important step towards building a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, it would not mean that North Korean engineers have overcome all of the technical hurdles for doing so. "In this sense, the emergence of evidence that North Korea had developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead would not be a strategic game-changer per se for the USA and its allies in the region," says Kile.
Also unanswered remains the question as to whether the country's latest nuclear device used highly enriched uranium (HEU) as the fissile material, rather than plutonium, which North Korea was believed to have used in the two previous tests.
But while the international community remains in the dark about North Korea's nuclear capabilities, the country's has been developing its long-range ballistic missile program unabated for over two decades, as Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told DW. "The North Koreans crossed a significant technological threshold with their last missile test when they were able to put a payload into orbit," said Cha.
What difference would it make?
Analysts point out that evidence of the regime's mastery of the technology for building a lightweight nuclear weapon would intensify the already serious concerns in the United States, Japan and South Korea about Pyongyang's evolving capabilities and intentions. "In the near-term, this could lead them to adopt defense planning that would prioritize expanding and upgrading ballistic missile defense capabilities and to deploy new pre-emptive strike capabilities," says Kile.
Cha, however, believes that capability itself wouldn't change much in terms of the regional dynamics, arguing that Japan is already under the threat of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which could potentially carry biological or chemical weapons, and that the US-South Korean alliance has been adjusting to the reality of a nuclear North Korea with increased deterrence efforts. "The biggest change might be in the US in a political sense because this administration will likely be blamed for allowing North Korea to develop a capability to threaten the homeland," added Cha, author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future."
The risk of proliferation
But perhaps even than more worrying that capability itself is North Korea's illicit arms trade and the risk of nuclear proliferation. "North Korea has engaged extensively in illicit trafficking to obtain materials and equipment which were banned by successive United Nations Security Council resolutions and other international sanctions," said Kile. While the years of increasingly rigorous sanctions have almost certainly slowed North Korea's military program - to which the leadership in Pyongyang has assigned a top priority - they have not halted it altogether.
Moreover, there has been considerable speculation about North Korea's so-called "proliferation relationships" with Pakistan and Iran. Pyongyang is believed to have obtained clandestine design assistance for an HEU-based weapon from Pakistani nuclear engineer, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and some analysts suspect that it might have received help from either or both countries in developing a lighter, more compact nuclear warhead design. In addition, North Korea is known to have shared ballistic missile technologies with both countries, said Kile.
Cha pointed out that the most recent known case in this context is North Korea's cooperation with Syria in building what looked like a 5-megawatt reactor similar to North Korea's nuclear facility at Yongbyon. "I worry about this. North Korea has basically sold every weapons system it has developed," said the analyst.