missile flying through sky

Nuclear Dangers from North Korea: Managing the Risks to the US and Russia

October 27, 2017
Joshua H. Pollack

Among the most disturbing aspects of the North Korean nuclear problem today is the lack of a common perspective between Washington and Moscow. More than any other government, Russian authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge the emergence of a genuine nuclear and missile threat from North Korea to the United States. This perceptual gap is more than a mere irritant. Without corrective actions, it poses a grave danger to the United States and Russia alike, one that goes well beyond a handful of North Korean nuclear bombs.

For their own reasons, the North Koreans are irked by Russian attitudes. Returning from a recent official visit to Pyongyang, Russian lawmaker Anton Morozov said that senior North Korean officials had shared some news with his delegation: They are preparing another flight-test of a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. He said that the North Koreans had explained the capabilities of the missile in some detail, describing its range and reentry technology, as well as the technology to “control” the warhead, a possible reference to guidance systems. All three points have come into question at various times.

No reason for this unusual presentation was given, but there is a likely explanation. Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have so far insisted that North Korea’s pair of flight-tests in July 2017 did not demonstrate an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the ability to reach North America. In taking this stance, the Russians have slighted the North Koreans and given them a desire to disabuse Moscow of the idea.

Mozorov also put his finger on the greater danger posed to the great powers by North Korean ICBMs. In a subsequent interview with Bloomberg, he pointed out that a North Korean missile strike against targets in North America would involve flying over Russian territory; in turn, volleys of missile-defense interceptors fired from the United States would need to fly out in the direction of Russia. Depending on how the Russian military interpreted it, such an event could be an extremely dangerous proposition for both the United States and Russia. Each country continues to keep its own strategic nuclear forces on alert. Each also keeps a watchful eye on the other side, always ready to respond to an attack.

Not Seeing Eye to Eye

If it helps Washington and Moscow to reach a shared perspective on the nature and extent of the problem, then a growing awareness of the shared risks of conflict in Korea can only be welcome. So far, the record is not encouraging. Agreements on sharing real-time data for detection of missile attacks date back to the Yeltsin and Clinton administrations. With a sole exception—a short-lived arrangement to prevent “Y2K” computer bugs from generating false alarms—these ideas have never been put into practice. A joint assessment of the ballistic missile threats from Iran and North Korea, initiated by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2009, ended quietly, producing a report that neither side seems to have released. Occasional proposals for a joint U.S.-Russian missile defense system have never progressed.

Across a variety of settings, Russian officials and experts have continued to minimize North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, culminating in the widely divergent assessments of the missile tests of July 2017. The most straightforward explanation for prevailing Russian attitudes seems to be Moscow’s ingrained skepticism toward the “new threats” that Washington has repeatedly cited in justifying its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and deployment of ground-based interceptors to defend the American homeland.

Any such thinking is in error. It should not be necessary to endorse American ambitions for ballistic-missile defenses to appreciate the character and extent of North Korea’s achievements with strategic technologies. Many milestones now testify to the progress of these efforts since Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003: two successful space launches, two ICBM flight-tests and six nuclear tests, most recently including what appears to have been a hydrogen bomb with a yield in the low hundreds of kilotons. More of these actions are almost certain to come. A dispassionate appraisal of these trends is needed.

Shining a Light on Science and Technology

Perhaps the most misleading evidence about North Korea’s capabilities is that of our own eyes: the famous nighttime space images that show a country almost without lights. The camera doesn’t lie, but any conclusion that the darkness is a function of backwardness does not follow. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an economic weakling by regional standards, but not necessarily a technological laggard where it counts most. The darkness is largely a matter of choice: The ruling party and government have systematically neglected civilian needs for decades, preferring to invest in national defense.

Especially with the turn from a conventionally armed military to one that also operates nuclear missiles, these requirements include a serious scientific enterprise. Kim Jong Un, who recently called science and technology “an engine steering the building of a powerful socialist country,” has in recent years placed North Korea’s scientists in a position of steadily greater favor. They increasingly occupy a privileged role comparable to what senior military officials enjoyed under his father, Kim Jong Il.

This new prominence may also be somewhat misleading, since the regime long ago came to appreciate the role of scientific research in the enhancement of its national power. For decades, North Korea’s State Academy of Sciences and the country’s leading universities—Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology and the University of Natural Science—have focused heavily on research in basic and applied natural sciences and engineering. Like any other country eager to promote science, North Korea issues patents and invests in science education. Its publishing houses produce an array of scientific journals, many of which have lately become available outside of the country, enabling researchers to draw inferences about the state of research in North Korea and the technologies in use in its industries.

In their pursuit of more advanced capabilities, the North Koreans gravitated to a primarily imitative strategy, seeing it as the quickest and least costly way to catch up to the rest of the world. But not until the 1980s did the regime start to remove some of the impediments it had placed in its own way. In 1985, Kim Jong Il, the designated heir to Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, declared in a speech to senior Workers’ Party officials, “In order to develop science and technology quickly you should introduce advanced science and technology from abroad."

“The introduction of developed science and technology," he went on, "is an important way to develop our own science and technology to the world level in the shortest possible time. It is reasonable to introduce the science and technology developed by other countries rather than to waste time conducting research yourselves. If you conduct research into science and technology that other countries have already developed, wasting 10 to 20 years, science and technology here will lag further behind. We must reach quickly the high levels of the latest science and technology by widely applying the successes achieved by the developed nations in science and technology and developing them further.”

If the story of North Korean science could be reduced to a single person, it might be So Sang Guk, a leading figure in the country’s space, missile and nuclear programs. According to defectors, So, who studied physics in the Soviet Union, came under suspicion in the 1970s and was sent to the countryside. By one account, So was recalled to Pyongyang in the 1980s only after Kim Il Sung tried to recruit a Soviet scientist to assist North Korea’s strategic weapons efforts. The unnamed scientist allegedly protested that North Korea already had sufficient talent in the person of So Sang Guk. Before long, So was appointed chair of the physics department at Kim Il Sung University, a position he held for decades thereafter. He also became Kim Jong Il’s personal science adviser.

Soviet Roots, North Korean Branches

For space and missile technology, the strategy of "imitate and adapt" has had an interesting side effect: Essentially all of North Korea’s rocket technology bears the stamp of Soviet origins. Because the Soviets were loath to provide these weapons to North Korea, a troublesome and unreliable ally at best, Pyongyang pursued various other strategies to gain access to them. North Korea first acquired Soviet-made Scud missiles from Egypt in the 1970s. In the 1980s, they learned how to produce their own copies, and started to design their own enlarged and extended-range versions.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the North Koreans set about trying to recruit foreign experts to help them master more advanced rocket technologies, ones developed in the USSR in the 1960s. It appears that they scored some successes; the acute difficulties experienced in Russia’s strategic complex in the 1990s exposed scientists and engineers to recruitment.

North Korea under Kim Jong Un has shone an unusually bright light on its own maturing missile capabilities. Even the newest and most powerful liquid-fueled engines produced in North Korea’s rocket factories appear to be adapted from decades-old Soviet designs. In this respect, the North Koreans have vindicated the fears of technological leakage that led to the establishment of the International Science and Technology Center in 1992.

In the early 1990s, the Russians, courting South Korean loans and investment, publicized a number of their actions to curtail North Korean recruitment efforts. But the full extent of North Korea’s activities in Russia and the other ex-Soviet countries may never be known.

One question that remains especially difficult to probe is whether Pyongyang’s nuclear-warhead designs owe anything to Soviet antecedents. Defector accounts have placed Russian scientists at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex in 1991. A Chinese effort to reconstruct the design of North Korea’s first nuclear device, which was tested with only partial success in 2006, concluded that it had involved an advanced design concept—an observation that may reflect foreign contributions. This finding lends at least some credence to an earlier claim from the rogue Pakistani nuclear official A.Q. Khan. Confronted by his interrogators, he excused his decision to share sensitive technology with the North Koreans on the grounds that they did not really need it, since they had already acquired “perfect” weapon designs from Russia, as well as an amount of plutonium.

North Korea is no superpower, but its investments in science and its dogged pursuit of Soviet-origin strategic technologies are, in their own way, grimly impressive. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are now decades-old technologies, and North Korea’s experience shows that developing them no longer requires epoch-making feats of innovation.

The Revenge of Geography

Beyond Russia's role in influencing new punitive resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, Moscow’s major approach to the North Korea problem has been to lend its own voice to the Chinese “freeze for freeze” proposal, in which the North Koreans would suspend nuclear and missile testing in return for a suspension of the major annual combined U.S.-South Korea military exercises. This modestly constructive approach has not yet borne fruit, and the increasingly belligerent mood in both Washington and Pyongyang suggests that it will not do so soon. Indeed, the risk of an American conflict with North Korea is growing, and along with it so is the risk of an accidental war between the two nuclear superpowers.

North Korea has threatened to preempt any American invasion with nuclear strikes, citing its lack of geographic depth. The United States may now be entertaining thoughts of its own about preemption; after North Korea’s latest nuclear test, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that “any threat” to the United States or its allies would be met with a “massive military response,” resulting in the “total annihilation” of North Korea. The carefully chosen word “threat” does not necessarily imply waiting for an enemy’s attack to unfold.

The picture is sufficiently discouraging that Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker has warned that the United States may be “on the path to World War III” with North Korea. Tensions are unlikely to recede in the months and years to come. Kim Jong Un has pledged to pursue a “balance of power” with the United States. His foreign minister recently indicated that North Korea may respond to American threats by shifting from underground nuclear testing to atmospheric testing over the Pacific, reversing the world trend of the last several decades.

What could happen in the event of a second Korean War? As Anton Mozorov noted, missiles flying from North Korea toward most targets in the United States will pass over Russia, which is also where U.S. interceptors might engage them. Any American nuclear retaliation with its own ICBMs also would overfly Russia, alerting its early-warning systems en route. The Russian military should be able to assess these events correctly, but there is no guarantee it would do so, given time pressure, fears of a secret offensive role for U.S. missile defenses and Russia’s refusal, so far, to acknowledge the existence of North Korean ICBMs.

What Can Be Done

The stakes are high. The two governments would be well-advised to reassess the adequacy of their existing crisis-communications links, and, if necessary, to put their differences aside long enough to implement their agreements to establish a Joint Data Exchange Center. Of course, since there is so little political space for cooperation between Washington and Moscow at present, both sides should also examine unilateral steps to manage the worst risks of a war involving North Korea.

Russia’s leaders might ask themselves how prepared their country is for such an event. Are Russia’s strategic early-warning systems sufficiently capable of characterizing North Korean missile launches? How confidently can they distinguish U.S. interceptor engagements and retaliatory strikes against North Korea from a surprise attack on Russia itself? How would they evaluate the situation if the United States were to strike first at a moment of heightened tension? And not least of all, do the benefits of maintaining a launch-on-warning option for some of Russia’s ICBMs still outweigh the dangers?

The first step that the United States could take would be to reconsider its approach to the North Korean nuclear threat. Failing that, American defense officials should consider whether the military is postured to contend with that threat without triggering a vast game of Russian Roulette. Is it currently able to meet its nuclear targeting requirements without overflying Russia? Can it plan missile-defense flyouts that avoid overflight as well? And if not, what changes to posture will be needed to remedy these serious shortcomings?

These questions may seem bleak, but they reflect the demands of a new strategic reality. North Korea has nuclear weapons. It has ICBMs. As long as it relies on these weapons to confront the threat it sees from the United States, both American and Russian leaders must adapt.


Joshua H. Pollack is the editor of the The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.