No one's laughing off N. Korea nuclear threats now
SEOUL — For 20 years, fears about North Korea's headlong pursuit of nuclear bombs have been deflected by admonishments not to overestimate an impoverished dictatorship prone to bragging and tantrums.
After three nuclear tests of apparently increasing power and a long-range rocket launch that puts it a big step closer to having a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to American shores, many believe that in a matter of years — as little as five, maybe, though the time frame is debated — Pyongyang will have a very scary nuclear arsenal.
Though it's a view not embraced by everyone, one respected South Korean expert says North Korea could be working toward 80 to 100 nuclear-tipped missiles. Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in North Korea, provides a less dramatic but still bracing assessment: If the path is A to Z, with Z being nuclear missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland, North Korea is maybe at T.
Proof of the heightened gravity with which Pyongyang's intentions are seen can be found in the Obama administration's announcement in March that it will spend $1 billion to add 14 interceptors to the U.S.-based missile defense system. It said it was responding to what it called faster-than-anticipated North Korean progress on nuclear weapons and missiles.
“Where in the past, there may have been some ambiguity about what North Korea was seeking to achieve, there is a clear recognition that they are pressing toward a nuclear capability with a potential longer-range delivery,” Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia from 2009 until earlier this year, said at a forum last week in Seoul. “Such an approach represents a strategic, almost existential threat to the United States.”
The sense of urgency is new. What hasn't changed is the fierce, seemingly paralyzing debate about how to discourage North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Some call for unconditional talks. Others say it's time for tougher, Iran-style sanctions and for China to cut off aid to its ally.
Pyongyang's weapons probably aren't meant to carry out nuclear threats, analysts say, but instead to protect against perceived outside hostility while extracting diplomatic and aid concessions. Pyongyang insists that it needs nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. attack. Washington insists it has no such intention.
“We've underestimated them,” said Klingner, with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. “People made fun of their long-range missile until it didn't fail. There was sort of this, ‘Why wasn't I informed there was a long-range missile threat?' Well, we've been warning you for 15 years.”