The speech of Kim Jong-un, which we reviewed earlier on July 27, 2022, was perceived as a sign that this time the DPRK will definitely conduct the seventh nuclear test in the very near future, and North Korean experts are waiting for a corresponding decision by Kim Jong-un. It seems that “experts” and specialists on future sanctions are waiting for this date even more than the DPRK leadership, but in 2022 we have already experienced at least 4 attempts to “assign” a nuclear test to one or another important (for Western analysts) date. Recall that the North “had to” detonate a bomb at the inauguration of Yoon Seok-yeol, at the summit of Yoon with Biden on May 20, on July 4, and finally on July 27.
As a result, representatives of the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Defense of the ROK prefer the wording “North Korea is currently ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time if Chairman Kim Jong-un decides to do so”. On July 22, this point of view was voiced by the President of the ROK Yoon Seok-yeol.
Accordingly, the developers of future sanctions are rubbing their hands. On July 26, the coordinator of the US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, noted that if the test happens, the US and its allies will take the necessary steps to hold North Korea accountable. And on August 3, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK Kim Seung-geum and his American counterpart Mark Milley agreed on the deployment of US strategic forces in the ROK in the same case.
The excitement is fueled by the fact that some work is underway at the Phungeri nuclear test site, located in the province of Hamgyong, and this is confirmed by satellite images. Recall that there are four tunnels at the Phungeri nuclear test site, which were destroyed in 2018. Demolition work was carried out in the presence of a small group of invited foreign journalists. Experts believe that tunnels No. 1 and No. 2 are not suitable for restoration.
According to CNN and other foreign media, after a long break, the construction of the second reactor at the Nyongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center resumed. According to experts, the capacity of the new reactor will be about 50 megawatts, which is about ten times more than the capacity of the reactor that has been operating in Yongbyon since the late 1980s, and after the commissioning of the new reactor, the North will be able to increase the production of weapons-grade plutonium by more than ten times.
On June 15, the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on the analysis of satellite images published on the Beyond Parallel website owned by CSIS, reported that the restoration of the third tunnel in Phungeri has been completed, and construction work is underway in the area of the fourth tunnel.
In this regard, the former Deputy Secretary General of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, considered that it would take several months for the DPRK to prepare for a nuclear test in tunnel No. 4. The specialist noted that satellite images of the object can give extremely limited information about the situation, and only a visit and inspection can give reliable facts.
On June 24, according to North Korean media reports, during a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong-un and senior military and political figures of the DPRK discussed additional tasks and updated operational plans of the advanced military units of the Korean People’s Army. It is assumed that this may be due to the possibility of deploying elements of tactical nuclear weapons in KPA missile and artillery units equipped with KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25 systems.
July pictures from Beyond Parallel show that, despite adverse weather conditions, plutonium production continues. The 5 MW reactor has still been operating since July 2021. It can be ready for partial unloading of the reactor core, which can then be sent after a few months for processing. The Radiochemical Laboratory carries out some activities that may be related to waste treatment or preparation for the upcoming recycling campaign.
On August 1, 2022, in a report to the Parliamentary Defense Committee, the Ministry of Defense of the ROK noted the likely preparation of the DPRK for the re-launch of the Hwasong-17 liquid-fuel ICBM. In addition, Pyongyang is improving the characteristics of its solid-fuel missiles and preparing them for deployment. As for the next nuclear test, the work on the restoration of tunnel No. 3 at the Phungeri nuclear test site has been completed, and therefore, it can take place at any time. This requires only the decision of Kim Jong-un.
On August 3, Senior Vice President and chairman of the Korean branch of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies Victor Cha (a well-known hawk) even stated that North Korea’s nuclear missile program is unstoppable, and its progress seems to be moving faster than the modernization of American missile defense systems. However, even he stressed the need to continue diplomatic efforts, while stating that military action cannot be the answer.
There is also a discussion about the reasons why there is still no test. Less sane experts traditionally talk about the massive (but hidden) death of the population from the coronavirus and economic difficulties, in connection with which the regime is not up to a bomb.
More sane experts believe that the test is likely to take place after the autumn congress of the CPC, which is of great importance for China’s domestic policy, since increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula in relations with South Korea and the United States does not meet Beijing’s interests. Modern relations between the two countries actively use the rhetoric of “friendship sealed with blood,” and therefore, it is very likely that Pyongyang will not escalate with its main ally. This position is shared by Joseph DeTrani, a former US special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College London.
Another point of view boils down to the fact that there is nothing to test yet, and the TNW is simply not ready yet. It is shared by Bruce Bennett, a senior international defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. Former Deputy Defense Minister of the Republic of Korea Kim Jung-sup, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. “In order to be mounted on (the nation’s) new tactical guided weapons and hypersonic missiles, like the Hwasong-8, it needs to become even smaller.”. But it is unclear whether the desired level of miniaturization has been achieved.
The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK, Won In-choul, believes that the test may be postponed due to the rainy season. And all the experts are sure that something will definitely happen before the end of the year.
Here we will talk about the latest assessments of the DPRK’s nuclear potential (in the current and future perspectives). According to Siegfried Hecker, a senior researcher at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Pyongyang currently has about 45 nuclear weapons, and by 2024 (when Joe Biden’s term of office expires), their number will increase to 65. The DPRK probably also possesses a hydrogen bomb.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI, Sweden) believes that North Korea currently has about 20 nuclear warheads. In addition, Pyongyang has reserves of uranium-235 or plutonium-239 sufficient to produce from 45 to 55 new warheads.
According to the materials of the report of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), in 2021, nine nuclear states, among which the authors included the DPRK, spent USD 82.4 billion on the development of their nuclear weapons, which is 6.5 billion more than a year earlier. North Korea’s expenditures on its nuclear program are estimated at USD 642 million, the last place in the ranking, and the number of ready warheads is about 20.
On July 25, 2022, the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Korea, Lee Jong-sop, said that after the 2018 inter-Korean summit, the stocks of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium in North Korea are believed to have increased by about 10%.
Separately, the author wants to draw attention to the fact that in the English-language press of the ROK, which in general is rather under the control of conservatives, there are information attacks that the relationship between the world community and the DPRK may not go according to the model of a “rogue state,” but according to the conditionally “Pakistani model”. The initiators of the idea are two former aides of ex-President Moon Jae-in, who took part in the negotiations between Trump and Kim, so formally the AP has nothing to do with it.
The authors of the idea (former Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Yong-joon and military expert Na Ho-song) recall that in exchange for establishing “visible, official and legally binding restrictions” on its nuclear programs and improving relations with India, the United States lifted most sanctions from Pakistan, while retaining those that prohibit the provision or further development of nuclear technologies.
From the point of view of North Korea, the authors believe that the Pakistani model may turn out to be a profitable offer. Kim Jong-un will never give up his nuclear weapons, but he could limit the potential in exchange for further deals with the United States.
The article was met with restraint. Some security experts stated that Pakistan had never signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but North Korea signed, although withdrew from it in 2003. Other respondents of the author raised the issue of guarantees, while recalling that Pakistan at the time of the deal was rather a pro-American regime. But the fact that this was talked about in the pro-government media is interesting and fits into the author’s idea that, despite the harsh rhetoric against himself, Yoon Suk-yeol is looking for a pragmatic solution to the inter-Korean issue.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.