If left unconstrained, by 2015 the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would grow, albeit slowly. How much is unclear. Key uncertainties would be the age of North Korea’s sole reactor and the availability of fresh fuel. Most experts believe the North does not have any additional fuel loads beyond the rods that are currently in the reactor, although it could modify other rods produced for a different model. If that is true, it would certainly severely limit Pyongyang’s ability to produce additional plutonium.
North Korea’s suspected uranium enrichment program seems to be much less advanced than the George W. Bush Administration claimed in 2002, when it discovered that effort. It is highly unlikely that the North can produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons. Indeed, its program may not have advanced beyond the research and development phase. As a result, North Korea would probably be unable to produce HEU for additional weapons over the next seven years.
There is no information about the security measures surrounding Pyongyang’s stockpile or its nuclear technology but presumably they are extremely tight. Knowledge of its true capabilities is certainly compartmented, confined to a very small number of the top leadership, Kim Jong Il, the military, and the head of the defense-industrial organization responsible for the program.
What about the future? Projecting to 2015 is particularly difficult in the case of North Korea because of uncertainties about the future of the negotiations in Beijing designed to achieve its denuclearization.
Those talks have made some progress over the past six months by shutting down Pyongyang’s operating reactor, beginning a process of disabling its known plutonium production facilities and, hopefully, producing declarations by the North Koreans containing information about their nuclear program. (Eventually, we should be able to paint a more complete picture of its program as a result of these declarations.)
However, the bulk of difficult work remains to be done. Key issues remaining include: convincing North Korea to disclose whether it has an HEU program, to dismantle its nuclear weapons, ship its spent fuel and weapons-grade plutonium out of the country, and put in place extensive verification measures.
Moreover, if there is a price to be paid, it will be high and may include the provision of light-water reactors (LWRs) to Pyongyang. That issue is still a difficult one for the United States to address since LWRs were a centerpiece of the unsuccessful 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework. Even if all of this was agreed tomorrow, the process of denuclearization would continue for years—certainly until 2015 if not beyond—and may cost billions of dollars.
A second factor complicating attempts to project to 2015, is that there have been and will continue to be uncertainties about the future of the North Korean political system. Just how brittle that system is has been the subject of periodic debate ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, predictions of Pyongyang’s demise so far have been, in the words of Mark Twain, “greatly exaggerated.”
Nevertheless, the sudden end of the North Korean political system can not be ruled out. Its demise might be triggered by events such as the death of Kim Jong Il before a firm process of