Longtime NBC News producer Bob Windrem explores what's known and unknown about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. This is a companion piece to his article published today on msnbc.com, "Deciphering clues to North Korea's mysteries," in which he analyzes possible reasons behind recent North Korean belligerence.
By Robert Windrem
While the U.S. says it believes North Korea is far more advanced in the development of nuclear weapons than Iran, it does not know how many weapons the North has, precisely how big of a stockpile of plutonium the country has and even whether the purported nuclear tests earlier this decade were real.
U.S. concerns were significantly heightened after a Nov. 12 visit by Sig Hecker, the retired director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to a new and highly sophisticated uranium centrifuge facility in the North. It was the first time the North had shown any westerner its uranium enrichment capabilities. Hecker saw what he estimated were 2,000 centrifuges, a number just short of what’s needed to enrich enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb. None was running.
Hecker told a South Korean audience he was particularly impressed by the sophistication of the control room, indicating the North had mastered not just the enrichment process but management of a large-scale program. However many nuclear weapons North Korea has, they were created using plutonium reprocessed at its now shuttered Yongbyon reactor complex.
Three U.S. officials questioned about the North’s program said information remains sketchy on virtually all aspects of the program, starting with the number of weapons, which officials had placed at about a dozen a few years back.
“We just don’t know,” said a senior U.S. official, when asked about the size of the stockpile. He said the new disclosures of a uranium enrichment program will make such estimates even more difficult. “It’s not a wild assumption they may have mastered this technology, and that is one step closer to enriched uranium, and that gets you that much closer to real trouble.”
Another official said the U.S. believes the technology and possibly even some centrifuges came from Pakistan. “I have seen nothing to suggest the technology didn’t come from Pakistan.”
The biggest problem with estimating any country’s nuclear weaponry is how much fissile material — enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium — the nation had to begin with. While the U.S. has an estimate, which is highly classified, officials admit they do not know precisely how much is used for the weapons’ cores or how much was used in what were purported to be nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009.
“There remain questions on how efficient the nuclear tests were. They could have used more than you would normally use,” said the first official.
There are even lingering doubts about whether the tests were real and not a hoax in which a large amount of high-energy conventional explosives were detonated to mimic a nuclear test. Officials have long pointed out that the North has experience in such high-explosive tests.
“We’ve had two what we think are nuclear tests so far,” said the official. “You’re looking at this from a long way, and the point is although you do a variety of testing afterwards, there is always an element of doubt. Our scientists are fairly confident about it, but won’t give you a 100 percent guarantee that that is what happened.”
Could there be more if the North doesn’t get the kind of attention it has been seeking?
“There’s a risk we are going to have more testing,” said one official, adding that it could be tied to the transition from Kim Jong-Il to his son Kim Jong-On.
One reason why the North is so focused on nuclear weaponry is that its conventional forces have grown less capable as the nation has dealt with famine and other societal ills.
You can hear more from scientist Sig Hecker assessing the North Korean nuclear program in this interview with NBC's Richard Lui, and in the accompanying story.
Nuclear expert Dr. Siegfried Hecker recently returned from North Korea and found their nuclear capability 'stunning.' He discusses North Korea with NBC's Richard Lui.