Pyongyang is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons stock and could possess a formidable arsenal as early as 2020.
North Korea could possess as many as 100 nuclear weapons in less than half a decade, reports the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank.
“The most recent open-source estimates suggest North Korea may already have enough fissile material to build between 13 and 21 nuclear weapons; by 2020, it could possess enough for 50 to 100,” RAND explained.
Some other reports indicate that combined cores could cut the fissile material costs for a nuclear weapon, allowing North Korea to produce even greater numbers.
“The DPRK will continue to take measures to strengthen its national nuclear armed forces in both quantity and quality in order to defend the dignity and the right to existence and safeguard the genuine peace vis-à-vis increased war threats of the U.S.,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said at the U.N. General Assembly last month.
As was demonstrated by North Korea’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test Sept. 9, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capabilities have improved.
North Korea can reportedly already deploy nuclear weapons by aircraft or ship, as well as, if reports from Pyongyang are to be believed, theater ballistic missiles.
The North is working on missiles for distant targets, the U.S. in particular. RAND suspects that many of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles could be long-range, road mobile, or capable of being launched by submarine between 2020 and 2025, creating serious national security risks for the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.
“During the next four to six years, Pyongyang will possess a nuclear force of sufficient size, diversity, reliability, and survivability to invalidate our regional military posture and war plans by holding at risk key bases and amplifying the risk to allies,” the RAND report explained.
The report indicates that it is crucial that the next U.S. president find a way to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and reassure American allies and partners.
Japan and South Korea “are losing faith in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and are upset by the U.S. failure to constrain DPRK nuclear developments,” RAND argues. The result has been calls for independent nuclear programs in these countries. Such a shift could dramatically alter the regional security dynamics in Northeast Asia and beyond.
For the time being, though, South Korea and Japan have yet to change their stances on the development of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and its allies are, in response to repeated North Korean provocations, conducting joint military readiness drills; discussing the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities; looking into decapitation strikes against Kim Jong Un; and pushing for stronger sanctions designed to restrict funding for North Korea’s nuclear programs.
The U.S. also plans to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in Seongju next year.
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