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Assessing North Korea’s Ability to Weaponize as Kim Jong-un Sends Stark Message

April 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
With North Korea announcing it is reviving certain nuclear activities in order to enhance its nuclear weapon capabilities, Margaret Warner talks with Joseph DeTrani of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance about how close that country is to being able to build a weapon to hit the United States or neighbor South Korea.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to veteran CIA officer Joseph DeTrani, who also served as North Korea manager in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He now heads the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

Mr. DeTrani, welcome back.

JOSEPH DETRANI, Intelligence and National Security Alliance: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how alarming a development is this, North Korea relaunching these nuclear facilities?

JOSEPH DETRANI: I think it’s significant, very significant.

Certainly, their admission that they have a highly enriched uranium program, which we knew all along, but they never admitted to having this program, that’s significant. Reconstituting the Yongbyon plutonium facility, it will take a few years, but that’s significant.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, how long will it take? What condition is that — let’s take the plutonium reactor, which I gather used to supply, produce most of the nuclear fuel for whatever they — what they had.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: How long will it take to get that up and running again?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, the sense is, it’s in disrepair. It’s been 2007 when they took it down and the cooling tower.

So the sense would be at least a few years, two to two-and-a-half, three years to get it up and running.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we already know that they have enough fissile material, it’s believed, for, what, six to eight bombs, four to eight bombs.

And, in fact, they have had their own nuclear tests. So what is the big deal about restarting this plant?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, it’s producing more fissile material, more plutonium for more nuclear weapons.

And that’s what Kim Jong-un said the other day, enhancing their nuclear weapons program. They’re talking about building more nuclear weapons using plutonium with this facility, and now admitting to using highly enriched uranium for another path to nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so explain what’s the significance of the highly enriched uranium plant.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Very much …

MARGARET WARNER: But why do they need it? Why — how significant is it?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, this is something they have denied all along.

For many years, they maintained they never had a highly enriched uranium program. They, in 2000 said — said they have a uranium enrichment program. The key here is a highly enriched uranium program speaks to nuclear weapon. There’s only one purpose for HEU, highly enriched uranium, and that’s to build nuclear weapons, two paths to building nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s the advantage to them of having two paths?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, more nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, but why pursue two different technologies?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, this is something that could be denied.

They could — highly enriched uranium is something that could be done very clandestinely. There are very little, if any signatures. So they could have significant capabilities, unbeknownst to the international community, while a plutonium facility is very visible.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean just because of its size?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Because of its size and because of the technology. You could bury a highly enriched uranium program, and there are literally no signatures coming out of it.

So, you could be building capabilities which no one is aware of.

MARGARET WARNER: Especially because they have no weapons inspectors. There are no IAEA …

JOSEPH DETRANI: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly — and when the IAEA was there, they were restricted to Yongbyon, just looking at the plutonium facility.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the question that concerns, of course, Americans, among others, is how close are they to being able to build, construct a compact enough nuclear warhead that would fit atop a missile that could be delivered to the United States?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Those are very good points.

The sense is — I have been away for it for a number of months, but the sense is from the information available that they are not there obviously at this moment now. But with the third nuclear test they had in February, they’re moving towards that capability. Again, the assessment is they are not there to miniaturizing such that they could marry it up to a missile delivery system.

They’re not there yet. They would need more time for that.

MARGARET WARNER: And do they have the technical capability?

JOSEPH DETRANI: I think the assessment is they do have the technical capability.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about their — targeting their neighbor much closer to home, South Korea? Are they at the point that they have a deliverable nuclear device that could be, say, shot off by a rocket launcher, surface to surface, or dropped from a plane?

JOSEPH DETRANI: That’s an excellent point, excellent point.

When you’re a neighbor and you have the proximity and so forth, a nuclear weapon can be delivered as you just described. They could drop it out of an airplane if they need be. It doesn’t have to be married up to a delivery system, a missile delivery system. So if you’re in the neighborhood, the threat is very significant, and it’s much more imminent.

MARGARET WARNER: But are they — what do they still need to do to be able to say that …

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, you need to weaponize it.

And the sense is, they have the capability of weaponizing the fissile material, putting it into a weapon. The next issue would be miniaturizing it so it could fit onto a delivery system, and that’s — the sense is that they’re working towards that capability.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, as an expert in this field, can you derive any conclusion about intentions from announcements like this and decisions to restart operations like this?

JOSEPH DETRANI: This is significant escalation.

They are definitely getting everyone’s attention. And by claiming to have a highly enriched uranium program, now admitting to the program, that is very significant. And it’s obvious that Kim Jong-un wanted to get a message across. And he wanted to get a very stark message across, which he has done.

MARGARET WARNER: Joseph DeTrani, thank you so much.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Thank you.