kim's nuclear gamble

what is north korea's nuclear capability?

Since October 2002, North Korea has admitted to a secret uranium-enrichment program, kicked international inspectors out of the country, announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its plutonium program. Pyongyang maintains that it needs nuclear bombs to defend itself against a U.S. attack. In excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, William Perry, Thomas Hubbard and Ashton Carter debate how close the North may be towards achieving its nuclear ambitions.

who are they?
photo of perry

William carter
U.S. Sec'y of Defense (1994-1997); U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea (1999)

read the full interview

...The North Korean military understands quite clearly that they cannot compete with the United States military. They have learned the lessons of Desert Storm very, very well. And therefore, they argue that they need nuclear weapons as an offset to our preponderant conventional military capability. And those people in the North Korean military have had a very heavy say in the North Korean government, and I think a very heavy influence in Kim Jong Il's decision.

Therefore, based on this history, I conclude there's a very strong motivation within North Korea to go towards a robust nuclear weapon program. And I believe it's quite possible they've already decided that there's what they have to do for regime survival, and will do it any way they can find of doing it. ...

[The North Koreans' 1994 announcement that they planned to reprocess plutonium at the Yongbyon facility, and the expulsion of international inspectors] was a very clear signal to us that they planned to go ahead and reprocess this fuel, get the plutonium and then make the nuclear bombs. My judgment then and my judgment today was they thought they would try to push the way through to a nuclear weapons program. In a sense, they were testing to see if they could succeed in doing that. But I have to be very clear, we're only guessing what their intentions were. They never told us why they were doing it. But it was inescapable that they were heading for nuclear weapons when they sent the inspectors out, we believed.

I think it's a serious crisis. We're probably heading now towards a North Korea with a robust nuclear production program and a declared nuclear state, including nuclear tests. That seems to me to be the direction that North Korea's headed right now.

Do they have a bomb now?

I don't know whether they have a bomb now. During the second or third year of the first Bush administration, we think they did some reprocessing of fuel without inspectors being present. Knowing the size of the reactor they had there, we believe that could have yielded enough plutonium for maybe one or two nuclear bombs. We don't know that they've done that, but we know they could have done it.

From that time, since about 1989 or 1990 to this point, which is 13 or 14 years, it's possible that they have had enough plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs. I'm not unconcerned about that. But one or two nuclear bombs is a different nature of threat altogether from six or seven nuclear bombs, or from making five or 10 nuclear bombs a year, in terms of the threat to the United States. Because it gives them the option for testing, it gives them the option for selling, it gives them the option for still having nuclear weapons left over to threaten South Korea, Japan, the United States.

How much time does the United States have?

I think we will have passed a threshold in a couple of months. By May, presumably, if they're proceeding at full speed, they could have the plutonium [processed] and moved out of Yongbyon, moved we know not where, and then, at some other laboratory, they could be making the bomb. So they might have six or seven bombs by the end of the year.

Now, I want to be clear that there's quite a lot of uncertainty about any particular estimate of timing you make here. The processor and the reactor have been shut down for more than eight years, so bringing them back up to speed may take some time. They may run into problems in doing that. So a couple of months is sort of the early end of how quickly they could move. It could take them longer. But we're talking about months, not years.

Is there any evidence that they are selling nuclear technology?

No. None that I'm aware of. I'm not sure they have much to sell at this point. But if they proceed with processing the spent fuel, which is now out of the IAEA control, then they will have enough time to make probably five or six nuclear bombs. That gives them enough bombs that they could sell one or two of them.

photo of hubbard

Thomas hubbard
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (2001-present)

You had intelligence that they were shopping in Pakistan [for equipment and technology to start a program to enrich uranium].

read the full interview

There were some pieces of intelligence that made us believe that there was perhaps some research and development going into a highly enriched uranium program. What changed over just the last, really six months, was our perception of the stage and scale of that program, which took this from being a potential problem that we have to worry about sometime in the future to a much more immediate problem that had to be dealt with.

What prevents them from going nuclear? If they don't want to talk except bilaterally and the United States refuses to talk, what prevents them?

If they're determined to go nuclear, they're going to go nuclear and then we have to deal with that problem.

So there's nothing that the United States can do at this point to stop them?

We think we have offered a dialogue. We have indicated that we'll play a very active role in that, that we're prepared to talk to them about how they can dismantle this program.

If the United States can do nothing to stop North Korea, a country that possibly has a couple of nuclear warheads already and can develop five or six more by the end of the year, has missiles that can reach the United States, why isn't this a crisis?

Because we believe that this is a problem that can be solved. That we can find a way to enter into some kind of diplomatic process, hopefully on a multilateral basis, that will allow us to stop the North Koreans before they take some of the fateful next steps.

photo of acarter

ashton carter
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy (1993-1996)

You've seen the intelligence. Is there any information that leads you to believe that the North Koreans are assisting Middle Eastern countries such as Iran or others in getting nuclear weapons?

read the full interview

Well, what information I have on that subject I can't share. But what I can say is that North Korea has clearly, in the past, assisted Iran in its ballistic missile program.

They've helped the Pakistanis with missiles?

That's right.

They've helped the Iranians with missiles. Libyans with missiles.


Syrians with missiles?

Many countries in the Middle East. Almost anybody who will buy them.


And they're out hawking them all the time.

Are there North Koreans helping the Iranians with nuclear programs?

Wouldn't surprise me to find the technical underbellies of these weapons of mass destruction programs in constant communication with one another and working with one another.

It wouldn't surprise you to find out that the North Koreans were helping the Iranians develop a nuclear bomb?

No, it wouldn't surprise me.

Syrians or Libya?

Would not surprise me, no, and it's fine as long as they're only trading blueprints. But when they've got the metal, the plutonium that can make those blueprints real, then you really have to be worried.

This is important because this is, as I understand it, a major piece of their gross national product, missile sales.

It has been in the past, a substantial source of hard currency earnings to them. I think the market has tapered off a little bit for them.

All the more reason to sell something bigger and better.

That's much more valuable.

Ed. Note: More about North Korea's missile trade

How much do you sell a nuclear warhead for? Are five pounds of plutonium enough to make a big warhead?

There is mercifully no market in that. No test has been done. I believe it's the case that there were rumors 25 years ago, that Qaddafi offered India to relieve its entire foreign debt in return for one nuclear weapon.

How much was that?

I don't know but it must have been billions and billions and billions of dollars. And remember that countries that choose the proliferation path spend an enormous amount reprocessing plutonium or enriching uranium. It's expensive to make nuclear weapons. It's a hassle. There are large facilities involved, and you get caught building them. They're facilities that can be bombed, like Yongbyon. So if you're intent upon getting nuclear weapons, by far the easier path is to buy the material. Even more so if you're a terrorist who doesn't have a country in which he can build a reprocessing facility or build a uranium enrichment facility.

Our nightmare, any of us -- which would change the way we lived our lives -- was if we thought that any moment Al Qaeda might detonate a nuclear weapon in a city anywhere in the world, because we learned that they had gotten hold of some plutonium from the North Koreans by sale. Or when the North Korean regime collapsed, somebody smuggled it out. People talk about containment of North Korea. Well, you can contain North Korea in many ways, but it's not believable to me that we can put a hermetic seal around North Korea that will guarantee us that a little piece of metal this big of plutonium can't get out of North Korea. That's completely incredible.



home : introduction : analyses : the north koreans : chronology : nuclear capabilities
interviews : readings & links : discussion : producer's chat
teacher's guide : tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

photograph copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation