North Korea's leadership is currently reveling in its role as East Asia's Lex Luthor, and, as with the perpetually failing super villain, nobody's really sure how afraid to be of him. All the saber-rattling, subterranean bomb-testing, and nuclear holocaust-threatening almost seems like it could be the stuff of some nefariously cartoonish prank. But obviously, nobody wants to take that bet. Especially when we now know that North Korea has nuclear reactors in operation that are fully capable of creating fissile materials, and that it probably has the tech required to build the bomb.
One of the main reasons we know as much about North Korea's nuclear program as we do is that Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear power expert and senior fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, has been one of the few experts ever allowed to visit the authoritarian regime's nuclear facilities.
The last time Hecker went to North Korea, in 2010, he returned with surprising news that the nation had successfully built a modern uranium enrichment facility—evidence that much of the international community may have been underestimating North Korea's nuclear prowess.
In light of North Korea's most recent shenanigans—the regime claims it has completed a successful underground test of a nuclear bomb, and announced that it was restarting all of its nuclear facilities—the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently sat down with Hecker to discuss whether there's indeed any cause for alarm.
Hecker says that as of right now there isn't, but there soon may be. That's because the nation's bomb-building ambitions are currently limited by the amount of fissile material it has on hand—plutonium and highly enriched uranium ain't easy to come by—and its lack of a means to launch it across international borders.
"I have previously stated that North Korea has the bomb, but not yet much of an arsenal," he says.
Beyond that, North Korea may have the knowledge to build a bomb, but it's missing some key parts. It only has a handful of plutonium on hand; only enough for a couple more tests. And that's why Hecker is alarmed not only that North Korea has restarted its nuclear facilities, but has announced that it is "adjusting" and "reconfiguring" them.
Hecker says that North Korea is entirely capable of reconfiguring its centrifuge facility so that it becomes capable of producing highly enriched uranium. This, he says, "could be done very rapidly." He says that North Korea "most likely had everything prepared in case they ever wanted to make this move. If they reconfigure, then based on our estimates, they could make roughly 40 kilograms of HEU annually in that facility -- that's enough for one or two HEU bombs per year."
So, to recap: In Hecker's opinion, North Korea is perfectly capable of building a nuclear bomb, but it has no arsenal. Meanwhile, it's very low on plutonium, but will soon likely be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to build two bombs a year. That sounds like trouble brewing.
Read the whole interview at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Their Doomsday Clock, by the way, remains at six minutes to midnight.