According to Elaine Grossman’s Pentagon source, North Korea’s plutonium is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:
“We don’t know how much (fissile) material that they have,” the Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said in a Wednesday interview. “We don’t know how much of what they have they want to expend on tests.”
However, multiple nuclear tests are “quite possible,” the official told Global Security Newswire.
As the title of this post suggests, I can see at least a couple of ways of looking at this matter. As per usual, they are based on no special information of any kind — no rumors, gossip, or leaks — just my own speculations and educated guesses. Let’s call them “More is More” and “Less is More.”
More is More
According to the Theory of More is More, North Korea is a plutonium miser who carefully husbands its stockpile. Nothing followed the 2006 test for so long because every last little bit was needed to deter invasion, command respect, or whatever it is exactly that one supposes North Korea’s plutonium is for. Because Test #1 was a fizzle, further testing was in demand, but it would have to wait for further reprocessing of plutonium.
That’s basically what Sig Hecker was telling Mark Landler of the NYT back in mid-April:
But Dr. Hecker said the North Koreans could begin reprocessing plutonium from an existing cache in a couple of weeks. That would allow them to make at least one additional bomb, he said, which might embolden them to conduct another test and refine their bomb-making expertise.
“With Yongbyon disabled, it meant no more bombs and no better bombs,” Dr. Hecker said.
In sum: Fewer tests, more plutonium, more value.
Less is More
According to the Theory of Less is More, because Test #1 was a fizzle, North Korea basically had nothing of value at all. So the more testing done, the closer the DPRK gets to its Holy Grail, the weaponized device. (In inimitable NK lingo, this would be called “bolstering the war deterrent.”) Nothing followed the 2006 test for so long either to avoid disrupting the 6PT process, because a suitable provocation had yet to be found, or because that’s how long it took the scientists and engineers to be ready for another go-round.
In sum: More tests, less plutonium, more value.
(Somewhere out there, there’s also got to be a Theory of It Doesn’t Matter, in which the timing of nuclear tests plays a crucial political function, and the rest is an afterthought. But I’m not ready to go there.)
Now, since North Korea has tested before reprocessing the spent fuel on hand, More is More is looking a little shaky. Sig Hecker has lately written a valuable essay on this and related topics. It’s interesting to see how he handles the problem:
Although Yongbyon will not be able to complete reprocessing for four to six months, the anticipated increase in plutonium is what has allowed it to conduct this week’s nuclear test. …This test will enhance Pyongyang’s confidence in its arsenal and may be an important step toward miniaturizing warheads to fit on its missiles. Still, the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will remain restricted by its limited plutonium inventory. Fully capable nuclear-tipped missiles will require further tests, so the sequence of this week’s provocative steps foreshadows more of the same.
Here one detects some wavering in the direction of Less is More from a carefully modified More is More, in which the anticipation of reprocessing enabled Test #2. I’m probably not doing justice to the essay, so read the whole thing for yourself. But basically, one no longer sees the strongly held judgment of April 2009.
An aside: for reasons not worth regurgitating here, no one outside the DPRK itself knows more about North Korea’s plutonium than Hecker. His views are carefully attended to in the norkological community and beyond, making him an opinion leader of some heft. It is safe to take what he says as indicative of much more than one person’s judgment. At least, that’s what I do.
The Envelope, Please
At this point, we seem to be looking at a rolling pattern of military activity that will continue for some time, as the DPRK takes “additional self-defensive measures in order to defend its supreme interests” and reacts to additional perceived provocations. Who knows? Perhaps the Sturm und Drang will drag on through the end of the 150-Day Battle, on October 10. We’ve seen a nuclear test and several short-range missile tests. Now there are indications of an upcoming ICBM test.
And how many more nuclear tests, if any, should we expect? To answer that question, it would be helpful to know how many test shafts have been spotted up at P’unggye-yok. Sean O’Connor has spotted two possibles in 2005 imagery. Maybe someone could task a commercial imagery satellite to see what it can see?
The short answer is, I guess we’ll find out.
Here are some resources for anyone getting up to speed on NK Pu. ISIS published a detailed report in 2007. The Washington Post provided some insight into the thinking of the U.S. intelligence community back in May 2008. A key point in the article was clarified at ACW. There were also several other articles on North Korea’s formal declaration of its stockpile, linked and discussed at ACW.