North Korea’s development of missile technology and the production of plutonium and uranium used for nuclear weapons have advanced unabated under President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” analysts say.
“If you straight-line into the future, the threat is going to get worse,” said Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official who manages the 38 North website run by Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is a visiting scholar.
“It’s gotten worse since 2009 when the Obama administration took office, and it’s going to keep getting worse and worse and worse.”
He ticked off a list of recent developments by North Korea: a series of rocket engine tests for intercontinental missiles, a doubling of the size of a uranium-enrichment facility, the restart of a plutonium production reactor and the construction of another reactor that appears to be aimed for civilian use but could have military applications as well.
During a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 24, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti — head of U.S. Forces Korea — said he personally believed North Korea possesses a functioning miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be launched on an intercontinental missile to reach the United States. Although most analysts say North Korea still has a lot of work ahead to be able to launch a nuclear weapon with any accuracy and the ability to survive re-entry, Scaparrotti said he has to plan for worst-case scenarios.
For the past half-century, the divided Korean peninsula has existed uneasily under the 1953 armistice between the North and United Nations forces, primarily from the United States and South Korea. With no formal peace agreement, the North and South remain suspicious of each other, and periods of rapprochement have quickly given way to deadly skirmishes.
The North froze its nuclear program under the so-called Agreed Framework bargain with the U.S. in 1994, under which the North was to receive assistance in building nuclear power reactors that do not lend themselves to production of fissile material suitable for bombs. For a decade the North made few advances in that technology, but the agreement broke down in 2003.