“There’s a tendency to underestimate North Korea’s capabilities for political reasons,” Jenny Town, a leading researcher from John Hopkins University in Washington DC, said in a recent interview with Sankei Shimbun in Tokyo.
“However,” she added, “accurate information is required in order to establish how best to respond.”
One discovery her team has made is that North Korea has more than 100 sites linked to its nuclear weapons program. They are in closely-guarded, secret locations. There are thousands of people who are involved in the production of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Here are excerpts of the interview with Town, who is also managing editor of 38North.org, a website produced by the US-Korea Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
As an independent organization, how do you gather information about North Korea’s military program?
We avoid rumor and speculation. Our information is drawn from satellite photographs which are in the public domain. We employ defense analysts who have years of experience of working on North Korea. We always ask several experts to study each image before we publish our conclusions.
What do you do following a missile launch or nuclear test?
We obtain satellite photographs that were taken as close as possible to the time of the tests. This enables us to examine plumes of smoke and to estimate what type of fuel was used. Missile scientists check the imagery. We aim to be as objective as possible. We’re trying not to overestimate or underestimate. Many people did not want to believe that North Korea was making progress, but it is now clear it is moving ahead with its weapons development.
How many nuclear sites are you watching?
We watch two main sites in relation to nuclear weapons and many missile test sites. We believe there are more than a hundred sites associated with the nuclear program in secret locations. The North Koreans need that many sites to manufacture and store the weapons.
The North Koreans talk about miniaturizing nuclear weapons so that they can be attached to long-range nuclear missiles. Can they do that yet?
It is hard to detect the size of a warhead. Some of our analysts believe they already have the capacity to miniaturize a warhead. They are clearly working towards that. Also, they are using ever larger yields. We believe they use plutonium and uranium, but it’s hard to confirm without access to the sites and doing soil tests.
What about chemical and biological weapons?
There could be many sites associated with chemical and biological weapons which aren’t obvious—everything from fertilizer factories to a university biology department. We’re talking about thousands of people across the whole program.
Do they try to hide their facilities from the satellites?
Yes, they clearly know that we are watching. So, for example, they sometimes put covers on facilities so that they can’t be seen from the sky. We cannot see inside the tunnels or underground—we only have images of the surface. Sometimes, it is hard to tell what we’re looking at. Is it a truck? Is it a box? This is something of a dark art, but we aim for accuracy.
Your organization is based at a university and you work from images in the public domain. Do you ever cooperate with the US Department of Defense to obtain classified data?
No, we are independent so we don’t use classified information. The American government sometimes includes our material in its defense briefings and so do other governments, but we do not collaborate with them. The aim is to provide information to assist the public dialogue. There’s a tendency to underestimate North Korea’s capabilities for political reasons. However, accurate information is required to establish how best to respond.
Why do you think their weapons program is making such rapid progress? Are they receiving outside help from countries such as China, Russia, or Iran?
These displays of power, the more frequent tests, make it appear as though the pace of progress has quickened. There was speculation they were preparing a nuclear test in the approach to Kim Jong-un’s birthday in April 2017. Then the satellite pictures showed images of men playing volleyball! We had to ask ourselves if they were just toying with us.
How do you compare Kim Jong-un with his father, the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il?
Kim Jong-il calculated the timings of the missile tests. Kim Jong-un does not do that—the timings seem random. Also, Kim Jong-un has not attempted to build relationships with foreign leaders from China, South Korea, or Japan.
Could China pressure him to change?
China’s political influence is not as strong as before, but it retains economic influence so a coal ban and an oil embargo would have an impact. However, we cannot predict how Kim Jong-un would react. People say that if China closed the border and enforced sanctions, then North Korea would come crawling back to the negotiating table. But we cannot assume that would be the case. There’s a lot of frustration in China. They don’t want the US to attack North Korea and they don’t want instability on their border.
What about Donald Trump and the United States?
Trump and his Cabinet are very inexperienced. He is surrounded by business leaders and generals who do not know much about diplomacy. Sanctions have a role, but they are not going to change the North Koreans’ behavior on their own. Without diplomacy alongside the sanctions, you are simply going to agitate the situation and raise the tension. North Korea has been responding in an ever more provocative way and the cycle will continue until there is a diplomatic breakthrough.
There is concern in Japan about a conflict between the US and North Korea. There would surely be a large number of casualties if there was a pre-emptive strike by the US.
I think it’s certainly possible. Trump is trying to act tough and hint at a military option. He expected North Korea to be intimidated but he miscalculated. North Korea will push back even more now.
Also, we have to be careful about the word pre-emptive. If the North Koreans prepare to attack the US, a pre-emptive strike could be taken. But if it’s a strike to destroy a test site, that’s not a pre-emptive strike; it’s preventative action. North Korea would retaliate and not just against the US but also against US allies in the region. That is completely unacceptable.
(Click here to read the article in Japanese)