Interviews | Security | East Asia

Ankit Panda on Kim Jong Un and the Bomb

An interview with Panda about his new book, and the past and future of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

Shannon Tiezzi
Ankit Panda on Kim Jong Un and the Bomb

In this image made from video by North Korea’s KRT, a military parade is held in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 8, 2018.

Credit: KRT via AP Video

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korean leaders decided to remind the world of their own personal flashpoint by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. Though Kim Jong Un later claimed to have “suspended” plans for military action against the South, the (literally) explosive move was more proof that the Korean Peninsula remains fraught with tensions that could escalate at any point.

Against that backdrop comes the timely release of a new book: Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea by The Diplomat’s own Ankit Panda. In addition to being a senior editor at The Diplomat, Panda is also Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Below, The Diplomat talked with Panda about his book, and the past and future of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

Your book focuses on the long history of North Korea’s quest to become a nuclear power. How has Kim Jong Un’s leadership in this regard diverged from his father’s and grandfather’s? 

Kim Jong Un declared North Korea’s nuclear deterrent complete in November 2017. A month later, the North Korean Munitions Industry — or the folks that spend much of their days working on the nuclear enterprise — feted his leadership. Kim was described as having heralded a new era for North Korea; his father and grandfather’s contributions were also noted, but Kim Jong Un was described as the man that got it all past the finish line.

This is true to an extent, but the fundamentals of North Korea’s nuclear fuel cycle, procurement networks, and defense-industrial base were not established overnight after Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011. Kim Jong Un took over at a critical time, but much of the work that the world came to know under his leadership had begun much earlier. My book tries to place much of this in context, underscoring the milestones that Kim oversaw, but with a discussing of their precedents in North Korea.

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Kim’s leadership diverged in some important ways. Unlike his father, who championed the songun policy that privileged spending on the conventional military capabilities of the Korean People’s Army to the detriment of nearly all other aspects of state-building, Kim Jong Un oversaw a greater civilianizing of the North Korean state while increasing his country’s reliance on nuclear weapons as a tool of national defense. Kim’s byungjin line — which called for a strong national nuclear deterrent to be pursued in parallel to a prosperous economy — literally and figuratively borrowed from his grandfather’s ideas about statecraft.

In practical terms, Kim Jong Un’s era sets itself apart from his father and grandfather’s in terms of the sheer number of testing activities that took place with regard to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. With more than 100 missile tests and four nuclear tests, Kim saw through many significant milestones. When he inherited the leadership, North Korea was still a borderline nuclear aspirant; by November 2017, Kim confidently claimed to lead a nuclear power armed with intercontinental-range ballistic missiles capable of holding the territory of the United States at risk.

Where is North Korea today in terms of developing its nuclear deterrent, and how much further does it want to progress?

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal continues to quantitatively expand and is undergoing gradual qualitative refinement. Centrifuges continue to spin, enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles and their launch vehicles are still being produced. In November 2017, Kim Jong Un declared the symbolic completion of his nuclear deterrent, but, in reality, work remained ahead. We have a good idea about the sort of things that the North Koreans are hoping to eventually achieve. For instance, even though they tested intercontinental-range ballistic missiles — two separate designs — in 2017, these missiles would require further testing and validation to get to a point where Pyongyang would feel comfortable with their performance. Of course, for the purposes of nuclear deterrent, Kim has calculated that the three demonstrative ICBM tests were sufficient to sow the fear in the minds of American planners that’s necessary ultimately for the United States to be deterred by North Korea’s capabilities. In 2017, senior American military officials testified publicly that they saw Kim’s new missile capabilities as something to be taken seriously; that was likely a sign for the North Koreans that their capabilities had reached an important milestone.

In the coming months, we should expect to see some new capabilities from North Korea. In December 2019, Kim Jong Un hinted that the world would soon see a “new strategic weapon” from North Korean and, that same month, the North Korean Academy of Defense Science conducted two intriguing missile engine tests. It’s possible we may see a larger missile or a variant of a known design. Alternatively, North Korea has been making important headway in solid propellant missiles; we could see a new ICBM based around this technology.

North Korea has not tested any ICBMs or nuclear weapons since 2017, in accordance with Kim Jong Un’s self-declared moratorium. But we shouldn’t assume that progress has stopped on those fronts. How do you think Pyongyang has been developing its nuclear and missile programs during this period?

Kim lifted his own self-imposed moratorium rather unequivocally during his plenum address in December 2019, citing a lack of U.S. follow-up on diplomatic commitments. November 2017 was indeed the last time North Korea launched an ICBM, but, beginning in May 2019, a few months after the failed U.S.-North Korea Hanoi summit, Kim oversaw several successive launches of new short-range solid propellant missiles. In fact, solid propellants have been a major focus of recent North Korean testing activity. The last time North Korea flight-tested a liquid propellant-based missile was back in November 2017, when it first testing the Hwasong-15 ICBM. On the missile side, I’d suspect a lot of energy has gone into iterating on the solid propellant technologies they’d been working with for a while.

A separate effort that receives little press, but is quite significant is in the area of launch vehicles. North Korea’s land-based ballistic missile forces are fully road-mobile to maximize their survivability against the threat of preemption by the United States; stationary launch pads and missile siloes would be particularly vulnerable. An important constraint in this regard through 2017 was North Korea’s reliance on a relatively small fleet of imported vehicles for its largest missiles: the ICBMs and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in its arsenals. Over the last few years, U.S. intelligence has tracked significant industrial activity at military vehicle production facilities. I would expect that we may see a larger assortment of indigenously developed launch vehicles for larger missiles. In 2017, North Korea did unveil several such designs for missiles in the short- and medium-range classes.

What weapons systems currently under development should we keep an eye on, especially if North Korea looks to provide a display of its military progress amid increasing tensions?

In many ways, the entire North Korean nuclear force remains a work-in-progress and likely will be so for a while. Something I try to draw attention to in the book is the effort Pyongyang is likely undertaking to build out its nuclear command and control facilities. This is the “glue” that holds a nuclear force together and it’s one of the more difficult things for a new nuclear state to get right. With North Korea’s offensively oriented nuclear strategy and “ambush” mentality, the perils of poor command and control are dire. I try to present more than a few scenarios in the book that could result in accidental or unauthorized nuclear use in North Korea absent a robust enough command and control solution. The problem with studying this is that there’s little good insight; this continues to be a significant blind spot for the U.S. intelligence community as well. It’s much easier for U.S. intelligence efforts to focus on the nuclear fuel cycle in North Korea and ballistic missile production, but the broader organizational and technical underpinnings of command and control continue to be understudied, but hugely important.

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Beyond command and control, I think we should not underestimate the North Koreans when it comes to new technical milestones. I already said a little about solid propellant missiles, but I think we should be open to the possibility that the North Koreans will seek to make headway on technologies that might better assist them in penetrating U.S. and allied missile defense systems. These could include new types of reentry vehicles for their missiles and possibly even multiple reentry vehicles down the line.

Like many analysts, you conclude that a nuclear North Korea is not going anywhere. What does this mean for U.S. and South Korean diplomacy with Pyongyang?

The United States and South Korea need to contend with the uncomfortable fact that the North Korean nuclear problem is no longer a question of short-term disarmament, but of long-term risk reduction. As a result, the singular focus on rapid “denuclearization” has proven to be self-defeating. Of course, North Korea, as the only country to have ever left the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and then successfully broken out as a nuclear state, needs to be dealt with as a proliferation problem. In Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, officials fret about what “accepting” a nuclear North Korea might mean for other would-be proliferators. But this question is a red herring; in many ways, a nuclear North Korea has already long been accepted — albeit tacitly. Certainly, the optics of the U.S.-North Korea summits in 2018 and 2019 contributed to this notion.

In spite of all this, North Korea will continue to represent a grave challenge to Northeast Asian and global security. As a result, the U.S. and its allies — particularly South Korea and Japan — will need to practice effective deterrence. This has been done successfully with North Korea in the past, and can be done in the coming years with a nuclear North Korea. At the same time, the “all-or-nothing” approach to negotiations has had its time and needs to make way for a more pragmatic, results-oriented process of a confidence-building and nuclear risk reduction with Pyongyang. Some might call this “arms control” of sorts, but it’ll require a fundamental rethinking of the way in which policymakers conceive of North Korea.