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North Korea's Weapons: What It Has, What It Wants


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked tough to North Korea this week. In South Korea, Mr. Tillerson said that U.S. policy of strategic patience is over. His comments come at a time that North Korea has launched missiles which have fallen into the Sea of Japan but raised anxieties about their nuclear threat. We're joined now by Robert Litwak. He's director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Mr. Litwak, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Does North Korea have weapons that could attack the U.S. or U.S. allies like South Korea or Japan right now?

LITWAK: North Korea is on the verge of a nuclear breakout. It has an arsenal estimated in the mid-teens. It's been assiduously testing ballistic missiles. It does have reach. It could target America's regional allies. The real inflection point here is that by 2020, they could have a hundred nuclear weapons instead of the mid-teens with long-range ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S. homeland, which would make it a game-changer for the United States.

SIMON: Well, how?

LITWAK: Well, it would allow them to directly target the United States. And that's a level of vulnerability we've never had from a state like North Korea. I mean, when I got into this business, I couldn't have conceived of a state like North Korea, essentially a failed state, having a nuclear arsenal approaching half the size of Great Britain's.

We're left with, really, three bad options - one - you know - bomb, negotiate or acquiesce. And the military option is so prohibitively costly it could lead to a catastrophic second Korean War. And when we can't - when we won't negotiate, we end up in that third box of acquiescing to the development of North Korean capabilities. And I believe there's a moment - a conjunction of factors that call for a pivot to serious diplomacy.

SIMON: Well, what would that serious diplomacy look like? I mean, I - the United States would have to - what? - accept a...

LITWAK: It's a fair question, you know, why diplomacy would work now when it's failed in the past. I think that the breakout is a game-changer for the United States because we're directly - become directly vulnerable to North Korea. But it's also a game-changer for China because they'll either - they'll have to live with the strategic consequences of a breakout, which could - are unknown. South Korea could reassess its non-nuclear status.

So I think the conjunction of factors that we can bring China into play would have the goal of obtaining a nuclear - a freeze to lock in North Korea at its current level of capabilities. And for China - I think the conjunction of factors is that for China, they would retain their buffer in North Korea. And they would prevent these adverse strategic consequences. North Korea would maintain its minimum deterrent, and the regime would remain in power. For the United States, it would prevent this breakout, and it would offer us a not-great narrative. But we would say that this is an interim agreement toward the long-term goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

SIMON: Well Mr. Litwak, in the minute we have left, can you really trust any - the process of reaching or signing any agreement with a regime like North Korea's?

LITWAK: That's another fair question. They've cheated in the past. I believe that a relevant precedent for what we should be engaged in with North Korea is the Iran nuclear deal that constrains capabilities and buys time and has a rigorous verification and inspection protocol to ensure that North Korea, if such a freeze agreement could be achieved, would not cheat on it.

SIMON: Robert Litwak is director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And he has a new book about to come out, I guess, "Preventing North Korea's Nuclear Breakout."

Mr. Litwak, thanks so much for being with us.

LITWAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.