As outside nuclear experts and U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for more than a year, North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal seems on the verge of turning into a good-size one.

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WASHINGTON —

Early in his first term, President Obama conducted some quick triage on how his administration would face a gamut of nuclear challenges: Focus on stopping Iran’s nuclear program before it succeeded in building a weapon, but do not waste a lot of energy trying to roll back a North Korean program that had already built a small arsenal that the poor country had little incentive to give up.

It was a pragmatic roll of the dice. While it will be years before the strategy’s long-term wisdom can be assessed, Iran, eager to have economic sanctions lifted, shipped 98 percent of its known stockpile of nuclear fuel to Russia last week, most likely crippling its ability to build a weapon over the next decade.

But the North Koreans have a way of acting out when they feel ignored.

The detonation that rocked Northeast Asia early Wednesday and the North’s claim to have set off its first hydrogen bomb — a boast there is good reason to treat with skepticism — are a reminder that the North Koreans have been on an atomic spending spree while U.S. negotiators were cloistered in Vienna striking deals with the Iranians.

Growing nuclear arsenal

The consequences of that spending are significant, even if it did not result in a hydrogen bomb. As outside nuclear experts and U.S. intelligence officials have been warning in classified and unclassified briefings for more than a year, North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal seems on the verge of turning into a good-size one.

Estimates vary, but many believe the arsenal could contain more than 20 weapons by the end of this year. Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the man the North Koreans have periodically allowed into their most secret facilities to convince the U.S. of their prowess, last year termed that “a hell of a lot of bombs.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has improved the range and mobility of its missiles, making them harder to deter — or to take out if the North Korean regime collapses or decides to go out in a suicidal blaze of glory.

Senior U.S. military officials have periodically offered public assessments that the North probably has the ability to shrink a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop one of those weapons, meaning the world’s most unpredictable government could credibly threaten South Korea, Japan, U.S. forces in the Pacific and, eventually, the West Coast of the United States. The only saving grace is that in many missile tests during the past few years, the North Koreans have repeatedly demonstrated pretty lousy aim.

If the North Koreans have mastered the engineering of a thermonuclear weapon, it would marginally increase the severity of that threat. But politically, it renews a question: What do you do with a problem like North Korea?

U.N. Security Council resolutions — the council met Wednesday in response to the latest test — clearly have little effect. And hopes that government of Kim Jong Un will collapse have proved a fantasy.

“Patience” policy criticized

What the Obama administration has advertised as “strategic patience” — not overreacting to every North Korean test and demand for a payoff while continuing pressure through sanctions until the North agrees to negotiate — may well be judged by administration critics as having paved the way for an arsenal the size of Pakistan’s.

“Strategic patience has led to acquiescence,” Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain, or Engage Regimes,” said Wednesday. “What a contrast to the effort and creativity the administration put into the Iranian case.”

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It is not as if the administration has been doing nothing. Sydney Seiler, the State Department’s coordinator for eliminating the North Korean nuclear program, put together a package of proposals to see if the North would consider resuming negotiations. But it went nowhere.

Even some former Obama administration officials say the administration’s insistence that it would not talk to North Korea unless the North agreed the ultimate outcome was complete nuclear disarmament was a prescription for diplomatic failure. Stephen Bosworth, Obama’s first special envoy for North Korea, who died over the weekend, argued in recent years that an administration willing to talk to Iran, Cuba and Myanmar had little to lose by dealing with the starving, isolated North Koreans.

“Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing,” Bosworth wrote in The New York Times in 2013 with Robert Gallucci, the North Korea negotiator in the Clinton administration. “Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile will continue to expand, the North will continue to perfect its missile-delivery systems, the danger of weapons-of-mass-destruction exports will grow, and the threat to U.S. allies will increase.”

From North Korea’s viewpoint, there is little incentive to give up the nuclear arsenal.

The world is not banging on North Korea’s door to do business the way it is with Iran: The North has no oil, no striving middle class, and little strategic value in the modern world. Its greatest power is the threat it poses to one of the most prosperous corners of the globe.

But many consider it too dangerous to allow North Korea to fail. The Chinese know that if it ceases to exist, the South Koreans, and their U.S. allies, will be on the Chinese border. The South Koreans know that if a conflict breaks out, the North will lose — but only after Seoul, just 35 miles or so from the North Korean border, is a smoking ruin.

So the North Korean strategy is to up the ante and hope the world will acknowledge it as a nuclear power that has to be dealt with. H-bomb or no H-bomb, nuclear weapons are the country’s insurance policy, and the test was a sign that it has no intention of cashing it in anytime soon.