Bruce Klingner knows better than anyone how dangerous North Korea really is. He spent years analyzing the Hermit Kingdom for the CIA, and he now works as a Northeast Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
And yet even he finds himself having an occasional chuckle at the North’s absurdity. The bombastic rhetoric and over-the-top propaganda is “kind of like 1950s Soviet Union on steroids,” he says.
But over the past few months, the experts have pretty much stopped laughing. That’s because North Korea has undertaken an unusual number of tests in the first quarter of 2016, everything from detonating a nuclear bomb underground to launching a satellite on a rocket that could be converted to a ballistic missile.
Keeping up with the pace of activity is “exhausting, to be honest,” says Melissa Hanham, a North Korea analyst at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey California.
What’s clear, both analysts say, is that the North is working quickly towards its ultimate goal: a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And they’re making pretty good progress.
A series of photos released by North Korea’s propaganda apparatus earlier this March is perhaps the best example of how views are changing. It shows the country’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il, posing in front a shiny silver ball placed atop chintzy red table cloth.
As experts started to analyze the pictures more closely, they weren’t laughing. The ball on the table was obviously a model, but many of the details were reasonably close to a real miniaturized warhead.
“They definitely know what a bomb looks like,” Hanham says. “I mean, that model didn’t come out of thin air. … It has roots in the truth.”
Adm. Bill Gortney, who heads the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told lawmakers: “It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that [Kim Jong Un] has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.” This is a change in tone from just a few years ago, when the U.S. intelligence community stated that North Korea didn’t have all the tools it needed to send a nuke over American soil.
Both Klingner and Hanham say there’s no need to panic. North Korea’s newest ballistic missile is untested, and they have yet to prove they have vital reentry technology that would allow their warhead to reach its target without burning up in the atmosphere. But Klingner also says it’s clear that North Korea is making lots of progress.