Nuclear nonproliferation expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis breaks down why North Korea appears to be ramping up its missile tests, and what this means for our geopolitics.
In this episode
Colleen and Jeffrey disucss:
- the implications of recent missile tests in North Korea
- the Biden administration's response
- how technical experts track and analyze missile tests
Timing and cues
Interview p1 (2:21-16:37)
Interview p2 (17:22-28:23)
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: Jeffrey, welcome to the podcast.
Jeffrey: It's great to talk to you.
Colleen: Yeah. So, you know, it's great to talk to a fellow podcaster. You're one of the hosts of the podcast "Arms Control Wonk." And I know you've been really busy lately with recent activity in North Korea. Back in January North Korea launched a bunch of different missiles, ,but the big news was their most recent test, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM. First, let's start off with is the definition of an ICBM?
Jeffrey: Well, the name ICBM is a relic of the cold war. It means Intercontinental, which really, it only meant can go from the Soviet Union to the United States. ICBMs are defined as anything that goes more than 5,500 kilometers. But in this case, we're talking about missiles that can go from North Korea all the way to Washington DC. And so, that's really a range of about 10 to 12,000 kilometers, which is a long, long way.
Colleen: So, what was the technical purpose of this most recent test?
Jeffrey: Well, you know, there have actually been two tests, one that failed and one that succeeded. And we think the North Koreans are being a little dishonest about which one failed and which one succeeded, but, in general, North Korea is developing a new missile that can carry multiple warheads. So, not just one nuclear weapon, but several, and it can deliver those nuclear warheads from North Korea to any target in the United States. That's their goal anyway.
Colleen: So, the two tests--you mentioned one was successful, one was not successful. Can you give me a little bit more detail on that?
Jeffrey: Yeah. This is very interesting. So, North Korea did two tests, and the first one failed. It blew up over Pyongyang, and the second one succeeded. After the second one, North Korea released the picture and said, "Ha. We have tested the Hwasong-17, which can carry multiple warheads anywhere in the United States." And they released this video. But when we measured the shadows and looked at the angle and altitude of the sun, we could tell that video was from the failed test, which was in the morning, and not the successful test, which was in the afternoon. What that means, we think, is that North Korea tested the big missile first and it blew up and then they must have or may have tested a different, older missile second, and that succeeded. And so, I think they're taking a victory lap for a missile that is not yet successfully tested. I wouldn't make too much of that because they will figure it out and they will eventually test it and it will work, but I think, at the moment, the North Koreans are exaggerating how far along they are.
Colleen: So, if the victory that they're claiming is false, what is the longest range that they've tested successfully?
Jeffrey: If the Hwasong-17 still doesn't work, what they would've tested was the Hwasong-15, which is capable of putting a nuclear warhead anywhere in the United States, but just one. What they will eventually do is they will eventually work out the 17 and that will allow that single missile to place multiple warheads anywhere in the United States. So, I wouldn't get too excited about their failure because they already have quite a capability. And, to be honest, missiles explode. This is a thing that happens. And so, the idea that a failure is some kind of permanent barrier to the North Koreans is false. The North Koreans will learn from the failure, they'll fix the problem, and they will eventually work it out.
Colleen: Figuring out which missile failed and which was successful is this interesting combination of science and detective work.
Jeffrey: It’s the best part.
Colleen: I find that really interesting. So, let’s go back to January. There was a lot of activity.
Jeffrey: Boy, January was busy. On seven different days, the North Koreans launched different kinds of missiles. And so, it's so many things. Short-range missiles that maneuver, missiles off railcars, just regular old missiles we've seen before, a cruise missile, and then ultimately, a missile that's capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii, that we'd seen before, but that North Korea had promised Donald Trump that they would stop testing during the period of diplomacy. So, it's kind of, something old, something new, something borrowed, and at least one thing that makes me blue.
Colleen: That sounds like quite a collection. So, tell me what the differences are between the missiles that they have recently tested and what's in their arsenal.
Jeffrey: Well, one of the things that they've really focused on, which Kim Jong-un said about a year ago they would, are a whole array of new short and medium-range systems. A lot of those we have seen versions of them before, but they've been improved in different ways or they shown off different aspects of them.
And I think the reason that North Korea is testing those short and medium-range systems is, you know, in 2017, when we had the real crisis with North Korea, that was about North Korea testing the ability to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. So it was really about a deterrent. And I think we're seeing the shift in North Korea where, because I think they're very afraid of an invasion, now that they have a deterrent, they want a second thing. And that's the ability, if an invasion starts, instead of just waiting like Saddam Hussein, I think they plan to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan. And so, these are all the new short and medium-range systems, I think, that they're developing to do that.
Colleen: What is the political significance of this test?
Jeffrey: You would think the political significance is clear, but there are a lot of people in the United States who seem to be doing a really good job of refusing to understand. The North Koreans are terrified that the United States will invade in the way that we did in Iraq, or support a forcible regime change as we did in Libya, and they want the ability to deter an invasion by the United States. And, in particular, the United States has invested billions and billions of dollars in missile defenses. And the ability to fire many, many, many warheads on a small number of missiles gives North Korea some confidence or would give them some confidence that they could overwhelm those missile defenses and successfully retaliate in the event of an invasion.
Colleen: So, while the Biden administration, has their hands full with rallying NATO in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, how have they responded to this ICBM launch?
Jeffrey: The Biden administration has responded like every other presidential administration, which is to say, "That this is unacceptable," and then get on with the business of accepting it. It's one of the most frustrating things about our political discourse in Washington, is that we know North Korea has nuclear weapons, but to talk to them about that would, in many cases, require accepting that fact. And it's just much easier for people to say, "I refuse to accept this," and pretend the problem doesn't exist than to try to solve it. And, by the way, I would say they have no one to blame but themselves because the Biden administration could have tried to address this problem in the first few months of their administration, and they chose not to. They did a policy review and they kicked the can down the road, and now it's too late. North Korea is not interested in talking to them. And so, they are dealing with multiple crises right now, but several of them are crises of their own choosing.
Colleen: what would the right response have been?
Jeffrey: The fundamental problem is that North Korea is afraid of being invaded and there is nothing we can do or say that will make them believe us, and certainly nothing we can do or say that will assure them more than their own nuclear weapons. And so, where we are now is we have to learn to live with the fact that they are a nuclear-armed state. And that's just something that we're not willing to do. Politically, leaders aren't willing to take the political hit of saying that, "This is just a fact we have to deal with." But, ultimately, it is what we have to do. We still have interests. Even if North Korea is nuclear-armed, even if North Korea will never abandon its nuclear weapons, it doesn't mean we shouldn't talk to them, because now, we have an enormous shared interest with them in avoiding a nuclear war.
Colleen: Do we know how many nuclear weapons North Korea has?
Jeffrey: We kind of sort of know how many nuclear weapons North Korea has. We have a general idea because we can see the nuclear reactors they have and we can see some of the enrichment facilities they have. These are the factories that make the material that goes into a bomb. So, we know that there's enough material for tens of nuclear weapons, but whether that's 30, 40, 50, 60, it's much harder to say. So, we have an idea, but nothing like certainty.
Colleen: So, do we have any idea in terms of the destructive power? Like, say, how they compare to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
Jeffrey: Oh, yeah. We do know how powerful the nuclear weapons are because North Korea has tested six nuclear weapons, and we can see how powerful they are. So, North Korea has tested a number of what we would call fission devices, which are like the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, same size. But, more importantly, North Korea tested a thermonuclear weapon which is much, much, much larger. It was more than 100 kilotons, which is, you know, like 10 times bigger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and comparable in size to the typical U.S. nuclear weapon.
Jeffrey: You know, one weird aspect of my scholarly career is watching a country proceed along a well-understood technical path. So, from a scholarly or historical perspective, there's nothing unusual about what they've done, but it is so contrary to our popular imagination of the North Koreans as backwards or ridiculous, and, , like some of their propaganda is ridiculous, that I find it really introduces a lot of cognitive dissonance because the way that the media portrays North Korea does not prepare people, even really intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful people. Our media just does not prepare people for the reality of what's happening. So, I still have reporters ask me whether North Korea has nuclear weapons, and I throw up my hands. It's six nuclear tests. You know, "I don't know what to tell you." Not tell you, you, but, you know?
Colleen: Right. Did any of your intel clue you in that this test was coming?
Jeffrey: Oh my gosh, yes. I don't mean to make this a show about media criticism, but whenever North Korea conducts a test like this, I get asked, you know, "Why are the North Koreans doing this?" Or, you know, "Is this a message?" North Korea has been openly signaling that it was going to conduct this test for years. So, I'll just walk you through a few examples. In October 2020, North Korea paraded this missile. So, we all saw what it was. And then in January 2021, Kim Jong-un made clear that they had completed development of a missile with multiple warheads and that they would be testing it in the near future. And then, in September of 2021, Kim Jong-un went to a defense exposition and he gave a speech in which he reiterated all of the goals that he had set out in January 2021. And he gave the speech in front of one of these missiles. After the speech, went over and viewed this particular missile, and then sat down with his friends for a beer.
So, there have been all of these communications from the North Koreans. And that's just the highlights involving Kim Jong-un. There been all of these communications from North Korea that this test was coming. And so, it really shouldn't have surprised anyone, and yet somehow it still does, because him saying something in a speech doesn't, I think, again, get the same media attention as the test itself. But if you were watching this all along, you know, it was like Chekhov's gun. It was there in the first act and we always knew it was gonna go off.
Colleen: Right. And I've heard you talk about this before, how Kim Jong-un essentially gives out the list of what he's going to be testing in the next year or two and then he kind of ticks through the list. So, what else is on his list?
Jeffrey: So, the list has a number of things. There is this missile, which I think we'll probably see tested again because I'm skeptical that the test worked, or at least I am skeptical that the successful test involved this missile. So, I think we'll see this missile again. North Korea is also going to test a missile using solid propellant, which is a different kind of rocket. They look the same from the outside but the inner workings are different. North Korea is going to launch a reconnaissance satellite. So, North Korea will conduct a space launch. And I think North Korea will ultimately, although this may take a while, but North Korea has said it has plans to put a nuclear-powered submarine at sea. So, North Korea has a very ambitious agenda of things that they wanna do. They've already done a bunch of things, long-range cruise missiles, maneuvering warheads, gliding warheads. They've done a lot, but they have a lot more that they wanna do.
Colleen: Putin declared he was putting Russia's nuclear weapons on alert and made fairly explicit nuclear threats. How worried do we need to be about Russia using nuclear weapons?
Jeffrey: So, Putin did not place his nuclear forces on an alert. One thing that we don't often think about is Russia's nuclear forces are constantly on alert, so are U.S. nuclear weapons. So, there are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world that are already on alert. What Putin did, and to be sure, it was absolutely a threat, because he did it on television, and you don't do these things on television unless you want people to notice, is he increased the staffing of command posts, which is something that the Soviet Union and now Russia do do when they are at heightened states of...we'll call it awareness. So, we really are in this era where there's this bloody war playing out and it's playing out beneath the shadow of nuclear weapons. And we are seeing occasional references to those.
Where I am at the moment on the risk assessment is that if the United States and NATO do not get drawn into direct conflict with Russia, I think the most likely outcome is that this ends with nuclear weapons not being used. If the two parties do get sucked into direct conflict, then I would say all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen. I think that there is a very good possibility that a nuclear weapon would be used. And then we have the age-old question of whether a small nuclear use can be contained or whether it would escalate. Someone asked me where was I on a scale of...you know, there's a bottle of scotch on the shelf, what do I do? Do I pull it down and chug the whole thing? And right now I'm at one shot to steady the nerves, but, you know, the risk is much higher than it needs to be.
Colleen: So, a clarifying question, you mentioned...I believe you said a small nuclear exchange?
Colleen: What do you mean by small?
Jeffrey: A limited number. When I'm talking about a small nuclear exchange, I'm definitely not talking about small nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are enormous in their destructive power. And when we talk about small nuclear weapons, we are literally talking about things that are the size of the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those are small nuclear weapons. If someone talks about a low-yield nuclear weapon, they are still talking about something that is several kilotons, which is much closer to Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it is, for example, to, say, the blast that destroyed Beirut, which was a few hundred tons. So, you know, if you think about the explosion that destroyed Beirut, a small nuclear weapon would be an order of magnitude more destructive than that. So, when I say a small nuclear war, I mean not using very many, but they are still enormously destructive. And it's extremely hard to imagine a scenario where those are used against military targets that then doesn't also impact on civilians who are close by.
Colleen: Thank you for that clarification. We hear low yield or small and we think small in size or destructive power.
Jeffrey: And I think the thing that people need to remember is, just like we're used to seeing false advertising at the supermarket, you get a lot of false advertising when it comes to nuclear weapons. And so, when someone says low yield, you know, they're trying to sell you on the idea of a fun little nuclear war. There is no such thing.
Colleen: Right. And now, has Russia's action emboldened other nuclear-armed countries like China and North Korea?
Jeffrey: I don't think so. one thing political scientists agree on is there isn't a lot of evidence that the outcome of one crisis shapes the outcome of another crisis. And that's because every crisis is unique, and political leaders are making decisions in their own context in the moment with their own concerns and their own domestic politics. And so, you might take a lesson here or there, but, China's decision to invade Taiwan or North Korea's decision to sink a South Korean Naval vessel, those would be really different kinds of choices than the one Vladimir Putin made. The big lesson though that I would draw from this, which isn't really about emboldening or not, but the big lesson I would draw is that leaders make really dumb decisions. I think we like to imagine the people in charge know what they're doing, but as someone who has now lived through both the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I can say with absolute certainty that the people at the top are no smarter than the people you meet every day, and they make the same dumb decisions over, and over, and over again.
Colleen: So, Jeffrey, I was listening to your podcast, and I thought the discussion of how you monitor satellite images was really, really interesting. Can you tell us about that?
Jeffrey: Well, I mean, I have to tell you about our highly scientific process of tasking satellites. And that's, you guess. You know something about the country and where different facilities are, and you can work with imaging companies to try to make sure that they're taking pictures of the right places. But if you don't know it in advance, you're shooting in the dark. One of the areas that we really do use satellite imagery for is to understand the facilities that produce the missiles. And to monitor whether those facilities are operating, and to see if they're being modernized or changed. So, for example, in January, North Korea tested this missile called the KN-23. And the only thing you really need to know about that is that they flew it very low, so that mostly, it stayed in the atmosphere, which is very unusual for a ballistic missile. And that puts a lot of stress on the airframe, you know, the metal body of the missile. And when North Korea did that test, they also had Kim Jong-un visit what they called a munitions factory. And they didn't wanna tell us where it was, but because we integrate the propaganda they release with satellite images, we'd actually previously identified this location. And what mattered about that was the visit he was doing, he was showing new machine tools that they had imported, that would allow them to make the airframe of the missile that had just performed so well.
So it was a sort of open demonstration that this wasn't a missile that they were importing, that this was a missile that they themselves were producing, because they were actually showing us the machine tools that were involved in its manufacture. And so, that kind of work, taking their propaganda and figuring out where these things are located, and how the factories are changing, that's the area that we use satellite imagery most. Like I said earlier, every once in a while, you catch a missile actually being fired, and that's pretty cool, too.
Colleen: Wow. So it's like putting the puzzle pieces together. You're hunting around looking for the puzzle pieces.
Jeffrey: It's exactly a puzzle. I teach our open-source class at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where my think tank is located. And I fundamentally present all the work we do as puzzle solving. You know, you're trying to imagine what normal is, and you're looking for deviations from normal. So it's all about patterns, and matching, and really just fundamentally, the same skills you use in a jigsaw puzzle.
Well, Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Jeffrey: Oh, sure.
Colleen: I hope we have, you know, positive outcomes.
Jeffrey: It was good to talk to you. And maybe the next time we talk things will look cheerier.
Colleen: So, in terms of this most recent missile launch, is there anything on the ground that you can see that gives you any clues about what’s coming next?
Jeffrey: No. We don’t’, it's very difficult to tell when missile tests are going to come because the North Koreans now are conducting most of their missile tests out of a place called Sunan, which is their international airport, which is a really weird place to turn into your main missile test site, your primary international airport, but they've done it. And they've gone so far as to build a dedicated facility for hosting the preparation for each missile test. So, all that stuff happens inside buildings. So, you rarely see anything because things come in by rail or by vehicle and it's all hidden where you can't see it, and then they just drive it out near the runway and launch it.
Jeffrey: the decision to turn their major international airport into also their primary missile test site is really one of the strangest things I have ever seen in my life.
Colleen: Is it dangerous to the international flights that are... I mean, do they just stop all flights?
Jeffrey: So, I think it's not dangerous because you can just not have flights. And this is not a very busy international airport. Moreover, with the coronavirus pandemic, the North Koreans have really shut down the country. So, it's not dangerous in that narrow sense, but is enormously dangerous because these rockets are basically being launched over the Northern exurbs of the city. So, this is not a sparsely populated area. I mean, you know, it's rural. It's exurban, I guess I should say. It's not densely, densely populated, but it is populated, for sure. A much more normal kind of arrangement is, you would put the missile test site on a beach someplace where you are firing it out over the water. This is a whole different kettle of fish.
Colleen: So, this is because it potentially could explode immediately after you launch it and that would be disastrous?
Jeffrey: Yeah. Or it could go off course and into a exurban or even suburban area. Yeah.
Jeffrey: I mean, you know, it’s outside, well I don't know where you're based, but it's outside of the city in the same way that many major airports are, which is to say they're outside of the city, but that they are a short drive. They have built a dedicated facility at the airport to support missile testing. And so, this isn't a one-off or a thing they're doing that's temporary. I think this is their plan.
Colleen: Well, Jeffrey, thanks for joining me on the podcast. This is an interesting conversation, if not a bit disturbing.
Jeffrey: You know, I find life is easier to take when you look it right in the face.
Colleen: There you have it. Thank you so much.
Jeffrey: My pleasure.