People watch a screen displaying a news broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands at the DPRK-U.S Singapore summit, at Seoul station in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

North Korea's Nuclear Program Quietly Advances, Pressuring Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un told the world this month that North Korea took steps to stop making nuclear weapons in 2018, a shift from his earlier public statements. The evidence shows production has continued, and possibly expanded.

Satellite-imagery analysis and leaked American intelligence suggest North Korea has churned out rockets and warheads as quickly as ever in the year since Kim halted weapons tests, a move that led to his June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. The regime probably added several intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear proliferation analysts say, with one arms control group estimating that Kim gained enough fissile material for about six more nuclear bombs, bringing North Korea’s total to enough for between 30 to 60.

“There is no indication that their nuclear and missile programs have slowed or paused,” said Melissa Hanham, the director of the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project and an expert in using satellite imagery and other publicly available data to analyze weapons proliferation. “Rather it has reached a new stage.”

Recent reports have shown that North Korea continued to operate two suspected uranium enrichment facilities -- one near its long-established Yongbyon nuclear center and another location suspected of being a gas centrifuge site. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo acknowledged in Senate testimony that North Korea was still producing fissile material.

North Korea's Nuclear Program Quietly Advances, Pressuring Trump

Other reports suggest North Korea bolstered its arsenal in the run-up to the Trump summit and still runs a plant believed to have produced Kim’s first ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. homeland. They say the regime recently expanded a factory probably making engines for new, easier-to-hide solid-fuel rockets and enlarged an underground base for long-range missiles.

The reports underline what’s at stake as Trump considers holding a second summit with Kim, which the U.S. president says could come “in the not-too-distant future.” While Trump has credited Kim’s decision to halt weapons tests and dismantle a few testing facilities with preventing a war in the Western Pacific, those moves haven’t prevented North Korea from building new weapons out of sight that could threaten the U.S.

Fortifying Arsenal

Skepticism remains about Kim’s denuclearization pledges, including his assertion in a New Year’s speech that he agreed in 2018 to “neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer, nor use and proliferate them.” A year ago, Kim ordered the mass production of warheads and ballistic missiles after suspending weapons tests following the launch of an ICBM capable of reaching the entire U.S. -- the last of more than 40 conducted in a 24-month span.

North Korea's Nuclear Program Quietly Advances, Pressuring Trump

Non-proliferation analysts say Kim’s strategy appears to be quietly fortifying the arsenal he has while creating the diplomatic climate necessary for North Korea to get sanctions lifted and be tolerated as a nuclear state.

The stalled nuclear talks with the Trump administration have given Kim the space to perfect the technologies needed to strike the U.S. Analysts say it’s only a matter of time before he acquires a targeting system and a re-entry vehicle capable of delivering a warhead safely through the atmosphere.

“I don’t know of a country that has produced an ICBM and found that building a re-entry vehicle to be a substantial barrier,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a specialist on proliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. Lewis and his colleagues produced several reports showing Kim’s continued weapons development last year, identifying the probable site of a covert uranium-enrichment facility north of Pyongyang and an expanded missile base near the Chinese border.

Target List

In recent days, Kim has also made clear that any disarmament deal with Trump would also require removing the U.S.’s nuclear-capable planes and warships from the region. He’s shown little interest in declaring his nuclear assets as sought by U.S. officials, with state media last month comparing it to handing over a target list.

Without disclosures and inspections, it’s impossible to know exactly what weapons North Korea possesses. The secretive regime has for decades relied on deception and a vast network of tunnels and clandestine facilities to hide the components of its nuclear arms program from government spy agencies, let alone commercial satellites.

Pompeo told Fox News on Friday that international verification of North Korea’s denuclearization remained the administration’s goal as it works to secure a second summit.

North Korea's Nuclear Program Quietly Advances, Pressuring Trump

‘This Knowledge Is Declining’

“Reducing the threat from North Korea, whether that’s by our success to date in stopping their missile testing, stopping their nuclear testing, those are the important elements,” he said. “We’ve got to get to full and final denuclearization.”

Pompeo may meet a senior aide to the North Korean leader in Washington this week to discuss another summit between Trump and Kim, Chosun Ilbo newspaper of South Korea reported, citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter. North Korea canceled a similar meeting with Pompeo at the last minute in November.

An analysis of satellite imagery published by the 38 North website on Jan. 9 showed that the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which Kim suggested he might dismantle in exchange for U.S. concessions, remains operational and well maintained. While the main facilities don’t appear to be working, the uranium enrichment plant was a possible exception.

Inspectors say Kim’s nuclear program has reached a stage where it can progress without obvious tests, making it even more difficult to monitor. The International Atomic Energy Agency underscored that concern in an August report, saying “knowledge of the DPRK’s nuclear program is limited and, as further nuclear activities take place in the country, this knowledge is declining.”

North Korea's Nuclear Program Quietly Advances, Pressuring Trump

“They don’t need to test their ICBMs because they are satisfied with the performance,” said Hanham, who worked at the Middlebury Institute until November. “Instead, they are following Kim Jong Un’s order to mass produce nuclear weapons and the missiles need to deliver them.”

How many nuclear warheads North Korea holds is also unknown. The non-partisan Arms Control Association estimated last year that the regime possessed at least 15 warheads and was churning out enough fissile material to produce six to seven more bombs annually.

“But there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding these estimates,” the Arms Control Association said. By 2020, it could have anywhere from 20 to 100 warheads, potentially exceeding Israel’s 80 estimated bombs.

A comparison to Israel may be apt, since the country’s weapons program is tolerated by the international community in part because it stays out of sight. Kim appears to want this sort of “opacity” for his own arsenal, according to Lewis from the Middlebury Institute.

South Korea believes that North Korea possesses 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium and a ``considerable” amount of highly enriched uranium, its Ministry of Defense said in a biennial security report released Tuesday, reaffirming its previous assessment. It added the country has made significant strides for miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile.

Meanwhile, the international sanctions regime that Kim blames for stifling efforts to develop his impoverished country appears to be doing little to prevent North Korea from building more missiles and warheads. Kim only needs enough money and material to build a few ICBMs a year to cement his country’s status as a nuclear power.

“While the sanctions may put a squeeze on the economy, they are not harming the weapons program,” Lewis said. “There hasn’t been any significant political or economic pressure in the past year that would curtail North Korea’s weapons program.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.