Past Events


On Thursday, November 12, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies co-hosted a seminar on “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures” with the US-Korea Institute (USKI) at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In Session I, Mr. Joel Wit (U.S.-Korea Institute) gave an overview of the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series project. The project addressed issues associated with whether North Korea’s nuclear program will bring about a “game change on the peninsula.” Wit defines a game change as “an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current manner of doing or thinking about something.” Drawing from satellite and ground photography, the North Korean media, and experiences of other nuclear powers, the project puts together future predictions for a Nuclear North threat.

Three projections for the North Korean nuclear situation over the next five years (2015-2020) – Low, Medium, and High – were presented. In the Low-end threat, Wit predicts that there will still be a 100% increase in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal stockpile. In this scenario, there will be no more nuclear tests, North Korean fissile-material production facilities do not work well, and only one uranium production plant is in operation. With a Medium-end threat, a straight line projection based on current estimates indicates that there will be a 212.5% increase in the stockpile. A High-end threat would involve a 525% increase with up to 100 nuclear weapons by 2020. In this last scenario, North Korea would be conducting nuclear tests every year and experimenting more with thermonuclear materials and advanced miniaturization.

The key takeaway from these projections is that North Korea does not need to continue conducting nuclear tests to be a threat to the region. Wit predicts that their future objectives include new road-mobile missiles with greater ranges, sea-based cruise and ballistic missiles, the development of larger space launch vehicles, and solid fuel rocket technology. Enhancing the range, mobility, and survivability of their missiles is a key concern for North Korea. However, Wit points out that the pace of change for North Korean missile development has been relatively slow compared to other countries. The DPRK also faces significant challenges ahead with technology and engineering as well as acquiring foreign assistance.

Wit critiques the Obama administration’s current policy as having “three tracks leading nowhere” with “diplomacy without talking,” “sanctions without punishing,” and “condemnation without teeth” where policy changes to name and shame will be “unlikely to make progress in human rights issues.” Regarding future policy options, Wit outlines the difference between “realism” with “pragmatic objectives and means to achieve them” and “magical thinking” where there are “unrealistic objectives and no means to achieve.” Magical thinking revolves around ideas such as the possibility that the DPRK’s collapse/Korean reunification or changing North Korean ties with the outside world will end the security threat. Alternatively, realism should be based on mutual threat reduction via reinvigorated coercive strategies and renewed diplomacy with unconditional peace treaty talks and denuclearization negotiations.

Session II on “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures: Views of American Experts” featured Robert Carlin (Stanford University), John Schilling (Aerospace Cooperation), Shane Smith (National Defense University), and Leonard Spector (Middlebury Institute of International Studies). Key topics discussed were the types of missiles North Korea is developing, implications for US-Korea relations and regional alliances, extended deterrence, the potential erosion of a global nonproliferation regime, and the possible spur to proliferation in Northeast Asia.

In the next decade, experts predict that North Korea will have future satellite launches of increasing capability, increased emphasis on submarine capabilities, the eventual deployment of KN-08 ICBM and continued deployment of current systems (e.g.: nodong missiles). Mr. Robert Carlin stressed that they are still unsure how dangerous North Korea’s weapons program is, and the U.S. fears they might do something “horrendously bad” once enough arsenals have been built. However, the bottom line is that even though the DPRK has been growing its nuclear arsenal for the past 7 years, the international community has yet to see any effects on its behavior.

Experts also hypothesized on possible proliferation impacts of DPRK nuclear deterrence. Dr. Leonard Specter explained that with erosion of the global nonproliferation regime through the “demonstration effect,” there will be greater reliance on nuclear deterrence and the US nuclear umbrella to contain a Nuclear North. This may result in a “spur to proliferation in Northeast Asia and elsewhere.” To date, North Korea has obtained nuclear weapons despite numerous powerful nonproliferation measures (including International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, UN sanctions, and U.S. sanctions). Nonetheless, this immunity may be unique as no other state is so isolated from the international financial/commercial system, protected by a major power, and thus less vulnerable to nonproliferation measures. Many factors normally influence the decision to develop nuclear weapons (e.g.: technology, domestic politics, national culture, U.S. diplomatic pressure, and restraints from the nonproliferation regime). The most important factor, however, is timing. Even if South Korea and Japan wanted to develop their own nuclear programs to counter a nuclear DPRK and China, it would take at least 5-10 years to manufacture such weapons, and so they can only rely on U.S. extended deterrence in the interim.

Ultimately, experts surmise that taken alone, a nuclear DPRK is unlikely to seriously weaken the nonproliferation regime or stimulate further proliferation. Although North Korea overcame nonproliferation measures, no other foreign state is in a similar situation, and no other states are currently seeking nuclear arms in Northeast Asia or elsewhere. However, if the Iran deal collapses, the combined impact of DPRK and Iranian nuclear arming would seriously damage the nonproliferation regime. If the local government loses control of nuclear assets during civil turmoil, grave new dangers could arise for the international community.

Dr. Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gave opening remarks. Dr. Choi Kang, Vice President of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, served as moderator for Session I. Mr. Joel Wit, Senior Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute, served as moderator for Session II.

Date/Time: Thursday, November 12, 2015 / 09:30 am – 12:45 pm
Place: Auditorium (1F), The Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Robert Carlin is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, and served as chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, US Department of State from 1989-2002.
John Schilling is an aerospace engineer with more than twenty years of experience, specializing in rocket and spacecraft propulsion and mission analysis. He currently works for the Aerospace Corporation as a specialist in satellite and launch vehicle propulsion systems.
Shane Smith is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. His current research focuses on strategic stability and the role of nuclear weapons in Asia-Pacific affairs, extended deterrence, and North Korea’s nuclear program.
Leonard S. Spector is Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and leads the Center’s Washington, DC office.
Joel Wit is a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and the founder of “38 North” ( and the project lead. An internationally recognized expert on Northeast Asian security issues and non-proliferation, Mr. Wit has 20 years of experience in the U.S. State Department and the Washington think-tank arena.