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Josh Rogin and Eli Lake: N. Korean nukes scarier than hacks

While the world’s attention focuses on North Korea’s cyberwar with Sony, the Hermit Kingdom is rapidly increasing its stockpile of nuclear weapons material, with little real pushback from the United States.

A new analysis of North Korea’s nuclear program by a group of top U.S. experts, led by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that North Korea could have enough material for 79 nuclear weapons by 2020. The analysis has not been previously published. Albright said the North Korean government is ramping up its production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, speeding toward an amount that would allow it to build enough nuclear weapons to rival other nuclear states including India, Pakistan and Israel.

According to the analysis, which included the input of a team of former government officials, nuclear experts and North Korea watchers, the regime now has as many as four separate facilities churning out nuclear weapons material or preparing to do so. The best-known one, at Yongbyon, has a functioning 5-megawatt plutonium reactor, a uranium enrichment grid with thousands of centrifuges and a light-water reactor that could be used for either military or civilian purposes. The U.S. intelligence community also believes the North Koreans have a second centrifuge facility they have never acknowledged.

Even if that second uranium facility is taken out of the equation, Albright’s team projects that North Korea will have enough material for 67 bombs in five years’ time. The light-water reactor at Yongyon isn’t online yet, but it should be soon. Even if that reactor is never turned on or is limited to civilian purposes, North Korea could still have 45 bombs by the time the next U.S. president is finishing up his or her first term.

North Korea is estimated to have 30 to 34 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium now, enough for about nine nuclear weapons, depending on the size of each bomb. Last year it conducted its third nuclear weapons test.

Albright acknowledged that the secrecy of the North Korean program makes exact projections impossible and, therefore, his estimates all have a range to account for known unknowns, such as secret facilities. According to the detailed intelligence community budget leaked to the Washington Post in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, North Korea’s nuclear program remains one of the hardest targets for U.S. spies as well.

But there’s no doubt about the North Korean government’s intentions, Albright said, to produce as much nuclear-weapons material as possible before it is forced to stop either by coercion or the resumption of diplomatic negotiations with the West.

For Albright as well as other Korea experts, the North Korea policy of the Obama administration, often referred to as “strategic patience,” has not only failed to stop this nuclear buildup, it has actually encouraged Pyongyang to increase its aggressive behavior, as shown by the brazen attack on Sony’s computer systems. “When you leave North Korea alone like that, they engage in this kind of reckless behavior,” he said. “It tends to go on until there’s some meaningful engagement.”

The environment may not be ripe for engagement, but that doesn’t mean the Obama administration should just sit on its hands and respond piecemeal to each individual provocation, said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who runs the North Korea information website 38North. It needs a new comprehensive policy to deal with the security threat from North Korea.

“We have this reactive approach and it’s ad hoc,” Wit said. “The North Koreans aren’t taking us seriously. They feel they are in the driver’s seat here. It’s wrong to assume they are taking these steps like this Sony hack out of weakness. They are taking these steps because they feel there’s nothing we can do to them.”

And this raises an uncomfortable question for the White House. Why does a targeted cyberhack draw a tougher response from Obama than the amassing of a small nuclear arsenal? The message that sends to Pyongyang is that it can threaten its entire region with nuclear weapons, just so long as it doesn’t touch Hollywood.

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake are Bloomberg View columnists.