This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
On the heels of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death, outside experts seem more uncertain than ever about who retains control over the hermit nation’s nuclear weapons or authority for their potential use.
Pyongyang is estimated as having enough fissionable material for fewer than 10 warheads, though no evidence has emerged to date that it has made any weapons operational by mating them with bombs or ballistic missiles. North Korea has said that its nuclear arms are for deterrence.
By some accounts, Kim, 69, was likely to have played a unique role over the disposition of the North’s atomic arms, both day-to-day and under any imagined combat scenario.
In the United States and Russia, the top elected leaders maintain around-the-clock access to a nuclear “football,” a briefcase-sized command-and-control console that allows them to securely order a nuclear weapons launch from outside a military command center, if ever deemed necessary.
It is not known whether there was any comparable mobile command capability for the North Korean despot. More broadly, questions remain about whose finger can now access the veritable trigger over the nation’s deliverable weapons -- if there are any.
In fact, so little is known about the secretive regime’s nuclear arsenal that even the best-informed Korea experts are reluctant to speculate what command-and-control changes might be afoot now that Kim is gone.
North Korea’s so-called “Dear Leader” had over roughly the past two years been grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. The elder Kim had been in ill health since a debilitating 2008 stroke, but his sudden death from a heart attack on Saturday morning caught many Korea-watchers by surprise.
The news has thrust Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s, into a new leadership role without the benefit of much experience. Whether he has inherited immediate control over North Korea’s possible small handful of nuclear weapons is one among many pressing questions on the minds of Korean Peninsula experts and governments around the world.
“I don’t think anyone really knows, in part because we don’t even know where their weapons are,” Joel Wit, a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ U.S.-Korea Institute, said in a Monday interview. “But my impression is that their command and control of those weapons is extremely tight and centralized, which of course is something that everyone wants. And I don’t think that’ll change at all.”
By contrast, Victor Cha, a former Asian affairs director at the National Security Council, said Kim’s sudden death could yet lead to serious instability in North Korea.
There is “the potential for loose nuclear weapons [in] a country that is a nuclear weapons state that doesn't have a leadership,” Cha, who now directs Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said on the PBS NewsHour on Monday. “And that is a far more difficult problem than what was already a difficult problem when it came to nuclear weapons in North Korea.”
A 2009 issue paper by the International Crisis Group said Kim Jong Il wielded “extraordinary power” in leading North Korea’s governing and military institutions, including as chairman of the National Defense Commission, general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party and, during wartime, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
These roles appeared to make him a crucial actor when it came to controlling nuclear warheads and their weapon platforms, according to the ICG analysis, titled “North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs.”
“He exerts tight control over nuclear assets and delivery systems and must authorize the use of any nuclear weapons,” the monograph stated. “This very personal and centralized system could create instability and uncertainty if he suddenly were unable to lead.”
Longtime nuclear command-and-control expert Bruce Blair, president of the Washington-based World Security Institute, called the ICG paper “the best and most credible analysis” he has seen on the topic.
Noting that he had no access to specific details in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death, Blair said it appeared to him that Kim Jong Un -- whom North Korea is now terming the “Great Successor” -- would not have exclusive access to the atomic arsenal.
“I am confident that the son… cannot wield nuclear weapons unilaterally,” he said.
A combination of organizations -- potentially including the Korean General Staff, the National Defense Commission, the military bureau that operates nuclear-capable Nodong missiles, and a nuclear weapons custodial organization separate from the military chain of command -- “would prevent the little guy from impulsively ordering the warheads mated to the missile, let alone ordering the launch of armed missiles,” Blair told Global Security Newswire.
A number of North Korea experts said, though, that there were some indications that Kim could have retained singular control over the operational use of nuclear weapons, and that he did not share this authority with any other individuals or organizations in the ruling apparatus. If this assumption is correct, it might stand to reason that his son has inherited all nuclear command and control -- barring a potential internal challenge to his new leadership.
If Kim Jong Il exercised sole operational control “for the release of nuclear weapons or the use of nuclear weapons, I would think” that his son alone might now have this responsibility, said Wit, formerly a 15-year State Department official specializing in Northeast Asian security issues.
“We should be concerned about that [possibility] -- or at least interested,” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst who spent more than a decade as head of a State Department division on Northeast Asia. Discussing the ICG appraisal, he called it “simply idle speculation” for outside experts to state with any confidence that Kim did or did not share nuclear weapons command and control, given a near-total blackout on public information about the matter.
Even the organizations named as having possible roles in nuclear command and control are quite murky. While Kim was cited as head of the National Defense Commission, for example, it is unclear whether any such organization even existed, Carlin said. It might have been one of several lofty credentials retained by Kim to bolster his exclusive grip on the reins of power.
“I defy anyone to assert that the National Defense Commission ever met as a body. We don’t know that,” Carlin said in an interview. “In fact, we don’t even think that it was a real organization. For many years, people were pretty convinced -- even North Koreans -- that it was a paper organization and it had no real staffing or anything like that.”
Similarly, there is much about the post-Kim Jong Il leadership transition process that cannot be understood at this early date.
“We know that from September 2010, several [Kim] family members also took prominent roles in the party and various parts of the bureaucracy, I think in support of this process,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who spoke with reporters during a Monday teleconference. “What we don’t know is whether or not the process will go forward, as Kim Jong Il had planned, in Kim Jong Il’s absence.”
One expert source said that leading up to this event, there were some clear indications that Pyongyang has exercised strong security over its nuclear weapons, an approach that might offer some reassurance against the possibility of accidents or misuse following Kim’s demise.
“I’ve had some glimpses into their command and control,” said the source, who demanded anonymity in discussing a highly sensitive diplomatic and military issue.
“Their security for [nuclear] fuel rods is very strict… involving armed guards and secure storage,” said this issue expert. “Based on that, I would assume their security measures for nuclear weapons would be extremely strict.”
Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said it is plausible that North Korea has patterned its controls over nuclear weapons on what it has learned from Russia, China, and perhaps even Pakistan.
“Yes, [Kim] had his own unique governing style, but they’re not crazy. And they know this is a pretty dangerous enterprise and they don’t want anything to go wrong,” he told GSN. “So maybe they look to what other people are doing, as well.”
The chill in U.S.-North Korean relations -- following the breakdown of the six-party talks three years ago -- has left Washington with few avenues for developing an understanding of Pyongyang’s nuclear controls, Carlin said.
The forum -- which includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States -- was last held in December 2008. The approach has sought to reward North Korea for making progress toward shutting down its nuclear program in exchange for foreign assistance and international security guarantees.
Although Pyongyang has conducted two known underground tests of its atomic devices, the United States has refused to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation. That has come back to bite Washington in perhaps some unanticipated ways, Carlin said.
“For the last two or three years, since the first North Korean nuclear test, we have officially held to the line that we will not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state,” he said. “And as a consequence, we have not been able to engage them on any of these serious issues that go to the reality of the situation, which is [that] they do possess nuclear weapons.
“So questions of command and control -- which would be very difficult to get at in any case -- we haven’t even begun to formulate the question with them,” Carlin said.