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.