As the body of North Korea's "dear leader" Kim Jong-il lies in state at his palace in Pyongyang, his youngest son Kim Jong-un takes control of the country's nuclear weapons program. Despite being named Kim's successor in 2009, Kim Jong-un remains a bit of a mystery to the West. One unanswered question: How much power does the younger Kim wield over the country's military?
To better understand what the succession of power in North Korea means for its nuclear program, Scientific American spoke with Frank von Hippel, a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and co-founder of the school's Program on Science and Global Security. Von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology during the Clinton administration, discusses new evidence of North Korea's nuclear capabilities, the possibility of U.S.-orchestrated regime change, and the amount of plutonium needed to ruin your day.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How has the nuclear threat out of North Korea changed with the death of Kim Jong-il?
I don't think you would see a nuclear weapon used out of the blue by North Korea. Still, it's hard to tell. There have been incidents in the past few years leading up to Kim's death that have provoked South Korea in particular. Any transition is a time of some instability and that instability might lead to crazy things happening.
What impact will the succession of Kim Jong-un have on the direction the country takes?
There's been a lot of talk for a long time about the North Korean regime collapsing. But the Chinese don't want North Korea to collapse because they are concerned about South Korea absorbing North Korea and then, in effect, the U.S. military having a position on the Chinese border. They see North Korea as a buffer state. But North Korea's direction really depends on their [Korea's own] military and whether they will support the succession of Kim's son.
There have been incidents in the past couple of years—the sinking of the South Korean destroyer and the shelling of an island contested between the two counties—attributed to Kim Jong-un as a way of showing that he's not scared of South Korea and that he's leadership material.*
There's no indication that Kim Jong-un has the background or education (except for a fairly short period of time in Switzerland) to be the one to open up North Korea and bring them in from the cold the way [Mikhail] Gorbachev did for the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. And there's also a question of whether the military would let him do that even if he wanted to. At this point, he's probably not an absolute leader. He's a leader only as long as long as he leads in the direction that the military wants to be led.
In your January 2010 Scientific American article "Time to Ban Production of Nuclear Weapons Material" you write that India, Pakistan and North Korea are increasing their weapon stockpiles. How do we know about the current state of North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities?
A year ago, Siegfried Hecker [co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation [CISAC] at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies] returned from North Korea with some CISAC colleagues. During their stay in North Korea, they were shown a uranium-enrichment facility. They had expected to see an outdated facility based on equipment and designs that were at least 60 years old. Instead, they were surprised by the small, ultramodern, industrial-scale enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges. This is comparable to what Iran has. No one has questioned Sig Hecker's findings.
*Shortly after Kim Jong-un was named Kim Jong-il's successor, North Korea conducted a nuclear test large enough to cause a magnitude 4.7 seismic event in that country. Then in March 2010 a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. Months later, North Korea fired about 200 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island near a disputed maritime border, killing four people. Most recently, South Korea has accused the North of test firing a short-range missile shortly before the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death.