A Wall Street Journal report claims that Chinese government officials have warned the United States that the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un in North Korea may already be armed with as many as 20 nuclear warheads, and has uranium enriching capacities far more efficient than previously thought.
The newspaper quotes an American nuclear expert, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker, as having attended a meeting with Chinese officials in which the information was disclosed. Chinese experts told their American counterparts that North Korea “may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year.”
The United States has two major interests in keeping North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as low as possible, The Wall Street Journal notes: keeping Japan and South Korea safe from attack and keeping North Korea from selling these weapons to more volatile actors in the Middle East. As the United States has signed defense treaties with both Japan and South Korea, an attack on either of those countries must be treated as an attack on American soil, meaning the U.S. Army would be dragged into kinetic conflict with North Korea.
Reuters reports that the latest estimates from the Chinese government “exceed most previous U.S. forecasts, which range from 10 to 16 bombs currently,” adding that Chinese officials have not publicly confirmed the report. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters this week that he “did not have knowledge of the specific situation,” and he went on to say that “we must persevere with denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, persevere in safeguarding peace and stability, and persevere in resolving the relevant issue through dialogue.”
The government of North Korea has not responded to these reports at press time. However, state media reported that Kim Jong-un had made references to nuclear power in his latest public statements. “Climbing Mt. Paektu provides precious mental pabulum more powerful than any kind of nuclear weapon and it is the way for carrying forward the revolutionary traditions of Paektu,” Kim said after allegedly climbing the mountain wearing no protective gear. The context for mentioning nuclear power is not clearly explained.
The relationship between China and North Korea has complicated in recent months, as North Korea finally allowed tourism to resume from China into North Korea (It had been halted as a result of Ebola fears, the DPRK government claimed.), but China has made efforts to freeze North Korea out of pivotal economic negotiations.
Most notably, China rejected North Korea’s application to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) after North Korea refused to divulge key economic data to the group. The AIIB is described as a “multilateral development bank” that requires full transparency from its members to function. North Korea has not revealed any economic data to the public in decades.
The AIIB application is the latest in a series of reports claiming tension between the two countries. In May of last year, a document surfaced alleged to be Chinese plans to handle the full collapse of the North Korean state, designed to keep refugees from flooding China and the United States from investing too heavily in a liberated North Korea. The lack of confidence in North Korea was followed by a report that the DPRK was moving tanks closer to the Chinese border out of fear that China would “betray” their alliance.
North Korea also appears to be mulling a pivot to Russia as a way to wean off of reliance on China. Reports claim that Kim Jong-un has confirmed a trip to Moscow in May as his first official visit to a foreign state. The visit would be to attend a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russia’s ambassador to South Korea confirmed that Kim “will probably go” to the event.
The Russian government also announced in February that it was contemplating a plan for joint military drills with North Korea. “We are planning an expansion of the communication lines of our military central command,” said then-Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov.