What's in North Korea's Military Arsenal?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. If you want to know what North Korea's leaders are up to, don't expect a press conference with statements of fact. You'll likely learn more by gauging the tone of state TV broadcasts from Pyongyang. North Korean state TV programs complete with menacing sounding soundtracks carry the latest pronouncements from the regime. Lately, the broadcasts have been full of threats and bluster. Today, the bluster was in the form of a poem entitled Final War with the US Imperialists. The reading is totally over the top. So is the music that sounds like a score for a scene in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone kills his nephew in the restaurant. It kind of makes you chuckle rather than shake in your boots, but US officials are not laughing. Today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that North Korea is skating very close to a dangerous line with all its anti-American threats. So what can North Korea actually do? Does the country's military have what it takes to engage in a final war with US imperialists, as the poem goes. I asked Joel Wit to give us a reality check on Pyongyang's missile capabilities. Wit is a former US negotiator with North Korea.

Joel Wit: They're working on a range of different missiles from ones that might eventually reach the United States to ones that can hit targets in the region. In terms of what they definitely have now I would say they probably can reach Guam with the missile that everyone's been talking about them testing. And they certainly can reach Japan and South Korea.

Werman: So are these missiles armed? I mean if they reach Guam, what then happens?

Wit: Well, look, don't forget. We're talking about them testing a missile. There's no one who thinks they're gonna mount a nuclear warhead on top of the missile and firing at Guam right now. There's no reason for them to do that, and there's no sign that they're preparing for that kind of general conflict. So you know, the missile they're gonna fire up now is a medium, what's called a medium range missile and they're just going to be testing it to see how it works or doesn't work.

Werman: And do they have in their capability and in their military capability, warheads that can go on these missiles?

Wit: Well, you know, the experts disagree on this. I know some very reputable experts who think they can put a nuclear warhead on top of the Musudan or similar missiles, not on top of ICBMs. And there are other experts who say no they can't. So you know, we're really not sure about that, but we shouldn't forget that they've been working for over 20 years on developing nuclear warheads for missiles, so if they haven't developed them by now, they've been doing a pretty bad job of it.

Werman: So that's the background on the missiles in North Korea. Nukes are another story. What kind of nuclear weapons does North Korea certainly have and how soon could they be put on a missile?

Wit: Well, what we know now is that North Korea probably has around eight nuclear weapons based on plutonium that they produced over the past decade. And that North Korea seems to be working on another way of producing material for nuclear weapons and that's enriching uranium. But we don't know whether that part of their program is operational yet, and as I said earlier, there's a division between experts on whether the North can put any of these weapons on top of even the medium or shorter range systems, but I tend to believe given the length of time they've been working on it that they can probably do that.

Werman: Joel Wit, we've seen of course, this amping up of rhetoric before from North Korea, from Kim and his family, but his family and grandfather usually left room for an exit strategy, a pressure valve of sorts to get out of confrontation mode. How much room has Kim, though, given himself?

Wit: Oh, I don't think it's a problem for him to move forward with an exit strategy. You know, they'll fire the missile off maybe. I'm not sure they will, but that's what all the reports say. They'll have their April 15 celebration, which is normal for every year. Then we have a US-South Korean exercise going on, which isn't going to end until the end of April, so we can expect more tensions the rest of the month, but at the end of the month I think things will calm down and he can claim victory that he's kind of defended his country, and then he'll move on.

Werman: Joel Wit, former US negotiator with North Korea, thank you.

Wit: Thanks a lot.