American estimates grossly underplay the actual nuclear threat posed by North Korea, according to top Chinese nuclear experts who shared their figures in a top-secret closed door meeting with US nuclear specialists in February which was revealed this Wednesday.
While the US has been appraising that the brutal Communist regime of North Korea only had around ten nuclear weapons by the end of 2014, China warned North Korea likely already has 20 nuclear warheads, and has the capability to double its arsenal to 40 by 2016, experts who took part in the meeting told Wall Street Journal.
By 2020, the Chinese estimate that North Korea will have a sprawling nuclear arsenal of over 75 nuclear weapons.
Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor and former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, took part in the meeting and told the paper, "I’m concerned that by 20 (nuclear warheads - ed.), they actually have a nuclear arsenal."
"The more they believe they have a fully functional nuclear arsenal and deterrent, the more difficult it’s going to be to walk them back from that," Hecker warned of the belligerent regime.
North Korea has frequently threatened South Korea and Japan with nuclear strikes; given the US's security treaties with those two allies any attack - nuclear or conventional - would be treated as an attack on the US, triggering a full military response and potentially a nuclear war.
Hecker added that the Chinese experts said North Korea likely has a greater uranium enrichment capacity than was previously thought, noting "they believe on the basis of what they’ve put together now that the North Koreans have enough enriched uranium capacity to be able to make eight to ten bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium per year."
While China has been the key source of support and funds for its Communist ally North Korea, it apparently is growing concerned by the latter's rapidly expanding nuclear program and US inactivity.
Relations between the two allies have gone quickly downhill since Xi Jinping took over as China’s president in 2012, and Kim Jong-Un took control in late 2011 after his despot father died.
David Albright, an expert on North Korea's nuclear weapons program and head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, told the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese until recently "had a pretty low opinion of what the North Koreans could do. I think they’re worried now."
Nuclear strike threat on the US, proliferation in the Middle East
Estimates of a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal are all the more troubling given that Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command, admitted earlier this month that North Korea could hit the continental US with a nuclear strike.
Gortney said the latest mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could hit the US, and are difficult to track because the missiles are mobile and could be launched from numerous sites.
Experts say the KN-08 has a 5,600-mile range, putting the western coast of the US squarely in its sights. Incidentally it would also put Israel in range from North Korea.
Gortney's admission was accompanied by the announcement that NORAD is reopening its nuclear-EMP-proof Cheyenne Mountain bunker, apparently amid renewed concerns of an EMP attack by which a nuclear weapon would be detonated over the US, knocking out all of its electronic devices, and thereby rendering it defenseless to secondary strikes.
The US has not held direct talks with Pyongyang since 2012, after North Korea held a long-range missile test showing its hostile stance. Instead the US has sought to urge China to pressure North Korea by using its economic ties.
US officials have revealed North Korea has been exporting its nuclear technology to Syria, and sending nuclear-capable missile components to Yemen, Egypt, and most significantly to Iran.
Iran's nuclear program has come under great attention given the nuclear deal being formed between it and the West led by the US.
Reports have revealed that US President Barack Obama hid intel from the UN about North Korea transferring rocket components needed to create a nuclear missile even during the nuclear talks.
Iran using North Korea's "playbook"
Opponents of the nuclear deal being formulated with Iran ahead of a June 30 deadline have warned it follows in the footsteps of the failed deal sealed by then-President Bill Clinton with North Korea in 1994.
Despite the deal, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, just over ten years after the agreement.
Remarking on the new Chinese estimates, Hecker said, "some eight, nine or ten years ago, they had the bomb but not much of a nuclear arsenal. I had hoped they wouldn’t go in this direction, but that’s what happened in the past five years."
Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Wall Street Journal that Iran has likely learned its policy from its partners in North Korea.
"We saw how North Korea was able to game this whole process," said Royce. "I wouldn’t be surprised if Iran had its hands on the same playbook."
In terms of North Korea's ability to expand its nuclear arsenal, the pace of that growth depends on its nuclear facilities enriching uranium - Iran is to be left with all its facilities intact and will continue enriching uranium at a limited level in the deal, although it has said it will use advanced centrifuges to enrich rapidly after signing the deal.
Royce said of North Korea's enrichment capacity that "we know they have one factory; we don’t know if they have another one."