Since the US and South Korea agreed to again delay the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces at the end of last month, a number of reports including sensitive information about the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs have appeared in the media. This is leading to speculation that these reports are aimed to manipulate popular opinion to build support for the delay of the OPCON transfer.
During the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between the US and South Korea, that was held on Oct. 22 and 23, the two sides agreed not to transfer OPCON until South Korea had the ability to respond to the threats posed by North Korea‘s nuclear and missile programs. This pushes back the timing of the OPCON transfer from the end of 2015 to the mid-2020s or beyond. The South Korean government’s decision has been criticized as a voluntary, and in effect a permanent, revocation of military sovereignty.
As it happens, the US and South Korean governments have been releasing information about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs since deciding to delay the OPCON transfer.
On Oct. 24, immediately after the two sides reached this agreement, Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander of US Forces Korea, met reporters in Washington, D.C., and told them he believed the North has “the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have.”
But when a reporter asked the general what information he was basing this assessment on, he admitted that he did not have “any factual basis.”
While the US intelligence agencies and certain security experts have suggested that North Korea may have the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, it is unusual for a major figure of the US military to make such remarks.
On Nov. 5, a South Korean newspaper ran a story that North Korea had built a new uranium factory in Yongbyon and had commenced operations there. On Nov. 6, a different newspaper, also in South Korea, reported that a launchpad had been built at the missile base in Dongchang Village, North Korea, that was around 60 meters in size - twice the size of the one used to launch the Eunha-3 long-range rocket in Dec. 2012.
These reports were very specific, even including the method by which this intelligence had been collected. The uranium factory at Yongbyon had been spotted on infrared camera by US and South Korean intelligence authorities, one paper said; the conclusions about the launchpad at Dongchang Village were supported by satellite photos, said the other.
The South Korean government has not confirmed these reports, but it does appear to have intelligence related to the claims. “We have intelligence that is similar to the recent reports in the media [about the uranium factory at Yongbyon and the launchpad at Dongchang Village],” a government official said on condition of anonymity.
The North Korean nuclear weapon and missile programs are sensitive subjects about which the South Korean government rarely provides information. Despite this, during the two weeks since the decision to delay the OPCON transfer on Nov. 24, government officials have been quoted in a series of reports that have run about North Korean nuclear weapons.
“Information about the expansion of the launchpad at Dongchang Village had been gradually appearing in the US since September. The story is being reported in Korea now after a confirmation process that lasted a few months,” said a senior government official who was asked about the issue.
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
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