Amid the gawking over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's surreal photo ops and his government's anti-Western bluster, it's easy to forget why the world should be so concerned about the famously reclusive authoritarian country — its nuclear weapons stockpile. Now China, long seen as the Hermit Kingdom's closest ally, is trying to draw the world's attention back to a weapons program that its own analysts appear to have underestimated for many years.
North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, three years after it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2010, it showed foreign scientists a new uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon with 2,000 modern centrifuges that had been built in secret, which appeared to vastly expand its ability to build a nuclear bomb. Because centrifuges are easy to hide and North Korea's program is unmonitored, countries have since floated various estimates of just how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, and of its ability to deploy them.
38 North, a program of the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, recently estimated that the country has 10 to 16 nuclear weapons. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Chinese researchers now believe that the country could have 20.
That figure emerged from a closed-door meeting of Chinese and American nuclear experts that took place in February at a Beijing government think tank. Joel Wit, a former US State Department official who manages 38 North, told VICE News that the latest total falls within projections that the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins issued last month. Wit and his colleagues determined that the worst-case scenario was 100 nuclear weapons in North Korean hands by 2020.
Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and senior fellow at Stanford University who attended the February meeting, told VICE News that Chinese researchers believe that North Korea could double their arsenal of nuclear warheads to 40 by 2016.
Hecker first toured North Korea's nuclear facilities in 2004 and was among the scientists that first saw the country's Yongbyon reactor in 2010. For many years, Chinese estimates of North Korea's stockpile of nukes lagged his own. Now they exceed them.
"During the past 12 years, we have witnessed the North Korean program growing from having the option for a bomb in 2003, to having a handful of bombs five years later, to having an expanded nuclear arsenal now," Hecker said, calling this rapid expansion "a real tragedy."
Despite the widespread idea of China as North Korea's ever-staunch ally, the truth is far more complicated.
Wit cautioned that it is difficult to be sure which estimate is most accurate — earlier this year, Hecker estimated that Pyongyang had roughly 12 nuclear weapons. But he said that it is noteworthy that Chinese experts appearing at a government-sanctioned event have surpassed their Western colleagues' figures and raised alarm at a time when attention is focused more on negotiations over Iran's nuclear program than the danger posed by North Korea.
At a Pentagon briefing earlier this month, US admiral and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) chief William Gortney told reporters that recent assessments suggest that North Korea is already capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and mounting it on its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, which aims to have a range that extends to the West Coast of the US.
Gortney noted that Pyongyang had yet to test the missile, but warned that "we assess that it's operational today, and so we practice to go against it," adding that he was confident that American missile defense systems can eliminate the threat of a potential launch directed at the homeland.
Hecker played down this threat, calling a KN-08 strike on the US "unrealistic any time in the near future."
"I believe North Korea would require more long-range missile tests and more nuclear tests to pose a direct threat to the United States," he added.
Perhaps more important than the new Chinese estimate is Beijing's overall effort draw American attention to North Korea, which hasn't always been the case. Wit said that despite the widespread idea of China as North Korea's ever-staunch ally, the truth is far more complicated. Chinese intelligence on its neighbor can be misleading and highly politicized.
"Now you have a shift in a direction, they're saying, 'Oh yeah, this is a real serious problem,' " he said.
This sentiment was echoed by remarks that James Kim, a security analyst with the Seoul-based Asian Institute for Policy Studies, gave this week to Voice of America regarding China's estimate of the size of the stockpile.
"The recent revelation has been somewhat of a surprise because it provides a rationale for the American allies now to bulk up their defenses vis-à-vis North Korea, and that's now good news from China's point of view," Kim said.
But China has made clear its opposition to US efforts to step up missile defense in the region. The US and South Korea are already considering the possibility of deploying an American-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula , which would augment an ability to shoot down missiles fired from North Korean or elsewhere in the region. With longstanding American deployments in South Korea and Japan, China has said that it sees the system as an unacceptable encroachment on its strategic security.
Though it's unclear how China expects other countries to react to North Korea's nuclear capability, experts say Beijing finds the current state of affairs to be dangerous.
"Having this isolated nuclear armed regime isn't the best thing for stability in their own back yard, or for their economic development," James Person, coordinator of the Wilson Center's North Korean Documentation Center, told VICE News.
While North Korean officials antagonize the US and threaten to lob warheads at their neighbors, its diplomats have engaged in an unprecedented, if low-key, "charm offensive" with other governments that appears calculated to help normalize North Korea's status as a nuclear power and establish a degree of patronage beyond China's reach.
On Wednesday, Russian officials confirmed that Kim Jong-un will attend festivities in Moscow on May 9 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The trip would be Kim's first official trip outside of his country since he took power in 2011 — he hasn't yet been invited to China — and comes amid a warming of relations between the two countries. Russia and North Korea have declared 2015 a "year of friendship" between them.
Russia has canceled Soviet-era debts owed by North Korea and is helping to develop infrastructure within the country. Recent weeks have seen talk of building a road connection between the two countries and developing space cooperation. Trade has surged, and — as VICE has reported — North Korea notoriously staffs labor camps in Siberia that are staffed with North Koreans in exchange for foreign currency payments.
Related: Watch: North Korean Labor Camps - Full Length
Person cautioned that Moscow's overtures could be as much an attempt to annoy the US as a reflection of growing closeness with Kim's regime. But North Korea, which has long relied on China for survival, needs all the help it can get.
Person has reviewed years of North Korean diplomatic communications, and notes that the two countries have never really seen eye to eye. Since Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012, and particularly after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test the following year, it appears that relations between the two countries have only soured.
"In the past decade or so, the North Koreans have been more dependent on China than they've been dependent on any country in their history," Person remarked. As China attempts to expand its military and soft power in Asia, he added, "You get the sense that the current government in Beijing is less tolerant of North Korea's reckless behavior."
North Korea is already heavily burdened by United Nations sanctions. While the 2014 inquiry drew attention to its human rights record, few options remain on the table to pressure the impoverished country. The US has refused to resume regular talks with North Korea unless it indicates a willingness to end its nuclear program, but Wit notes that Kim's government appears to have an entirely different calculation in mind.
"I think a lot of their diplomacy is meant to seek gradual acceptance as a nuclear weapons state," he said. "That's just part of North Korea easing into a place where a lot of countries accept them."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford