Testimony: Messages Behind the US-North Korean Nuclear Accord

Testimony of Gary Milhollin

Professor, University of Wisconsin Law School and
Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control

Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

January 19, 1995

I am pleased to appear here today before this Committee to discuss the United States-North Korean nuclear accord. I am a member of the University of Wisconsin law faculty, and I direct a research project here in Washington that is devoted to tracking and inhibiting the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries.

The Committee has asked me to discuss three questions. First, what are America’s gains under the agreement compared to its obligations? Second, what are the dangers of treating North Korea as a “special case” under international inspections? Third, how might North Korea take advantage of the agreement to advance a program of plutonium and weapon production?

America’s principal gain under the agreement is the freeze in North Korea’s plutonium production. North Korea has promised not to extract the plutonium from 8,000 spent fuel rods in its possession. There are an estimated 25 kilograms of plutonium in the rods, enough for four to five nuclear weapons. North Korea also promises not to complete two more graphite reactors now under construction. Those reactors could produce enough plutonium for 25-30 bombs per year if they came on line as scheduled over the next two years. North Korea also promises to stop operating a small graphite reactor that discharged the 8,000 fuel rods.

America’s burden is that it must supply millions of dollars’ worth of oil, and arrange for the construction of two large light water reactors worth over $4 billion, while North Korea remains in violation of its international inspection obligations. North Korea is refusing to open the doors of two nuclear waste sites where the United States believes evidence of illicit plutonium production is hidden. This illicit production has resulted in enough plutonium for one or two bombs, according to U.S. intelligence.

In effect, over the first five years of the agreement, the United States is agreeing to let North Korea keep any bombs it has already made, and is paying North Korea not to make any more. North Korea is the only country ever to join the Treaty and then openly break the inspection obligations under it. This strategy has obviously paid off. Uncle Sam is rewarding North Korea not only with oil and reactors, but by dropping the trade restrictions that are now driving down North Korea’s economy.

The message to other countries is clear. If you join the Nonproliferation Treaty, and break it by secretly making bombs, you will receive billions of dollars worth of free nuclear- and fossil- fuel energy. And you will get these benefits even if you are committing human rights violations, have an undisputed record as a terrorist nation, and are exporting nuclear-capable missiles to other terrorist nations.

The light water reactors also send a message. The United States cannot endorse such reactors for North Korea without giving the green light to Russia and China to build them in Iran. The Russians have just announced that they will complete the two Iranian light water reactors at Bushehr. These reactors have a special history. American diplomacy convinced Germany, which started the reactors, not to finish them, and Iraq felt that they were so threatening that Iraqi planes bombed them during the Iran-Iraq war. Now, in the wake of the U.S.- North Korean deal, the Russians are stepping into the picture. If the Russians finish the first reactor within five years, which is the current estimate of the construction time, Iran will have its first access to weapon quantities of plutonium. This will be a disaster for U.S. diplomacy, which has tried for many years to prevent Iran from reaching this point. And the Russians are not stopping with Iran. There are also reports that they will build light water reactors in India. This action will break a de facto nuclear reactor embargo on India that has held since the 1970s.

Why are light water reactors important? Because they, like all other reactors, make plutonium that can be used in atomic bombs. That is why the International Atomic Energy Agency inspects light water reactors in countries around the world, and why the United States has opposed their sale to Iran. The two reactors going to North Korea will make twice as much bomb-grade plutonium as the graphite reactors North Korea has now, including the ones under construction. The two giant light water reactors could turn out at least 70 bombs’ worth of “weapon-grade” plutonium per year. North Korea’s existing graphite reactors are only one eighth as big, and could make only 25-30 bombs’ worth per year.

I should explain how I arrived at these numbers. First, each standard-sized light water reactor has a power rating of about 1,000 MW(e). That makes 2,000 MW(e) for two. Taken together, North Korea’s three graphite reactors are rated at only 255 MW(e). If operated to maximize electricity production, the two light water reactors would make at least 500 kg of plutonium per year. That plutonium would be almost all “reactor grade.” It could be used in bombs but would not be of optimum quality for such a purpose. If operated to produce “weapon-grade” plutonium, the light water reactors would have to be shut down and reloaded more often. In such a mode they would produce at least 400 kg per year, enough for roughly 70 bombs if one assumes between five and six kilograms per bomb. The Iranian light water reactors at Bushehr could do the same. By contrast, the three North Korean graphite reactors would not produce more than 150 kg per year, enough for 25-30 bombs.

Neither North Korea nor Iran has a plant to extract plutonium from light water reactor fuel, but North Korea could modify its existing plutonium plant to do so, and Iran could build a plant. Both countries could do this without violating the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Why does North Korea want light water reactors? Nobody outside that country seems to know. The administration admits that the United States could provide coal- or oil-fired plants much faster and cheaper, and without creating dependence on outside suppliers for fuel. And why does Iran want light water reactors? Iran is sitting on one of the biggest pools of oil in the world. Iran can make electricity from oil or gas for a fraction of what it would cost to make it from uranium. And with reactors, Iran too would start depending on outside suppliers for fuel. To believe that North Korea and Iran need light water reactors to make electricity is to believe in fairy tales.

The Committee also asked me to discuss the danger of treating North Korea as a “special case” under international inspections. Hans Blix, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that when a country joins the Nonproliferation Treaty, it must accept the whole menu of inspection rights; it can’t order “a la carte.” But that is what the United States has allowed North Korea to do. The IAEA asked North Korea to allow international inspectors into two waste sites under the IAEA’s “special inspection” procedure. Instead of backing up the IAEA, the U.S. State Department cut a special deal exempting Pyongyang from such inspections for at least five years. This left the IAEA twisting in the wind in North Korea, and undermined it everywhere else. If Iran now demands the same exemption from special inspections that North Korea is getting under the U.S. agreement–and there is no reason to think Iran won’t–the IAEA won’t stand a chance of finding the secret bomb program that the CIA thinks Iran is running.

Never before has the United States treated a country in open violation of international inspections as a member in good standing of the Nonproliferation Treaty, or arranged for such a country to get nuclear reactors. U.S. law forbids the sale of a reactor to such a country. The State Department hopes to finesse this point by withholding key components until the inspection questions are cleared up, but reactor construction will begin, years will pass, and lots of money will be spent while North Korea is still defying the inspectors. North Korea also will start enjoying trade and diplomatic benefits while still in breach. This undermines both U.S. nonproliferation policy and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

This lack of inspections leads to the third topic: how North Korea might take advantage of the agreement to advance its program of plutonium and weapons production. The CIA says there is a “better than even” chance that North Korea has already incorporated its secret cache of plutonium into bombs. If so, North Korea can remain a nuclear power while being paid not to be. If North Korea has not made a bomb yet, it has five years to perfect one secretly, because surprise inspections are apparently barred until then. I say “apparently” because the agreement, in Section IV, gives North Korea at least five years to “come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement.” If special inspection of North Korea’s two suspect sites is suspended for that period, it seems highly unlikely that other special inspections would be allowed.

North Korea also is allowed to keep its three graphite reactors, its plutonium processing plant and its 8,000 plutonium-bearing spent fuel rods intact until the next century, when the first light water reactor will be completed. The risk is that North Korea could accept the oil, trade, and diplomatic benefits until it gets back on its feet. Then, it could kick out the inspectors and make five more bombs’ worth of plutonium from the spent fuel rods. A revived and stronger North Korea would be harder to deal with than the North Korea we are facing now.

Pyongyang’s military threat is unaffected by the pact. North Korea’s troops and tanks are still massed on the South Korean border, and they can be fueled with oil freed up by U.S. deliveries. North Korea can also continue to develop its heavy NoDong missile for sale to Libya, Iran and Syria. The NoDong’s range is estimated at 1,000 km, enough to deliver a nuclear weapon to Japan from North Korea. It could also be launched from Libya to reach Southern Europe, and from Iran or Syria to reach Israel.

I would like to close by saying that the best time to confront the North Korean nuclear threat was during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The program had not yet reached the threshold of success, and there was still time for sanctions to work. But those administrations pushed the problem into the Clinton administration. Now, the Clinton administration has made a deal that will probably push the problem into the next administration, since that is when a breach by North Korea is most likely to occur. Pushing problems off to one’s successor may be tempting politically, but it is a risky way to deal with the spread of nuclear arms.

Phases of the U.S.-DPRK Accord
Phase One: 1994-2000

What North Korea Does:
Freezes, under inspection, three reactors, a plutonium plant, and 8,000 plutonium-bearing fuel rods; allows inspection of admitted nuclear sites.

What the U.S. and its Allies Do:
Provide hundreds of millions of dollars in free oil and billions in new reactors, while allowing North Korea to keep any A-bombs it has secretly made and freeing North Korea from trade sanctions.

Phase Two: 2000-2003

What North Korea Does:
Allows full inspection of two suspect sites thought to contain evidence of bomb-making; answers all questions about its nuclear past; sends 8,000 plutonium-bearing fuel rods out of the country.

What the U.S. and its Allies Do:
Increase level of aid; install key nuclear components and bring on line first light water reactor.

Phase Three 2003-2005

What North Korea Does:
Dismantles existing graphite reactors and plutonium plant.

What the U.S. and its Allies Do:
Complete second light water reactor.

In Addition

What North Korea Does:
Resumes diplomatic talks with South Korea on denuclearization.

What the U.S. Does:
Pledges not to use nuclear weapons against North Korea.