North Korea Nuclear Update – 2004

As the year 2004 began, North Korea offered once again to freeze its nuclear program as part of a deal that might resolve its standoff with the United States. And once again the United States replied that it wanted to see some steps toward disarmament before any concessions were made. This exchange was a reprise of an earlier one in December, in which the United States had offered security assurances in return for verifiable and irrevocable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea replied that it wanted to see some benefits before taking any steps toward dismantlement. Thus, each country’s official position is that the other must act before any progress can be made. Diplomats continue to search for a way to break the deadlock.

This state of affairs is the result of a rapid series of developments in 2003. As 2003 opened, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was still repeating its long-held estimate that Pyongyang might have enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. The agency also said that the plutonium might – with stress on the word might – have been put into actual nuclear warheads. On these vital points, U.S. pronouncements were still tentative.

Then in January 2003, North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This fateful step was in retaliation for an earlier decision by the United States to halt oil shipments promised under a nuclear accord made between the two countries in 1994. The U.S. decision to halt the shipments, in turn, had been prompted by North Korea’s admission in October 2002 that it had launched a secret effort to enrich uranium, which the United States considered to be a breach of the accord. North Korea also began moving what appeared to be spent nuclear fuel rods out of storage in January. This raised the risk that the plutonium the rods contained could be extracted for additional weapons. In February, North Korea restarted its smallest (and so far its only) plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which could have produced by now enough plutonium in its spent fuel rods for one additional nuclear weapon. The governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after citing North Korea for not permitting required inspections, referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

By March, American spy satellites were reportedly observing North Korean technicians at work in North Korea’s plutonium processing plant, by April, North Korea had told U.S. officials that it possessed nuclear weapons, and by mid-July, North Korea claimed that it had extracted enough plutonium from its 8,000 spent fuel rods to make six additional nuclear weapons. It also claimed that it had resumed construction of two additional reactors (with electrical ratings of 50 and 200 megawatts respectively) that had been frozen under the 1994 accord. North Korea was making good on its threat, delivered in December 2002, to “instantly reopen” the nuclear projects that it had frozen under the 1994 agreement.

In August 2003, North Korea reportedly announced during talks in Beijing that it intended to set off a nuclear test. Also in August, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in response to questions posed by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said it believed that North Korea had produced one or two fission bombs and had become confident of their design without the need to conduct a nuclear test. In September, activity appeared to have halted at North Korea’s plutonium plant, indicating perhaps that North Korea had finished the work needed to extract the plutonium. In October, North Korea announced that it had indeed finished the work, that the plutonium would go into bombs, and that it would not be exported to other countries. According to the CIA, however, North Korea had privately threatened the preceding April to sell nuclear weapons. The Administration’s reaction was summarized by President Bush, who declared simply that the United States would be willing to agree with other countries not to attack North Korea if the communist nation abandoned its nuclear program.

The press also reported in October that the Bush Administration was still uncertain about the truth of North Korea’s claims, despite an estimate from U.S. intelligence that North Korea might have produced additional nuclear weapons. In an attempt to overcome U.S. doubts, North Korea invited a team of private citizens from the United States to take a tour of North Korean nuclear sites. In January the team was shown the small 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon, which appeared to be operating smoothly, and the pond where the 8,000 spent fuel rods were formerly in storage, which appeared to be empty. According to a press report, the team was presented with boxes that the North Koreans claimed contained plutonium, a claim the team was unable to verify before the boxes were removed.

During the visit, North Korean officials firmly denied having an uranium enrichment program, after admitting the contrary during talks with U.S. officials in October 2002. U.S. intelligence information stated just as firmly that such a program existed. In an unclassified report to Congress covering the first half of 2002, the C.I.A. reported that it had recently obtained “clear evidence” that North Korea “had begun constructing a centrifuge facility.” The agency also said that North Korea had started shopping in 2001 for “large quantities” of materials for centrifuges, plus equipment suitable for producing the uranium feed. North Korea’s goal, the C.I.A. said, appeared to be a plant capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year. In October 2003, German prosecutors opened a court proceeding against Hans-Werner Truppel, CEO of Optronic GmbH & Co. KG, who was charged with having exported 22 metric tons of aluminum tubing that, according to a report in Nuclear Fuel, a trade publication, was bound for North Korea’s centrifuge program. The shipment was seized in April by Egyptian customs from a French vessel on its way to China.

Although the United States doesn’t seem to know where the centrifuge plant is, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has according to the press admitted helping to supply the needed technology and materials. Mr. Khan also claimed, according to one press report, that senior military officers in Pakistan, including current Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Gen. Mirza Aslan Beg, formerly head of Pakistan’s army, knew of the transfers when they occurred. Khan later said in an appearance on Pakistani national television that “there was never any kind of authorization for these activities by the government.”

At roughly the same time that North Korea was receiving assistance from Khan, so was Libya. Because the transfers to Libya included design information for an actual nuclear weapon, the question arises whether North Korea might have received the same thing.

These rapid developments came at the end of a long nuclear prologue — beginning in the 1960’s. North Korea’s strategy, from the outset to the present day, has been both tenacious and consistent. Pyongyang promised over and over not to produce nuclear weapons and to open its sites to inspection. But at the same time, it was busily generating plutonium and processing it into weapon-ready form.

North Korea began its nuclear work on an experimental scale during the 1960’s and 1970’s. By 1975, it had produced a few grams of plutonium in a Soviet-supplied research reactor. Then in 1979, it started building a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor with a thermal power of about 30 megawatts (the reactor had an “electrical” rating of five megawatts, despite the fact that it produced no electricity). This was North Korea’s first serious step toward nuclear weapon production. At full power, the reactor could generate enough plutonium in its spent fuel for up to one fission bomb per year.

In 1985, under outside pressure, North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This obliged Pyongyang not to make nuclear weapons and to open all of its nuclear sites to outside inspectors. It also cleared the way for a deal with the Soviet Union, which promised to sell North Korea a string of nuclear power reactors. The Soviet deal was never performed, but North Korea began building a larger graphite reactor with an electrical rating of 50 megawatts, capable of producing enough plutonium for seven to ten bombs per year, and at the same time a plant to process the plutonium into weapon-ready form.

From 1986 to 1989, North Korea ran the 30 megawatt reactor. It chugged along, creating and accumulating plutonium in its fuel rods. At the same time, North Korea began building an even larger graphite reactor with an electrical rating of 200 megawatts, designed to produce enough plutonium for 30 to 40 bombs per year. While these things were happening, North Korea refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into its nuclear sites, though obliged to do so by the nonproliferation treaty. The Agency, which became the target of stalling and rebuffs, accepted North Korea’s excuses rather than force matters to a head.

Then in 1989, according to the C.I.A., North Korea shut down the small reactor, unloaded its spent fuel and extracted enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear weapons. This provocative action was followed in 1990 by steps toward “weaponization” – developing a warhead that would cause the plutonium to explode in a chain reaction. To this end, North Korea attempted to buy electronics for a nuclear firing circuit from an American firm. According to the South Korean press, it also conducted 70 to 80 high-explosive tests to develop nuclear weapon components. And, it threatened for the first time to drop out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless the United States removed its nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.

The rising tension subsided in 1991. As a result of successful diplomacy, North and South Korea agreed to denuclearize the peninsula and abstain from producing nuclear weapon fuel. To cool things off even more, the United States started removing its nuclear weapons from South Korea. This period of calm continued into 1992, when North Korea vowed once again to open its sites to inspection and the United States and South Korea canceled military exercises to show goodwill.

But North Korea had already begun a quiet concealment effort that would eventually produce a confrontation. In 1992, U.S. intelligence saw a truck hauling a cargo away from North Korea’s plutonium extraction plant. U.S. intelligence also reported that North Korea had buried the first floor of a two-story building that was believed to hide plutonium processing waste. By January 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency had concluded that North Korea was lying about the amount of plutonium it had extracted.

These realities set off a chain of events that could have caused a war. The IAEA inspectors, working from intelligence reports, demanded access in February 1993 to two sites they thought would reveal nuclear work that North Korea had not declared. North Korea refused to let them in. Then, after allowing grudging access to a few sites, where inspectors were compelled to work at night with flashlights, North Korea repudiated the nonproliferation treaty in October and in November broke off the denuclearization talks with South Korea. Also in November, a North Korean diplomat was expelled from Russia for trying to hire Russian scientists. During the summer of 1993, North had stepped up construction at the 50 megawatt reactor and began to manufacture fuel for it in November.

This provided the ingredients for an emergency trip to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter. He managed to avoid a looming military showdown by brokering the beginnings of a pact between North Korea and the United States. It was called an “agreed framework.” In essence, the United States promised North Korea billions of dollars in aid in exchange for Pyongyang’s pledge to halt its secret A-bomb effort. North Korea would freeze its plutonium production and its graphite reactors would be replaced with new ones from the West.

As part of the deal, North Korea was promised two free 1,000 megawatt light-water reactors worth about $4 billion. If completed, however, they would have produced more plutonium than the graphite reactors they were scheduled to replace. The light-water reactors would have been able to turn out approximately 70 bombs’ worth of “weapon-grade” plutonium per year. North Korea’s three graphite reactors could only produce about half that. The advantage to the United States was that the plutonium from the light water reactors would not have been available for at least a decade, whereas plutonium from the smallest graphite reactor could have been available as early as the following year. Of course, if the goal under the agreement was simply to provide electrical power, the United States could have accomplished that goal faster and cheaper with coal or oil-fired plants. In November 2003, after the deal broke down, the administration announced that the United States and it allies would suspend all work on the light-water reactors starting December 1, 2003.

The 1994 deal also required that work on North Korea’s three graphite reactors, its plutonium processing plant and its 8,000 plutonium-bearing spent fuel rods be frozen. In addition, inspectors would verify that North Korea was keeping its word. The freeze was to continue until the first light-water reactor should be completed sometime in the twenty-first century. The risk, however, was that North Korea’s facilities would remain intact until then. This meant that North Korea could decide at any time to kick out the inspectors, turn on the plutonium processing plant and extract approximately five more bomb’s worth of plutonium from the spent fuel rods. That is what North Korea claims to have done during the summer of 2003.

In addition to that defect, the 1994 agreement also set an unwholesome precedent. Never before had the United States arranged for a country in violation of international inspections to get a nuclear reactor. After endorsing the light-water reactor for North Korea, it proved impossible for the United States to stop Russia from selling one to Iran. Tehran, after all, had not kicked out inspectors and violated the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The best that can be said about the 1994 agreement is that no good options were available at the time. The proper time to confront North Korea was during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. The nuclear 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. The Clinton administration, in turn, made a deal that handed the problem forward to the second Bush administration, which must grapple with it now once again.