North Korea’s Bomb

The New York Times
June 4, 1992, p. A23

The North Koreans are on the verge of making the bomb, and seven international inspectors are in Pyongyang this week belatedly trying to stop them. If they fail, North Korea will go nuclear, South Korea will feel the pressure to follow and so will Japan. A nuclear-armed Asia will be the price the world pays.

North Korea now has enough nuclear weapon material for six to eight atomic bombs. This is the conclusion of U.S. intelligence analysts, who have watched a small reactor operate for four years at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. Each year, the analysts say, the reactor has created about two bombs’ worth of plutonium.

But Hans Blix, the inspectors’ boss at the International Atomic Energy Agency, is loath to believe it. He seems to prefer North Korea’s line, which is that the reactor has virtually failed to operate. He also seems to believe that North Korea’s dictator, Kim Il Sung, only wants reactors for making electricity, not nuclear weapons.

But what do the inspectors think? If they believe what the U.S. analysts say, they must push North Korea until they find the plutonium, or prove that U.S. intelligence is wrong. If they believe the North Koreans, they may face another Iraq, where they totally missed Saddam Hussein’s bomb program by inspecting only what he declared.

The North Koreans, who in April bent to U.S. and Japanese pressure to let the inspectors in, have told incredible stories about their nuclear past. They say the small reactor didn’t work when they started it up in 1987, so they have run it only sporadically. This contradicts U.S. observations, which show continuous operation at high power. In addition, North Korea is busy building two larger reactors exactly like the small one.

The Government in Pyongyang says it wants the reactors to produce electric power, but no transmission lines are visible. The reactors also use a graphite design, which is inefficient for power and used almost exclusively to make bombs. In January, Robert Gates, the Director of Central Intelligence, said the reactors’ “sole purpose is to make plutonium.”

North Korea is also lying about plutonium extraction. To prepare plutonium for use in a bomb, it must first be extracted from discharged reactor fuel. The North Koreans have built an extraction plant the size of an aircraft carrier, big enough to handle all three reactors’ plutonium fuel. Calling this monster plant a “laboratory,” they assure Mr. Blix that it is not ready to operate. But North Korea probably wouldn’t have built it without a successful prototype, and U.S. analysts fear that the prototype, still hidden, could already have extracted enough plutonium for bombs.

The inspectors’ job is to penetrate the smoke screen. They have the means to do so. They can trace the small reactor’s operating history by analyzing its internal parts. They can do the same for the reactor’s fuel. They can then draw their own conclusions about how much plutonium the reactor has made. If their conclusions match the observations of U.S. intelligence, they can ask North Korea to hand over the plutonium.

Suppose North Korea refuses? It will then breach the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and be subject to U.N. sanctions. Will the inspectors have the courage to push things this far? If they don’t, they will lose what credibility they have left. They cannot afford another inspection disaster.

Global security may ride on the outcome. The cash-strapped North Koreans sell everything they make. In 1987, their first batch of Scud missiles was shipped to Iran, which paid all the development costs. A subsequent batch went to Syria in 1991. Libya, too, has been a buyer and financer of North Korean Scuds. If foreign money is also behind the nuclear program — which seems likely — the world could soon see the first black-market sales of renegade-made atomic bombs, or the plutonium to fuel them. Libyan or Iranian bombs could then be smuggled into Washington or New York.