Sizing Up the North Korean Nuclear Deal

Foresight (Tokyo)
March 1995

Roughly one month ago, the United States detected the first violation of the nuclear accord that it signed with North Korea last year. Pyongyang seems to have diverted to an unauthorized purpose some of the oil that Washington supplied under the agreement. And to make matters worse, North Korea is still arguing over who will supply the reactors it is scheduled to get under the accord–a point that the Clinton administration thought was settled.

Indeed, the U.S.-DPRK “agreed framework” raises as many questions as it answers. First, what are the security gains under the agreement, compared to the losses? 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 strengthen its military program?

The 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 graphite reactors that have been 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.

In exchange for the freeze, the United States must supply or arrange for the supply of 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 the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. 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 has agreed that North Korea gets to keep any bombs it has already made, and that North Korea should be paid not to make any more. North Korea is the only country ever to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and then openly break the Treaty’s inspection obligations. Even Iraq tried to keep its program secret while appearing to comply with inspections. Pyongyang’s strategy has obviously paid off. North Korea is being rewarded not only with oil and reactors, but with diplomatic recognition and the elimination of the trade restrictions that are now driving down its fragile 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, are threatening a neighbor, and are exporting nuclear-capable missiles to other terrorist nations.

The light water reactors create a special problem. The world cannot endorse such reactors for North Korea without giving the green light to China, Germany and Russia to build them in Iran. The Russians recently announced that they will complete the two Iranian light water reactors at Bushehr. These reactors have a unique history. American diplomacy convinced Germany, which started the reactors, not to finish them, and Iraq found them 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 Iranian reactor within five years, which is the current estimate of the construction time, Tehran will have its first access to weapon quantities of plutonium. This will be a disaster for Middle East security and for U.S. diplomacy, which has tried for many years to prevent Iran from reaching this point.

Last month, Moscow again refused U.S. requests to cancel the Iran reactor deal. Russia has decided to jeopardize its American aid in order to make the sale. Russian officials have specifically told the United States that they have every right to sell the technology to Iran, since America and its allies are sending the same technology, free, to North Korea. This retort should surprise no one.

Why are light water reactors important? Because they, like all other nuclear reactors, make plutonium that can be used in atomic bombs. The spent fuel from LWRs is not “proliferation resistant,” as the Clinton administration claims. That is why the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects light water reactors in countries around the world, including Japan, 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 U.S. administration does not disagree; it only points out that the LWR plutonium will not be available as soon as plutonium from North Korea’s indigenous reactors would have been. But the two giant LWRs 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.

These numbers are easy to verify, and defenders of the agreement do not dispute them. Each standard-sized light water reactor has a power rating of about 1,000MW(e). That makes 2,000MW(e) for two. Taken together, North Korea’s three graphite reactors are rated at only 255MW(e). If operated to maximize electricity production, the two light water reactors would make at least 500kg 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. (It is no consolation to be blown up by a low-quality bomb.) 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 400kg per year, enough for roughly 70 bombs. The Iranian light water reactors at Bushehr could do the same. By contrast, the three North Korean graphite reactors would not produce more than 150kg per year of “weapon-grade” plutonium, enough for 25-30 bombs.

Neither North Korea nor Iran now 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. Under the October agreement, however, North Korea must dismantle its plutonium plant and other nuclear facilities. Unfortunately, the dismantling is not required to begin until the first new reactor comes on line, around 2003 at the earliest. And Pyongyang does not need to finish the dismantling until the second reactor comes on line, several years later. Since the agreement does not specify which facilities must be dismantled first, North Korea could save its plutonium plant until the second LWR is nearly ready to run. By then Pyongyang will have studied the new spent fuel from the first reactor, which will have been operating for several years. During those years North Korea could try to develop the technology to convert its plutonium plant to handle the new spent fuel.

Why does North Korea want light water reactors? Nobody outside that country seems to know. The United States could provide coal- or oil-fired plants much faster and cheaper, and without creating dependence on outside suppliers for fuel. North Korea’s coal reserves would provide energy independence. 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.

There may be a more plausible reason for North Korea’s strange desire for a light water reactor: delay. If South Korea supplied gas-, oil- or coal-fired plants, the deal could be done in one or two years instead of five or ten. But that would mean that North Korea would have to perform its side of the bargain in one or two years instead of five or ten. North Korea would have to let international inspectors see the plutonium it is hiding and would have to start dismantling its nuclear plants–right away. But North Korea has no desire to perform so quickly. It prefers to receive the oil shipments and keep its bomb program alive for as long as possible. The light water reactor, because it takes so long to build, meets both of those needs. Delay has always been North Korea’s strategy.

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 having its allies do the actual supplying, and by withholding key components until the inspection questions are settled. But reactor construction will begin, years will pass, and lots of money will be spent while North Korea is still defying the inspectors. Much of that money will flow from South Korea and Japan. North Korea is already enjoying trade and diplomatic benefits while it remains in breach of its international obligations. This undermines both U.S. nonproliferation policy, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the IAEA inspection regime.

The lack of inspections raises the third issue: how North Korea might take advantage of the agreement to advance its military ambitions. 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 will remain a nuclear power while being paid not to be. If North Korea has not made a bomb yet, it has at least five years to perfect one secretly, because surprise inspections are barred until then.

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, after the first light water reactor is 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 agreement. 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. As former Undersecretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz wrote recently, North Korean’s military should have been required to stand down in steps, in exchange for each delivery of oil. Instead, the U.S. extracted only a vague promise that North Korea will “engage in North-South dialogue,” and that it will “consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” signed in 1991.

The October accord also lets North Korea continue to develop its medium-range NoDong missile for sale to Libya, Iran and Syria. The NoDong’s range is estimated at 1,000km, enough to deliver a nuclear weapon to Japan from North Korea. Depending on the launch site, a NoDong missile could reach cities in Western Japan from Nagasaki to Sapporo. Pyongyang’s missiles could also be launched from Libya to reach Southern Europe, and from Iran or Syria to reach Israel. The October agreement should have required North Korea to reduce its military pressure at the border and to restrain its missile development.

The best time to confront the North Korean nuclear threat was in the 1980s. The program had not yet reached the threshold of success, and there was still time for sanctions to work. But neither Japan nor America reacted. The problem, like a foundling, wound up at the door of the young Clinton administration. In October, Clinton 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.