Testimony: North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Testimony of Gary Milhollin

Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control

Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,
Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs

November 25, 1991

I am pleased to have this opportunity to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, and to discuss the subject of North Korea’s nuclear program. I am a member of the University of Wisconsin Law School faculty and am director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to developing nations.

I will address three points: First, how close is North Korea to making a nuclear weapon? Second, what are the risks the world faces if North Korea succeeds in its nuclear guest? Third, what can be done?

Since 1987, North Korea has been running a graphite-moderated reactor that produces plutonium in its spent uranium fuel. Plutonium is the nuclear explosive metal that the United States used to make the Nagasaki bomb. The reactor is near Yongbyon, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang. Its output is estimated at 30 megawatt thermal, so by now it would have produced somewhere betwe6n 18 and 36 kilograms of plutonium, enough for two to five bombs.1 The reactor does not seem intended for peaceful use. It is too big for research and too small for electricity production. North Korea already has a Soviet reactor for research, supplied in 1965, which has been upgraded from 2-4MWt to 8MWt. And recent North Korean defectors have identified a second site at Bak Chion as a nuclear weapon research facility.

North Korea is also building a larger reactor, estimated at 50-200MWt, also near Yongbyon. This reactor could produce enough plutonium for about two to ten bombs per year. Its distance from North Korea’s industrial belt and the absence of power lines disprove North Korean claims that it is intended for power production.

To produce a bomb core, the plutonium must be extracted from the existing reactor’s spent fuel by a sophisticated chemical process that must be carried out behind heavy shielding. It is reasonable to assume that North Korea has already extracted at least small amounts of plutonium on an experimental basis. This would have been done in a small-scale plant to gain the confidence needed to construct the larger plutonium extraction plant that has been built or is being built, also at Yongbyon.

It is unclear whether North Korea has extracted enough plutonium for a bomb, because it is unclear whether the large extraction plant is running, or how much plutonium might have been extracted in a smaller plant. Last summer I was told by an informed source that North Korea was operating a plutonium extraction plant. Upon inquiring at the State Department, I was told that the large plant was not operating and was not expected to operate for a year or more, and that my information was therefore incorrect. That was in July 1991. The State Department now says that it still has no evidence that the large extraction plant is operating, but cannot exclude the possibility that North Korea might be extracting plutonium at a secret site or that the large plant might be operating at a lower level of activity that would be difficult to detect.

To actually deploy a nuclear weapon, North Korea must design and build a workable implosion device that can cause the plutonium to explode in a chain reaction. There have been many reports of work on such a device, and of tests of components. It would be prudent to assume that as soon as North Korea produces the plutonium needed for a bomb–about six or seven kilograms– it will have an implosion device ready to receive it.

Thus, North Korea may be within months of assembling its first bomb, or within a year, or within two years, all depending on its progress in extracting plutonium. I urge the subcommittee to ask the government witnesses who will testify on this topic to state exactly what the government thinks the current status is.

What are the risks if North Korea succeeds in its nuclear weapon quest? The first, of course, is that North Korea will deploy nuclear weapons. If that happens, both South Korea and Japan would be forced to request a nuclear shield from the United States, or failing that, to make bombs themselves. The latter would create a new nuclear arms race in Asia just as the race in Europe is ending. No one wants to see a nuclear-armed South Korea or Japan.

The second risk is that North Korea could become a black-market supplier of nuclear weapon fuel. There is already one precedent for this. In the early 1980s, China supplied Pakistan a tested nuclear bomb design and enough high-enriched uranium to fuel it. Once North Korea’s larger reactor starts up, it will have nuclear weapon fuel to spare. North Korea has already sold nuclear-capable missiles to Iran, Libya and Syria. There is no reason to think that North Korea would shrink from selling nuclear weapon fuel, a nuclear weapon design, or even a nuclear weapon to anyone able to pay the price.

Bomb quantities of nuclear weapon fuel, secretly circulating among pariah states and possibly terrorists, are incompatible with urban civilization. Even one bomb in the wrong hands could force the evacuation of Washington, D.C. and other major cities. It is hard to feel secure if A-bomb fuel is available from a completely renegade seller.

So the issue comes down to what can be done now. There seem to be three options. The first is to do nothing effective, and watch North Korea develop nuclear weapons. The second is diplomacy–using economic and political sanctions to win compliance. The third is to take military action.

The Reagan and Bush administrations both followed the first option until now. The result has been a foreign policy disaster. The U.S. government has been smelling smoke in North Korea for almost a decade, but did nothing until the fire began licking at the door. Now, with bomb production imminent, the administration has suddenly declared a crisis and started making speeches, holding meetings, and calling the experts. This should have happened years ago, when there was still time to stop North Korea’s progress. North Korea’s large reactor started operating four years ago and was under construction for several years before that. North Korea has been refusing international inspection since 1985, despite its promise to allow inspection under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Now, North Korea may be so close to success that the second option, diplomacy, will not have time to work.

The Bush administration has belatedly begun to pursue this second option. In September, President Bush pledged to remove all short-range nuclear weapons from the peninsula,- and in mid-October he promised to remove the rest of the nuclear weapons stationed with U.S. forces. In addition, South Korean President No Tae Wu announced on November 8 that his nation would not “manufacture, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons,” and he renounced plans to produce or possess any nuclear weapon-grade material. North Korea responded to all this by demanding that South Korea withdraw from the American nuclear umbrella– which can hardly be called a response.

A diplomatic victory would consist of this: North Korea would open all of its nuclear sites to international inspection, including challenge inspection, and would dismantle and promise not to construct any equipment that can make nuclear weapon material. This means dismantling the plutonium extraction plant at Yongbyon and any other extraction plant or uranium enrichment equipment that might exist elsewhere. Simply agreeing to accept the present version of safeguards applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency would not be enough. North Korea could advance to within weeks of a bomb under those safeguards legally, and could even make bombs illegally without getting caught.

The best chance to achieve this goal peacefully is to have the U.N. Security Council give North Korea a deadline for accepting full inspection. If North Korea does not respond, the Security Council should consider a trade embargo or even a blockade on shipping. Economic aid, diplomatic normalization, trade in oil and other basic supplies must all be put at stake.
If all else fails, one is left with the military option. All indications are that this would be costly. The North Korean army is strong; one cannot expect a replay of operation Desert Storm. South Korea has several nuclear reactors that could be attacked in retaliation for bombing North Korea’s reactors or its extraction plant. If this happened millions of persons would get large doses of radiation, possibly including some in Japan.

North Korea could also attack South Korean civilians with chemical-armed SCUD missiles.
It is vitally important to realize that the current situation was not inevitable. Only because our government failed to take effective action for so long are we forced to choose between watching a country cross the line to A-bomb making and starting a war to stop it. These are not decent alternatives. But they are the only choices left when one waits until the last minute to do anything.

This same pattern of procrastination and failure has plagued U.S. policies on Iraq, Libya and Algeria. The Reagan and Bush administrations refused to see Saddamis nuclear weapon ambition for what it was until the invasion of Kuwait. Instead of trying to deny Iraq high technology to build his mass-destruction arsenal, the U.S. government sold him what he wanted and looked the other way when other countries did the same.

During most of the 1980s, Libya was building a poison gas plant at Rabta. The administration complained feebly to the Germans, who were building it, but only declared a crisis when the plant was ready to start in 1989, which was already too late. The Libyans simply closed the plant for a while, and began producing again in early 1990 after global attention had shifted.

The case of Algeria is similar. For years, our government has known that China is building a dangerous reactor there, but the administration has turned a blind eye in favor of smooth relations with China, which is now helping Iran as well. When Algeria’s plutonium- and tritium-producing reactor is ready to operate, the same diminished options that are being discussed now will be rehashed.

Because of procrastination, the United States seems to have lost its best chance to stop the North Korean bomb, and is left with two miserable choices that no one wants.