Testimony: 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 Foreign Relations
Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs

December 1, 1994

I am pleased to appear here today before this Subcommittee 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.

In October, the United States promised North Korea billions of dollars in aid in exchange for Pyongyang’s pledge to halt its secret A-bomb effort. The accord comes after many months of hard work by U.S. negotiators. It is intended to close down North Korea’s nuclear program by freezing North Korea’s plutonium production, and by replacing its existing graphite reactors with new ones from the West. While portions of the pact remain secret, the part that is public presents both benefits and risks. The question is whether the benefits are greater than the risks.

The administration has described the benefits quite fully. I will concentrate on the risks, which are as follows:

Light Water Reactors: North Korea is getting two free reactors over the next decade, worth $4 billion. The risk? These reactors will make more bomb-grade plutonium than the graphite reactors North Korea has now, including the ones under construction. Press reports to the contrary are simply wrong. Although light water reactors (LWRs) are less efficient at producing bomb fuel, these two giant 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 about 25-30 bombs’ worth per year.

I should explain how these numbers were arrived at. First, each Western-style light water reactor has a power rating of about 1,000 MW(e). That makes 2,000MW(e) for two. North Korea’s existing graphite reactors are rated at only 255MW(e). That consists of the 50MW(e) and 200MW(e) plants under construction and the 5MW(e) reactor that has been running since 1986.

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. If operated to produce “weapon-grade” plutonium, the light water reactors would only have to be shut down and reloaded more often. In such a mode they would produce at least 400kg each per year, enough for roughly 70 bombs if one assumes between five and six kilograms per bomb. The three North Korean graphite reactors would not produce more than 150kg per year, enough for 25-30 bombs.

I should point out that under the agreement, plutonium from the light water reactors will not be available for at least a decade, whereas more plutonium from the smallest graphite reactor could be available as early as next year. Also, if North Korea started to extract plutonium from the spent light water reactor fuel, the supply of fresh fuel for those reactors could be stopped. However, North Korea could wait until it had accumulated a year or so of plutonium produced from the first light water reactor before it moved toward extraction, which would give it about 35 bombs’ worth. Thus, cutting off the fuel would not be much of a remedy.

I should also point out that light water reactors are unnecessary if the goal is simply to provide power. The United States could provide coal or oil-fired plants much faster and at a much lower capital cost.

Pyongyang’s existing plutonium: The CIA says North Korea is hiding enough plutonium for one to two Nagasaki-sized bombs, which the agreement lets North Korea keep for at least five years. The risk? The CIA says there is a “better than even” chance that the plutonium is already made into bombs. If so, North Korea can remain a nuclear power while being paid not to be. If not, it has five years to perfect a bomb 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 the North Korea’s two suspect sites is suspended for that period, it seems highly unlikely that other special inspections would be allowed.

Pyongyang’s nuclear potential: Its three graphite reactors, its plutonium processing plant and its 8,000 plutonium-bearing spent fuel rods would be frozen and put under inspection until the next century, when the first light water reactor is completed. The risk? The facilities will not be dismantled until then, which means that North Korea could decide at any time to kick out the inspectors, turn on the processing plant and extract five more bomb’s worth of plutonium from the spent fuel rods.

Pyongyang’s military threat: Unaffected by the pact. The risk? North Korea’s troops and tanks, massed on the South Korean border, could be fueled with other 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 is big 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.

Pyongyang’s economy: By January, North Korea will start getting free oil shipments that will eventually reach 500,000 tons of heavy oil per year. It will also be freed from its trade embargo and will get diplomatic ties leading to full recognition. The risk? North Korea could accept the oil, trade, and diplomatic benefits until it gets back on its feet. It could then 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.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Under the October accord, North Korea agreed to begin complying with the Treaty and to open its seven declared sites to inspection. The risk? North Korea is still in breach of the Treaty because it has locked inspectors out of two undeclared sites, where the CIA believes evidence of secret bombmaking is stashed. Unlike Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, which were made to come clean before entering the Treaty or its equivalent, North Korea will be let in with its hands dirty, and they will stay dirty for several years. 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. Pyongyang is getting cake before it eats its spinach.

The precedent: Never has the United States arranged for a country in violation of international inspections to get nuclear reactors. U.S. law forbids the sale of a reactor to a country in violation of international inspection obligations. 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 benefits and getting free oil while still in breach. This undermines both U.S. nonproliferation policy and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After endorsing light water reactors for North Korea, it will be much harder for the United States to keep trying to block China and Russia from selling them to Iran–which is in full compliance with international inspections. Iran is already grumbling about being denied nuclear benefits. If Iran demands the same legal status as North Korea is getting under the U.S. agreement, including exemptions from challenge inspections, international inspectors won’t stand a chance of finding the secret bomb program that the CIA thinks Iran is running.

Conclusion: This agreement was reached under adverse conditions, in which no good options were available. 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 irresistible 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.