Testimony: Three Points on 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 Armed Services

January 26, 1995

I am pleased to appear here today before this Committee to discuss the United States-North Korean nuclear accord signed last October. 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.

America’s 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 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.

I would like to cover three points: the agreement’s effect on our nonproliferation policy; its effect on the International Atomic Energy Agency; and its effect on the peninsula.

The agreement with North Korea abandons non-proliferation policies that the United States has followed since the 1970s. The United States has always opposed the sale of light water reactors to countries that are proliferation risks. We talked the French out of supplying such a reactor to Pakistan and talked the Germans out of supplying two to Iran. We would not even consider selling such a reactor to Israel, a U.S. ally, because of Israel’s rejection of the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty.

Only last week, Secretary of State Christopher was quoted in a speech at Harvard University as warning that Iran has a “crash” program to build nuclear weapons. According to the Washington Post, an aide said that Christopher’s comment was “a shot at the Russians,” who have announced that they will complete two reactors in Iran. The reactors are at Bushehr, and have a special history.

American diplomacy convinced Germany, which started building the reactors, not to finish them, and Iraq felt that they were 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 reactor within five years, which is the current estimate of the construction time, Iran will have its first access to weapon quantities of plutonium. This will be a disaster for U.S. diplomacy, which has tried for many years to prevent Iran from reaching this point. And the Russians are not stopping with Iran. There are also reports that they will build light water reactors in India. This action will break a de facto nuclear reactor embargo on India that has held since the 1970s.

Mr. Christopher’s remark shows that the State Department is having trouble facing reality. How can the United States expect Russia not to sell reactors to Iran if we are giving the same type of reactors free to North Korea?

Why are light water reactors important? Because they, like all other reactors, make plutonium that can be used in atomic bombs. That is why the International Atomic Energy Agency inspects light water reactors in countries around the world, and why the United States has opposed their sale to Iran. The two reactors going to North Korea can make twice as much bomb-grade plutonium as the graphite reactors North Korea has now, including the ones under construction. The two giant light water 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 25-30 bombs’ worth per year. The State Department does not dispute these numbers.

Is the plutonium from light water reactors more “proliferation resistant” than plutonium from graphite reactors? The answer is no. If North Korea wants to, it can operate the light water reactors to make plutonium that is ideal for bombs. To make weapon-grade plutonium, it would only be necessary to shut down and reload more often. In such a mode the two reactors would produce at least 400 kg of plutonium per year, enough for roughly 70 bombs if one assumes between five and six kilograms per bomb. The Iranian light water reactors at Bushehr could do the same. By contrast, the three North Korean graphite reactors would not produce more than 150 kg per year, enough for 25-30 bombs.

Neither North Korea nor Iran 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.

Why does North Korea want light water reactors? Nobody outside that country seems to know. The administration admits that the United States could provide coal- or oil-fired plants much faster and cheaper, and without creating dependence on outside suppliers for fuel. 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 want light water reactors to make electricity is to believe in fairy tales.

There is a more plausible explanation for North Korea’s strange desire for a light water reactor. It is delay. If the United States supplied gas-, oil- or coal-fired plants, the deal could be done in one year instead of five or ten. But that would mean that North Korea would have to perform its side of the bargain in one year. North Korea would have to let international inspectors see the plutonium it is hiding. North Korea would also have to start dismantling its nuclear plants. But North Korea doesn’t want to do that. It wants to get its economy rescued, and keep its bomb program alive, both at the same time. The light water reactor–because it takes so long to build–meets both those needs. Delay has been North Korea’s strategy all along, and still is.

In effect, over the first five years of the agreement, the United States is agreeing to let North Korea keep any bombs it has already made, and is paying North Korea not to make any more. North Korea is the only country ever to join the Treaty and then openly break the inspection obligations under it. This strategy has obviously paid off. Uncle Sam is rewarding North Korea not only with oil and reactors, but by dropping the trade restrictions that are now driving down North Korea’s 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, even if you have an undisputed record as a terrorist nation, and even if you are developing and exporting nuclear-capable missiles to other terrorist nations.

The State Department, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Energy Committee, argued that the North Korean deal was not a precedent for Iran, since Iran isn’t being asked to shut down any nuclear facilities. But that is because Iran has no nuclear facilities like North Korea’s. The State Department’s case amounts to saying that the only difference between the two cases is that Iran isn’t blackmailing us–because it can’t yet.

There is also the question of international inspections. North Korea is being treated as a “special case,” essentially because North Korea has successfully blackmailed us. Hans Blix, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that a country must either be either in or out of the Nonproliferation Treaty. If it joins, 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. The IAEA asked North Korea to allow international inspectors into two waste sites under the IAEA’s “special inspection” procedure. Instead of backing up the IAEA, the U.S. State Department cut a special deal exempting Pyongyang from such inspections for at least five years. This left the IAEA twisting the wind in North Korea, and undermined it everywhere else. If Iran now demands the same exemption from special inspections that North Korea is getting under the U.S. agreement–and there is no reason to think Iran won’t–the IAEA won’t stand a chance of finding the secret bomb program that the CIA and Secretary Christopher say Iran is running.

This lack of inspections leads to the third question: how North Korea might take advantage of the agreement to advance its program of plutonium and weapons production. 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 can remain a nuclear power while being paid not to be. If North Korea has not made a bomb yet, it has five years to perfect one secretly, because surprise inspections are effectively barred until then. The agreement, in Section IV, gives North Korea at least five years to “come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement.” The State Department says this means that North Korea is exempt from inspection of any site connected to its past plutonium accumulation from its small reactor. In fact, this loophole is big enough to exempt every suspect site in the country.

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, when the first light water reactor will be 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 crumbling North Korea we are facing now.

Pyongyang’s military threat is unaffected by the pact. North Korea’s troops and tanks are still massed on the South Korean border. North Korea can also continue to develop its heavy NoDong missile for sale to Libya, Iran and Syria. The NoDong’s range is estimated at 1,000 km, 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.

I would like to close by saying that 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. Both administrations watched the program grow. But they 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 tempting politically, but it is a risky way to deal with the spread of nuclear weapons.