North Korean Nuclear Weapons Programs
█ K. LEE LERNER
In October 2002, North Korean officials announced that, in violation of an agreement with the United States, North Korea had a secret program to "enrich uranium for nuclear weapons."
History. With the assistance of the Soviet Union, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) constructed a nuclear complex at Yongbyon in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, North Korea expanded these facilities to include an operational 5 MW natural uranium, graphite-moderated reactor. North Korea also constructed an ore processing plant and a fuel rod fabrication plant.
In 1977, North Korea agreed to IAEA mentoring of its Soviet-supplied 2MW research reactor and 0.1MW critical assembly facility located at Yongbyon. In 1985, the DPRK signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Shortly thereafter, however, North Korea started construction on two gas-graphite reactors in Yongbyon and also started the construction of radiochemical and reprocessing facilities. United States intelligence suspected North Korea was attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program.
In 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government announced a halt to the exportation of nuclear equipment and fuel to North Korea. North Korea continues to refuse to sign IAEA inspection agreements until "the United States removes nuclear weapons from South Korea." The United States rejects North Korea's demand, in part because of North Korea's larger conventional forces on the Peninsula. The North Korean statement began a series of shifting demands (including demanding a promise from the United States that it never attack North Korea) as preconditions to cooperation. North Korean President Kim Il-sung continually declined attempts at a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
In 1991, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-ku announced that South Korea might use military force to destroy North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon if North Korea does not agree to inspections and IAEA safeguards. North Korean President Kim Il-sung terms the statement a "virtual declaration of war" but continued to decline attempts at a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
Then International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director, Hans Blix, asked the United Nations Security Council to seek more aggressive inspections of facilities in countries suspected of violating the NPT. North Korea declared United Nations efforts a hostile act but began talks aimed at eventually allowing more detailed inspections. North Korean defector, Ko Young-hwan, subsequently revealed that North Korean leaders never intended to commit to rigorous international inspections and that North Korean diplomatic efforts were aimed at securing a place in the United Nations and to allow North Korean nuclear weapons programs time to advance.
In 1992, under threat of possible United States action, North Korea agreed to an IAEA-monitored NPT Safeguards Agreement. IAEA monitoring and inspections start soon after the U.S. informed North Korea that it would impose sanctions if North Korea does not permit full international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
At the outset of inspections, North Korea admitted in a report to the IAEA and United Nations to having "nuclear material and design information, a fuel rod fabrication plant and storage facility at Yongbyon, a research reactor and critical assembly at the Institute of Nuclear Physics, a sub-critical facility at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, two uranium mines and two centers for uranium concentrate production, a 5 MW nuclear reactor and a radiochemical laboratory under construction at the Institute of Radiochemistry in Yongbyon, a 50 MW nuclear plant under construction in Yongbyon, a 200 MW plant under construction in Taechon, and three planned 635 MW nuclear reactors." North Korea declared that its radiochemical laboratory was intended for uranium separation research and for plutonium waste management. North Korea also announced its intentions to continue nuclear development, including research on a potential fast-breeder reactor, the development of composite nuclear fuel, and completion of the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.
Once inspections started, IAEA inspectors found discrepancies between the status of DPRK nuclear programs and DPRK claims in its formal declarations to the IAEA. After comparing physical inspection reports with DPRK declarations, IAEA inspectors suspected that North Korea might possess undeclared plutonium stores. North Korean officials refused IAEA requests to conduct additional inspections to clarify the situation. Inspectors were also specifically blocked from inspecting sites that the North Koreans denied existed but which were known to IAEA inspectors because of intelligence (including spy satellite photographs) supplied by the United States. North Korean representatives subsequently claimed the photographs—although derived from multiple imaging locations—were fake.
Despite claims of having nothing to hide, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT if IAEA inspectors continued to demand to inspect suspect facilities shown in United States intelligence photographs.
Special requests for inspections continued to be rejected by North Korea and in April 1993, the IAEA ruled that North Korea was in "non-compliance" with its agreements regarding nuclear inspection and safeguards. The United Nations Security Council insisted that North Korea comply with its prior agreements. As a result, North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. After two months of tense diplomatic negotiations, in June 1993 North Korea announced that it had "suspended the effectuation" of its withdrawal from the NPT.
The framework agreement. Limited inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities took place for the remainder of 1993 and into 1994. During that time IAEA inspectors concluded that their limited inspections could not provide "meaningful assurance" that North Korea was using its nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes (e.g., only for energy generation or authorized research). United States President William Jefferson Clinton stated that North Korea's offer to allow IAEA inspectors access to a portion of its nuclear sites was "inadequate and unacceptable." In March 1994, North Korea ignored another call by the U.N. Security Council to allow more complete and comprehensive inspections of their nuclear program.
In the summer of 1994, North Korean scientists discharged the fuel from their operational 5 MW reactor. This action effectively prevented IAEA inspectors from employing testing procedures that could have verified North Korea's declared use of the reactor core or whether nuclear materials had ever been diverted from the core. Soon thereafter, North Korea withdrew from its agreements and membership with IAEA. In accord with prior agreements, neither the IAEA or United Nations considered North Korea released from its treaty and safeguard agreements.
To break the impasse, the United States started direct negotiations with North Korea and entered into a Framework Agreement in October 1994. Under the Agreed Framework the United States pledged to provide fuel for electrical generation and aid in the construction of limited use reactors in exchange for a North Korean freeze and eventual dismantlement of reactors capable of producing weapons grade materials (e.g., graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities). As a consequence of the agreement, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) was formed to facilitate fuel shipments to North Korea.
An important and direct consequence of the agreed framework between the United States and North Korea was the return of IAEA inspectors to monitor the freeze. IAEA inspectors returned to Yongbyon and related facilities, including the partially built 50 and 200MW nuclear power plants. Immediately following the return of IAEA monitoring teams, friction developed between inspectors and North Korean authorities. Over a span of six years, nearly 20 technical conferences failed to produce North Korean cooperation in resolving key monitoring issues.
The 2002–2003 crisis. In 1999, IAEA officials reported to the United Nations Security Council that "critical parts" of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon had been unaccounted for since 1994. Missing parts included those needed to control nuclear reactions and/or those that would be needed to construct another nuclear reactor.
In 2000, the United Nations Secretariat determined that it would take at least three years to complete verifications that had been pending for nearly a decade. North Korea ignored the United Nations and failed to even discuss a timeframe for resolving outstanding issues at technical meetings in November 2001. The following year, while the United States was preoccupied diplomatically and militarily with a developing crisis in Iraq, North Korean leaders demanded that the United States once again enter into unilateral negotiations regarding nuclear arms proliferations issues. The demand for talks was widely interpreted by news agencies and diplomatic corps personnel in the United States as a signal that North Korea—facing desperate economic conditions and starvation for a significant portion of its population—sought additional concessions, money, and aid from the United States. President George W. Bush's administration declined the offer for unilateral talks and vowed not to succumb to "nuclear blackmail" by North Korea. In October 2002, North Korean officials announced that, in violation of the Framework Agreement with the United States, their government had a secret program to "enrich uranium for nuclear weapons."
Ongoing negotiations between North Korea and South Korea in Pyongyang stalled because of North Korea's nuclear program admissions. United States Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that further aid to North Korea under the 1994 Framework Agreement was in danger. In exchange for North Korea allowing inspections and discontinuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the United States (through the KEDO Board) had agreed to supply fuel for conventional electrical generation and to facilitate the construction of two safe lightwater nuclear power reactors (LPRs). Construction of the first LPR had been started in 2000 and was scheduled for completion in 2005. Diplomatic efforts stalled, and in response the United States and KEDO Board announced that they would suspend heavy oil shipments to North Korea.
In December 2002, North Korea informed IAEA inspectors that the freeze on nuclear facility use would be lifted. North Korea also announced their intent to remove IAEA seals and disable surveillance cameras. Removal of those seals and the dismantling of IAEA monitoring equipment began in late December 2002 and on December 27, North Korea ordered IAEA inspectors to leave the country. On January 11, 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States and United Nations continued to insist that North Korea's prior NPT agreement remained binding and enforcable.
Scientists and intelligence experts openly doubted North Korea's claims that its nuclear program was designed solely to produce electricity. Experts cited the fact that the Yongbyon reactor was too small for significant power generation. Experts also argued that by restarting its nuclear program, North Korea could produce enough plutonium for five or six nuclear bombs within a few months. The IAEA issued the following statement: "Restarting this now unsafeguarded nuclear facility will further demonstrate the DPRK's disregard for its nuclear nonproliferation obligations."
Intelligence and political estimates of North Korean capabilities and motives. The C.I.A. has warned that North Korea may already have two nuclear weapons—possibly developed before the 1994 nuclear freeze accord. What United States officials more openly fear is that nuclear fuel might be sold by North Korea to terrorist organizations that seek to build nuclear weapons to use against the United States.
In addition, North Korea has started a series of missile tests with the goal of demonstrating that North Korea could build a rocket capable of reaching the western coast of the United States. In 2002 North Korea heightened tensions in the region with a launch of a ballistic missile over Japanese territory.
In February 2003, North Korea announced that its nuclear facilities were fully reactivated. The North Korean program included known sites at Yongbyon (a 5 MW experimental nuclear power reactor and a partially completed plutonium extraction facility), Taechon, Pyongyang, and the LPRs being built at Kumho. The IAEA announced that North Korea was in breach of its agreements and referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
The rhetoric and tensions continued to escalate. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il warned that any U.S. strike against its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon would trigger "full-scale war." North Korea maintained a standing army of more than one million soldiers. America maintained less than 40,000 troops in South Korea. Some western intelligence sources openly speculated that North Korea possessed one or two operational nuclear weapons, as well as enough spent fuel rods to make additional weapons.
Despite North Korean threats of pre-emptive action and heavy troop commitments to the Middle East in anticipation of having to forcefully disarm a defiant Iraq, the United states sent reinforcements in the form of heavy bombers and naval vessels toward the Korean peninsula.
In early March 2003, four North Korean fighter jets intercepted a United States reconnaissance plane in international air space. The jets followed the reconnaissance plane and locked on with targeting RADAR. (In 1969, a United States reconnaissance plane was shot down under similar circumstances.) Ultimately the U.S. plane returned safely to base.
After ignoring yet another missile firing by North Korea, United States officials insisted that they intended to pursue a policy that would put "maximum pressure" on North Korea to "not just freeze its weapons of mass destruction, but begin to dismantle them." Bush administration officials—in referring to the failed unilateral agreement reached between the U.S. and North Korea in 1994—consistently asserted that North Korea froze its plutonium program, it then began a separate uranium enrichment program. The United States maintained that a solution to the crisis needed to come from pressure and influence applied by the "collective weight of the international community, not just from the United States alone." Secretary of State Colin Powell articulated the American position by stating "We can't fall into that trap again of paying them off to stop what they're doing, only to discover that they're doing it again at a later time."
Tensions also escalated between allies as anti-American demonstrations began taking place in South Korea. Fueled in part by a general global anti-American backlash over the anticipated war against Iraq the demonstrations were mainly fears that America's failure to renounce the option of a military strike against North Korea might escalate into a devastating war in the Korean peninsula. After having secured South Korea's independence at the cost of many American lives and following more than 50 years of commitment to the country's security, the South Korean protests were an affront to the United States and forced administration and defense officials to publicly ponder the possibility of reducing or removing American forces.
The Bush administration continued to downplay the crisis and insisted that it was a regional matter to be solved by joint diplomacy rather than unilateral talks. In late April 2003, the first round of talks on the crisis began as American, North Korean, and Chinese officials met in Beijing.
As of May, 2003, IAEA inspectors asserted that they had never been able to verify the completeness and correctness of even the initial report of North Korea with regard to its NPT Safeguards Agreement. Since 1993, the IAEA has maintained that North Korea was in "non-compliance" with its obligations under NPT and inspection agreements to verify the peaceful use of its nuclear materials.
█ FURTHER READING:
Michael Mazarr, M. North Korea and The Bomb: A Case Study in Nonproliferation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Sigal, Leon V. Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Gordon, M. R. "U.S. Nuclear Plan Sees New Targets and New Weapons." New York Times. , March 10, 2002.
Loeb, Vernon, and Peter Slevin. "Overcoming North Korea's 'Tyranny of Proximity'." Washington Post. January 20,2003.
Sanger, David E. "U.S. Eases Threat On Nuclear Arms For North Korea." New York Times. December 30, 2002.
"Beyond the Agreed Framework: The DPRK's Projected Atomic Bomb Making Capabilities, 2002–09." An Analysis of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) (December 3, 2002) < http://www.npec-web.org/projects/fissile2.htm >. December 12, 2002.
IAEA News Update on IAEA and North Korea. IAEA (March 10, 2003) < http://www.iaea.org/worldatom/Press/Focus/IaeaDprk/ > (March 10, 2003).
"North Korea Nuclear Profile." Center for Nonproliferation Studies. < http://www.nti.org/db/profiles/dprk/nuc/nuc_overview.html > (January 12, 2003).
Pinkston, D., and S. Lieggi. "North Korea's Nuclear Program: Key Concerns." Center for Nonproliferation Studies, < http://cns.miis.edu/research/korea/keycon.htm. > (December 12, 2002).