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Posted at 10:56 AM ET, 12/19/2011
The death on 17 December 2011 of Kim Jong Il, for 17 years the dictator of North Korea – officially, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - and the succession of his son Kim Yong Un (dubbed the “Great Successor” by the North Korean media) has again focused attention on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong Il obsessively pursued a nuclear-weapon program and was prepared to devote a large fraction of North Korea’s resources to acquiring nuclear weapons. We don’t know much about Kim Yong Un but it is most likely that he will retain the country’s nuclear weapons and improve them, at least in the short term. It is not known whether or not these weapons are small and light enough to fit on to ballistic missiles but, if they are not, many North Koreans will want them to be made so.
The North Korea is a highly militarized country, supporting some 1.19 million people in its military forces, giving it one of the world’s largest standing armies. As well as a large conventional arsenal, North Korea is generally believed to possess chemical weapons and to maintain an offensive biological weapons program. And it has deployed a number of types of ballistic missiles.
North Korea allegedly possesses the biological-warfare agents anthrax, cholera, and smallpox and has a capability to produce up to 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons per year Probable agents include mustard gas, phosgene, sarin, and V-type nerve agents. But its most formidable weaponry is its nuclear arsenal.
North Korean work on nuclear weapons dates back at least to the early 1950s, to the years just after the 1950-1953 Korean War. According to the New York Times, “Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, was acutely aware that General Douglas MacArthur had requested nuclear weapons to use against his country during the conflict, and declassified documents show that he pressed his cold war allies — first Russia, then China — for nuclear technology. But it took decades to put together the equipment, and it appears that only relatively recently did the North make a political decision to speed forward” (1).
North Korea demonstrated its capability to fabricate nuclear weapons by testing one on 9 October 2006 and another on 25 May 2009. It is estimated that North Korea has so far produced about 35 kilograms of plutonium, in a small reactor at Yongbyon, North Pyongan, enough to produce about 7 nuclear weapons (2).
North Korea is enriching uranium and producing plutonium. Both highly-enriched uranium and plutonium can be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. North Korea secretly constructed a uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon. We know about this because Professor Siegfried S. Hecker, together with some colleagues, was shown the facility (3). Given that North Korea is an extraordinarily closed and secretive country, getting information about its activities is notoriously difficult. For this reason, the access given to Hecker, a nuclear-weapons expert at Stanford University, is hard to explain.
Hecker has visited North Korea seven times, including four visits to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the most recent one in November 2010 when he was shown the new gas-centrifuge facility for the enrichment of uranium. This plant could produce highly-enriched uranium usable to fabricate nuclear weapons, giving North Korea a second route (in addition to plutonium) to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
North Korea has admitted that it has a program to enrich uranium but claims that it does so for civil rather than military purposes, to produce fuel for future nuclear-power reactors. Hecker speculates that he was shown the enrichment facility because North Korea wants the world to know that it has modern and sophisticated uranium centrifuges. Hecker and his colleagues were told that there are 2,000 centrifuges at the facility, which could produce enough highly-enriched uranium to fabricate one nuclear weapon a year.
North Korea's willingness to supply nuclear technology and know-how to other countries, including Iran and Syria, causes much concern to the international community. It secretly built a nuclear reactor in Syria, of a similar design as the one it built at Yongbyon. It was eventually discovered by Israeli intelligence and destroyed by Israeli bombers in 2007.
And it is believed that North Korea was the main source of the nuclear technology and material sold by the black-market network of A.Q.Khan (the ‘father’ of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons) to Iran, Libya and Syria.
North Korea is believed to be still assisting Iran. Several North Korean engineers which reportedly killed in a huge explosion which ripped through an Iranian military base at the end of 2011. All in all, North Korea is a much greater nuclear-proliferation threat than any other country.
North Korea’s nuclear program is significantly more advanced than Iran’s. Nevertheless, the USA, Israel and other western countries are making great efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program but they are virtually ignoring the proliferation threat posed by North Korea. This is presumably because Israel perceives that its existence will be directly threatened if Iran acquires nuclear weapons whereas North Korea is not a threat to Israel. Moreover, Israel can considerably influence American policy.
North Korea has an active ballistic-missile program. It began developing ballistic missiles in the 1970s. It tested a Scud-B ballistic in April 1984. It has produced the 800-mile (500-kilometre) range Scud-C, the 1,200-mile (700-kilometre) range Scud-D, and the solid-fueled KN-02 short-range ballistic (an upgraded version of the Russian SS-21 Scarab missile) with a range of about 120 miles (70 kilometre).
It has also deployed the 780-mile (1,300-kilometre) range ballistic missile called the Nodong, which it initially tested in 1993. North Korea's Taepodong-1, a 1,100-mile (1800-kilometre) range missile/space launch vehicle, has also been flight-tested. North Korea's three-stage Taepodong-2 is potentially an intercontinental range missile; however it has yet to be tested successfully.
North Korea has tested anti-ship cruise missiles a number of times since 1994. It has a long history of exporting ballistic missiles to other countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Syria. Its willingness to provide other countries with ballistic missiles is of significant concern to the international community.
According to a South Korean news agency, North Korea test-fired a new short-range missile, with a 72-mile (43-kilometre) range, soon after the announcement of Kim Jong Il's death last December.
North Korea became a party to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1985 as a non-nuclear-weapon state but unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on 10 January 2003, leaving it free from the binding force of its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). North Korea is not a Party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); it is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); it is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); but, since 1987, it is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).
North Korea is extremely proud of its nuclear arsenal which it sees as a deterrent to threats from more powerful countries, including the United States. It is hardly likely that Kim Yong Un will be prepared to bargain away such an asset, acquired with a huge sacrifice, which is its only significant strategic bargaining chip with the United States and its regional neighbors.
A major concern is that North Korea will continue to sell nuclear materials and technology to other countries or even give them to terrorists. A crucial question is: Could North Korea be persuaded to negotiate away its nuclear-weapon program?
When Kim Jong Il met with Chinese officials in May 2011 he said his government would attempt to restart the six-party negotiations (involving North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia) to end North Korea’s nuclear-weapon program. He angrily abandoned them at the end of 2008; he understandably objected to preconditions being imposed on the negotiations. Washington and South Korea demanded that the North Koreans announce a moratorium on their nuclear activities before, rather than after, negotiations begin.
In August 2011, Kim Jong Il, at a meeting with Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev, stated that he would consider a moratorium on the testing and production of nuclear weapons, saying that he wanted to resume the stalled negotiations. The North Korean demand for negotiations without preconditions seems reasonable. The other five parties should accept it.
And they should do so soon. According to the New York Times: “In January 2011, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile, and said that, combined with its expanding nuclear program, the country ‘is becoming a direct threat to the United States’”(1).
Hopefully, Kim Yong Un will, like his father Kim Jong Il, want to return to the six-party negotiating table. But he will probably want to consolidate his regime first. The best guess is that North Korea will remain a nuclear-weapon power for some while longer.
1. North Korea's Nuclear Program, The New York Times, 22 December, 2011.
2. Wade L. Huntley, Bucks for the bang, North Korea’s nuclear program and northeast Asian military spending, www.asianperspective.org/articles/v33n4-g.pdf
3. Siegfried S. Hecker, Redefining denuclearization in North Korea, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 20 December 2010.
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About the Author
Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London
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