Special Assessment: North Korean Nuclear Program
One issue that typically remains on the periphery of American minds is the potential threat and continuously demonstrated recklessness of Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In particular, due to the largely atypical and opaque nature of Kim’s regime, successfully acquiring accurate, current and reliable information regarding the exact state of the DPRK’s nuclear program is problematic.
North Korea’s history of abiding by the norms of the international community has been far from spotless. Just during the past four years, the dictatorship has blatantly disregarded all UN Security Council resolutions passed in association with the nation, most notably Resolution 1695 and Resolution 1718, each drafted in 2006, which demand that North Korea “not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.” As recently as April 2009, Pyongyang test-launched a long-range missile; even though that test was widely considered a failure in the intelligence community, the missile still traveled roughly 1,300 miles past Japan.
For many years, the following plutonium-based nuclear facilities have been known to exist in North Korea at a place called Yongbyon, roughly 60 miles from the DPRK capital in Pyongyang: (1) An atomic reactor capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium annually; (2) two large (incomplete, currently disabled) reactors capable of producing a projected 200 kilograms of plutonium annually; (3) a 600-foot plutonium reprocessing plant.
North Korea appears to have mastered the engineering prerequisites of plutonium production. It has demonstrated its knowledge of operating a nuclear reactor, separating plutonium from the fuel rods, and has taken significant steps towards weaponization of these materials. By the end of 2009, the DPRK declared that it had successfully completed the reprocessing of 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. Less than one year ago, it was estimated that North Korea had a stockpile of plutonium between 30-50 kilograms, enough to construct an estimated five or six nuclear weapons, which number assumes it would require the IAEA standard of eight kilograms of plutonium to produce one atomic bomb. Additionally, Dr. Sigfried Hecker, during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, estimated that North Korea has resumed its reprocessing of plutonium and will be capable of enriching enough fuel to produce one nuclear bomb each year. In addition to the already convoluted and contradictory stream of information available to the general public, statements made by government officials seem to allude to an uncertainty about the North’s nuclear warhead production capability and level of sophistication. In January of 2009, an American scholar who had visited the DPRK was told 30.8 kg had been weaponized, with no further specification regarding whether or not this plutonium had been installed in warheads.
Due to the overwhelming policy of secrecy on behalf of the North Korean government, little has been publicized regarding the exact state of North Korea’s nuclear program. A primary concern at this point is whether or not North Korea has successfully pursued an alternate route to a uranium-fueled bomb. The U.S. can speak with absolute certainty that North Korea is in control of the necessary equipment and blueprints for such a program, which directly violates the Agreed Framework treaty signed years ago by the North as well as other multilateral agreements. In addition, North Korea has a delivery system potentially capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States in the Taepo-Dong 2 long-range missile; however, this weapon has proved unreliable in recent tests.
Historically, North Korea has used national holidays to demonstrate new capability or launch provocative tests of new weapons, and on October 10th, the North will mark Party Founding Day. North Korea has been known to lash out at enemies, particularly when they are perceived as either weak or distracted, and then there often follows a period of negotiation for concessions in order to return to peace. Because of the distractions the American military currently face, some scholars are projecting the threat of a provocative and illegal nuclear test to be very high in these upcoming months, and North Korea might well use recent American-South Korean military drills as a handy excuse for renewed provocation.
This National Security section of the Weekly Political Forecast is written by PAI’s Analyst in National Security Affairs.