ISSSP Reflections No. 32, December 4, 2015
Author: Kaveri Ashok
After the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, DPRK remains the most vexing nuclear proliferation issue before the international community. With the North Korean regime getting increasingly dependent on its ever expanding nuclear weapons programme for survival, disarmament of the Korean peninsula is rendered a faraway goal. This article attempts to understand how negotiations and dialogue, in combination with policy of diplomatic isolation and sanctions shaped North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as it stands today.
The Early Years
Although North Korea had acceded to the NPT in 1985, the safeguards agreement came into effect 7 years later in April 1992, after the landmark North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. According to its initial declaration to IAEA, North Korea had 7 sites and 90g of plutonium, subject to IAEA verification. Discrepancies were recorded by the inspectors in DPRK’s declaration. It was evident from the IAEA inspections that the spent fuel from the 5MW Magnox reactor (supplied by the Soviet Union and commissioned in 1985) was reprocessed as many as 3-4 times which meant there was definitely an additional stash of undeclared plutonium.
Secondly, satellite images showed progressive concealment of facilities, which were believed to be an additional waste storage facility and possibly 2 underground test sites. IAEA, unhappy with the North Korean non-cooperation, upped the ante by requesting a special inspection, which was refused by the DPRK. Towards the end of 1993, North Korea announced a full replacement of the core of the Yongbyon reactor (8000 spent fuel rods) for potential storage and reprocessing. It was not clear whether an earlier core was removed and reprocessed, and the amount of plutonium stockpiled could not be estimated. However, the CIA estimates that around 12 kg Pu had been separated by North Korea by late 1993. This was met by a resolution from the IAEA board to cut back technical cooperation on civilian applications of nuclear technology. As its cooperation with IAEA kept diminishing, North Korea relinquished its IAEA membership and announced that it was withdrawing from the NPT.
NPT Imbroglio and the Agreed Framework
Hereon, just a day before the withdrawal from NPT came into effect, DPRK began the bilateral negotiations with the Unites States. Perceiving this as the first serious nuclear crisis, the Clinton administration directly negotiated with Pyongyang on an ad-hoc, one-of-a-kind, ‘Action for Action’ deal in June 1994, which came to be known as the Agreed Framework. The deal obligated North Korea to freeze operations of its existing nuclear programme including the 5MW reactor at Yongbyon, the reprocessing facility and two new facilities which were under construction. In compensation, North Korea would be offered two 1000MW proliferation resistant LWRs, along with crude oil supplies to meet the energy demand until the reactors went critical. Although, the deal received much criticism, mainly because it limited the scope of IAEA verification, it successfully stalled the development of the DPRK’s nuclear program for 8 years.
During the latter half of the 90’s, Pyongyang tested a long-range rocket and followed it up with a missile test moratorium. It also stepped up its missile and nuclear related trade which resulted in several sanctions from the US and the United Nations. DPRK however, kept its HEU weapons option open by clandestinely pursuing centrifuge technologies. Nevertheless, not in technical violation of Agreed Framework, North Korea retained an edge by keeping its spent fuel under international safeguards and not producing more plutonium.
The Agreed Framework was terminated by the Bush administration in 2002 on account of North Korea’s clandestine uranium enrichment programme. The US and its allies halted supplies of fuel oil, thereby attempting to pressurise the DPRK to change tack. North Korea reacted by restarting the Yongbyon reactor, reprocessing facility, expelling the IAEA inspectors from the country and withdrawing from the NPT. Soon after, North Korea also announced the end of its last remaining non-proliferation pact, the 1992 North South Joint declaration of Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. In spite of the IAEA’s requests there was no collective condemnation by the Security Council. With China pushing for a diplomatic resolution, the Six Party talks, a long-running series of multilateral negotiations, involving Japan, South Korea and Russia, began in August 2003.
The talks were largely deadlocked with the US hardliners pushing back and requiring North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities in a way that would prevent any restart of fuel cycle operations, and withholding international aid and promised reactors until North Korea had taken ‘major verifiable’ steps. With the IAEA ousted from the country, North Korea reprocessed the stored spent fuel, separated plutonium and pursued nuclear weapons during this time.
In February 2005, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement that the country possessed nuclear weapons. During the fourth round of negotiations of the Six-Party talks in September 2005, a Joint Statement was agreed to and signed. It was a diluted version of the Agreed Framework, wherein North Korea promised concessions in its nuclear development in exchange for aid and energy assistance, but with no specific timetable or even a complete roadmap. Nevertheless, it was a step in the positive direction.
First Nuclear Test
However, for the second time during the Bush administration, another deal was effectively killed when the US froze North Korean assets of 25Million USD on accounts of money laundering and counterfeiting. In retaliation, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test on October 09, 2006 with an estimated yield of 1kT. Although the success of the test was widely debated owing to its low yield, the possibility of Pyongyang skipping ahead directly to compact warheads was also discussed.
In April 2007, the US unfroze the North Korean assets and in response the Yongbyon reactor was shut down as confirmed by IAEA. As the Six- party talks reconvened, North Korea agreed once again to suspend its plutonium production. In a symbolic gesture, the 60 ft. tall cooling tower at Yongbyon site was demolished in the presence of international diplomats and media. However, it accelerated its uranium centrifuge programme and proliferation activities abroad. In spite of international sanctions and surveillance, DPRK covertly shipped uranium hexafluoride (essential for enrichment) to Libya and was found to have built a plutonium production reactor based on the Yongbyon design in Syria. In 2009, North Korea was estimated to have five nuclear weapons.
The six party negotiations continued until spring of 2009, when North Korea tested its longest range missile, Unha-3, under the pretext of a satellite launch. The newly elected Obama administration called it a provocation and the Security Council issued a resolution condemning North Korea for the launch. North Korea declared in April 2009, that it would no longer take part in the Six-party talks.
The Second Nuclear Test
On May 25, 2009 North Korea conducted its second nuclear test “on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control.” The Obama administration, only four months into its term, froze the relationship. The next day North Korea fired three missiles into the Sea of Japan declaring that it was “fully ready for battle” against the US. The uranium enrichment programme was developed enough to be revealed to a special team from the US in November 2010. The well-developed facility, housing 2000 centrifuges, in Yongbyon, the site of maximum international attention, evidenced a clear likelihood that North Korea could have been pursuing an enrichment facility before 2009 and that it may have built other enrichment facilities elsewhere in the country. Pyongyang’s move to augment their limited plutonium production of at most one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year with enriched uranium was a game changer. It became more difficult to assess North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Unlike the reactor production of plutonium, centrifuges are easy to hide. North Korea was then believed to possess enough fuel for 6 to 12 nuclear weapons.
Third Generation Assumes Power
After Kim Jong Un took over the leadership, the “Leap Day Deal” was worked out between Washington and Pyongyang in February 2012. Once again, North Korea agreed to suspend operations at its Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant, invite IAEA inspectors to monitor the suspension, and implement moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests. And the United States said that it would provide North Korea 240,000 metric tons of food aid under strict monitoring. However, the deal broke down when North Korea launched a long-range rocket in April 2012, violating the agreement. Since this last attempt at diplomacy, the US position has been that Pyongyang must take steps towards denuclearisation before any dialogue can begin and that it can focus only on complete nuclear disarmament rather than limiting the programme.
As noted by Siegfried Hecker in his most recent article, Nuclear expansion has been continuing swiftly ever since. One year later, in 2013, North Korea successfully launched a satellite on the Unha3 long range rocket; a third nuclear test was conducted in February 2013; construction of an experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) continuing apace; fuel fabrication facility as well as the
Uranium centrifuge plant expanding enormously; the Sohae rocket launch site has been constructed and there are indications of testing the engine of the KN-08 ICBM. All this has happened in the absence of any diplomatic engagement— which could have delayed, if not reversed, these advances. However, nuclear exports to traditional customers (Libya, Syria and Iraq) seem to have stopped due to the crisis in the region and Iran acceding to the nuclear deal.
As of 2014 end, the DPRK was estimated to be having a stock of 30-34 kg of separated plutonium (average 32 kg), exclusively from the reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor. The construction of the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) is still underway. In his recent report on North Korea, David Albright contemplates an alternate route to plutonium with the ELWR. If the reactor is for civilian use then the fuel needed would be low enriched uranium (3-4%) and reactor-grade plutonium (unsuitable for weapons) will be recovered. On the other hand, if the reactor has to be used to recover weapons-grade plutonium, the fuel rods will be enriched uranium (10-20%) along with a blanket/ target of either depleted or natural uranium, which would get converted into weapons grade Plutonium. Although the fuel fabrication would require major modifications to the existing Radiochemical Laboratory, with this design, North Korea could produce up to 20 kg of weapons grade Plutonium per year in an efficient and sustained fashion.
An estimate of the HEU stockpile is difficult to arrive at, because of uncertainties in the number of centrifuge plants, their efficiencies etc. A rough estimate is that Pyongyang likely has 12 nuclear weapons with an annual manufacturing capacity of possibly 4-6 bombs.
There is also a tendency to see nuclear tests with comparatively small yields as failures rather than an ambitious attempt to skip the simple fission device tests directly to miniaturized warhead tests. However, historically countries have largely gone for simple fission devices (>15kT) in their first test(s) as small yields are difficult to master in the early phase of the weapons programme. Chinese physicist Li Bin brings out an “alternative storyline” in his Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article, wherein he argues that the only way Pyongyang could have chosen a 4kT design yield would be if they had illicit access to a working model developed by a nuclear weapon state during the cold war. Regardless of whether they received external assistance, the possibility that Pyongyang moves closer to miniaturizing a warhead becomes increasingly probable with each successive test. North Korea does not yet possess a combat-ready ICBM, and will not, until it conducts sufficient testing. It is however an increasingly attainable outcome, considering North Korea’s consistent commitment to technology advancement through thick and thin. Tests, regardless of its degree of success, provide them with necessary data as to pursue their ambitions. Thus, the case for dissuading North Korea from any more tests becomes of paramount importance.
In all likelihood, Pyongyang did not have a nuclear weapon when it walked out of the NPT in 2003, and today possesses a nuclear arsenal of roughly 12 nuclear weapons possibly fuelled by both HEU and Plutonium. To paraphrase the concern raised by former IAEA Director General ElBaradei– the case of North Korea thus far gives out a very dangerous message that the more rapid the proliferation, the better the chances of retaining the programme, and if not rapid enough, it will be open to counter-proliferation efforts, as in the case of Iraq and Syria.
Current reality suggests that barring in a radical situation such as regime change chances of North Korea giving up its nuclear programme are very scanty. The fact that Pyongyang regards its nuclear arsenal central to its regime survival, rather than a bargaining chip makes the situation more challenging. There is also the risk of sale of technology to non-state actors by North Korea in exchange for hard currency. Given the circumstance, the oft-heard argument for not engaging with DPRK that negotiating with the regime is seen as legitimizing its nuclear programme seems illogical. A step-by-step creative diplomatic approach to stop DPRK from further tests and to stall further modification at this rather critical point is definitely more desirable than to focus on a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
About the Author
Ms Kaveri Ashok is Junior Research Fellow at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at kaveriashok[at]outlook[dot]com