Nuclear Weapons Program
Since the 1950s, the DPRK has been proceeding with a nuclear development program. It seems that North Korea is engaged in one of two things. Either they are building weapons to give them up for a new relationship with the United States. Or the down side and very dangerous side is that they're trying to build-up a nuclear arsenal for deterrence.
Some observers call it "diplomacy by extortion." They say the communist north is building atomic weapons in order to secure economic aid and special trade agreements with its neighbors and the West in exchange for curtailing its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang maintains that it needs a deterrent to possible South Korean, Japanese and American military aggression against North Korea. But this argument has lost its credibility. The north has always argued that while they're interested in economic reform, they need to leverage the security threat because they're not certain that the intentions of the rest of the world are really benign in terms of negotiating with North Korea. The problem, though, is that since 1994 there is a record of engagement with North Korea by South Korean, Japan, the United States, Europe and Australia. It would be very difficult to survey all of these countries that have engaged North Korea and argue that they have not credibly communicated that their intentions are benign. So this argument that the north continues to put forward, while it still may be credible to them, is becoming less credible to the rest of the world.
The nuclear program can be traced back to about 1962, when the DPRK government committed itself to what it called "all-fortressization," which was the beginning of the hyper militarized North Korea of today. In the mid-1960s, it established a large-scale atomic energy research complex in Yongbyon and trained specialists from students who had studied in the Soviet Union. Under the cooperation agreement concluded between the USSR and the DPRK, a nuclear research center was constructed near the small town of Yongbyon. In 1965 a Soviet IRT-2M research reactor was assembled for this center. From 1965 through 1973 fuel (fuel elements) enriched to 10 percent was supplied to the DPRK for this reactor.
North Korea maintains uranium mines with four million tons of exploitable high-quality uranium.
In the 1970s, it focused study on the nuclear fuel cycle including refining, conversion and fabrication. In 1974, Korean specialists independently modernized Soviet IRT-2M research reactor in the same way that other reactors operating in the USSR and other countries had been modernized, bringing its capacity up to 8 megawatts and switching to fuel enriched to 80 percent. Subsequently, the degree of fuel enrichment was reduced. In the same period the DPRK began to build a 5 MWe research reactor, what is called the "second reactor." In 1977 the DPRK concluded an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], allowing the latter to inspect a research reactor which was built with the assistance of the USSR.
The North Korean nuclear weapons program dates back to the 1980s. In the 1980s, focusing on practical uses of nuclear energy and the completion of a nuclear weapon development system, North Korea began to operate facilities for uranium fabrication and conversion. It began construction of a 200 MWe nuclear reactor and nuclear reprocessing facilities in Taechon and Yongbyon, respectively, and conducted high-explosive detonation tests. In 1985 US officials announced for the first time that they had intelligence data proving that a secret nuclear reactor was being built 90 km north of Pyongyang near the small town of Yongbyon. The installation at Yongbyon had been known for eight years from official IAEA reports. In 1985, under international pressure, Pyongyang acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, the DPRK refused to sign a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an obligation it had as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In September 1989 the magazine JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY stated that North Korea "could manufacture nuclear devices in five years' time, and the means to deliver them soon afterward." In July 1990 THE WASHINGTON POST reported that new satellite photographs showed the presence in Yongbyon of a structure which could possibly be used to separate plutonium from nuclear fuel.
The Joint Declaration on denuclearization was initialed on December 31, 1991. It forbade both sides to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons and forbade the possession of nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. A procedure for inter-Korean inspection was to be organized and a North-South Joint Nuclear Control Commission (JNCC) was mandated with verification of the denuclearization of the peninsula.
On January 30, 1992, the DPRK also signed a nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA, as it had pledged to do in 1985 when acceding to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This safeguards agreement allowed IAEA inspections to begin in June 1992. In March 1992, the JNCC was established in accordance with the joint declaration, but subsequent meetings failed to reach agreement on the main issue of establishing a bilateral inspection regime.
As the 1990s progressed, concern over the North's nuclear program became a major issue in North-South relations and between North Korea and the US. The lack of progress on implementation of the joint nuclear declaration's provision for an inter-Korean nuclear inspection regime led to reinstatement of the US-South Korea Team Spirit military exercise for 1993. The situation worsened rapidly when North Korea, in January 1993, refused IAEA access to two suspected nuclear waste sites and then announced in March 1993 its intent to withdraw from the NPT. During the next 2 years, the US held direct talks with the DPRK that resulted in a series of agreements on nuclear matters.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said at a hearing by the National Assembly's Defense Committee on 14 June 2011 that Pyongyang may have produced a lighter nuclear device, in what amounted to a rare admission by a high-ranking defense official. "It has been a long time [since the North's nuclear test], so we believe the North had enough time to make a smaller or lighter nuclear weapon," he said. "Considering cases involving other countries, there is a strong chance that the North has succeeded."
The DPRK proved its nuclear weapons capability with a successfull underground nuclear detonation on 9 October 2006. The size of the North Korean stockpile, however, is still widely unkown. According to various sources of information, North Korea seemed to have reprocessed enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear weapons. In addition, sufficient plutonium for another six nuclear weapons remained in fuel removed from the reactor at Yongbon but stored under international supervision, under the provisions of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
Publicly available evidence does not permit an assessment of the extent of the uranium program, and there is a considerable range of uncertainty. It is generally agreed that North Korea has attempted to acquire technology related to uranium enrichment from sources in several countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan. It is also generally agreed that, compared to the plutonium program, the precise status of the uranium program would be difficult to assess using sources such as satellite imagery. In contrast to the large and distinctive plutonium production reactors, a uranium enrichment program could be dispersed and hidden underground.
As of February 2005 Defense Intelligence Agency analysts were reported to believe that North Korea may already have produced as many as 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. This would imply that by the end of 2004 North Korea had produced somewhere between four and eight uranium bombs [on top of the seven or eight plutonium bombs already on hand]. The DIA's estimate was at the high end of an intelligence community-wide assessment of North Korea's nuclear arsenal completed in early 2005. The CIA lowballed the estimate at two to three bombs, which would suggest an assessment that the DPRK either had not reprocessed a significant amount of plutonium from the 8,000 spent fuel rods removed from storage in early 2003, or had not fabricated a significant number of weapons from whatever amount of plutonium had been reprocessed. The Department of Energy's analysis put North Korea's stockpile somewhere in between, which would be consistent with the roughly 7 or 8 plutonium bombs that could be produced from all existing plutonium stocks, with no uranium bombs.
If one assumes that the DPRK produced sufficient plutonium for eight bombs, and expended one of these bombs in a test in Pakistan in 1998, then as of 2005 their plutonium bomb inventory would be seven weapons. Taking the mid-point of the DIA's estimate of between four and eight uranium bombs, the plausible uranium bomb stockpile as of early 2005 would be six weapons, increasing at a rate of one bomb every two months. Thus the early 2005 stockpile would be 13 weapons, growing to about 20 weapons by the end of the year.
In 2007 David Albright reported that "North Korea’s estimated stock of separated plutonium is enough for between 5 and 12 nuclear weapons, assuming that each weapon contains about 4-5 kilograms of plutonium..." In 2012 David Albright reported that "Based on considering all the scenarios, the central estimates are that North Korea has as of the end of 2011 enough WGU [Weapons Grade Uranium] for 0 to 11 nuclear weapons. The upper bound central estimates cluster in the range of 4-7 nuclear weapons. ... North Korea’s plutonium inventory appears capped, with enough for 6-18 nuclear weapons and a midpoint of 12 nuclear weapons. ... Thus, considering central estimates only, as of the end of 2011 North Korea has enough fissile material for 12-23 nuclear weapons."
Other sources suggested in 2013 that Pyongyang was believed to have enough plutonium to make up to eight bombs. Analysts also suspect the North is making fuel for uranium bombs.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|