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Asia Times September 24, 2002

North Korea's nuke capability

By David Isenberg

On September 16, at a news briefing at the Pentagon, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said North Korea already has nuclear weapons and is developing more. "We know they are a country that has been aggressively developing nuclear weapons and have nuclear weapons," he said.

Such a statement is consistent with past US intelligence assessments that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons in the mid-1990s. But Rumsfeld's unequivocal statement was a change from just a few days before, when a senior defense official seemed to say that concerns about Pyongyang "possessing" nuclear-weapons technology were related to its capability of making such weapons, rather than possessing actual weapons.

However, Rumsfeld's statement is inconsistent with previous governmental estimates and those of private organizations, which have always said that North Korea may have the fissile material with which to make one or two nuclear weapons.

So just what is the state of North Korea's nuclear program? That question has been the subject of much inquiry since US President George W Bush's January 29 State of the Union address when, in outlining the goals of the war on terrorism, he expanded the US mission beyond Afghanistan to include not only the termination of al-Qaeda networks, but also the prevention of links between these threats and regimes in an "axis of evil", named as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, that seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to menace the United States and its allies.

The "axis of evil" statement intimated a harder-line policy toward North Korea at odds with the engagement or "Sunshine Policy" of US ally South Korea. Also, the speech made clear the priority placed by the Bush administration on countering WMD threats as an integral, if not central, component of the post-September 11, 2001, US security agenda.

According to an article in the summer issue of Political Science Quarterly, these developments point to the renewal in coming months of an acerbic debate that took place at the end of the Bill Clinton administration over the merits of engaging or containing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Although the Bush administration's initial review of North Korea policy in June 2001 recommended unconditional engagement with Pyongyang on a broad range of issues, including its suspected nuclear-weapons program, ballistic-missile production and export, and its conventional-force posture on the Korean Peninsula, this position is far from a conclusive one given the well-known skepticism of North Korean intentions expressed in the Bush's "axis of evil" speech as well as other statements by administration officials.

The standing non-proliferation agreement between the United States and the DPRK, the 1994 nuclear Agreed Framework, soon reaches critical implementation stages that will test the intentions of both parties and raises debates about US revision or abandonment of the agreement. And North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's self-imposed missile-testing moratorium, which was contingent on continued progress in US-DPRK dialogue, ends in December (although Kim told Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last week that it would be extended).

The North Korean nuclear-weapons program dates back to the 1980s, when North Korea began to operate facilities for uranium fabrication and conversion. 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".

According to the Washington, DC-based group GlobalSecurity.org, it is estimated that North Korea has completed the cycle from acquisition of nuclear fuel to reprocessing it and is on the threshold of a nuclear-weapons capability. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether it has actually produced or possesses nuclear weapons, due to difficulties in developing detonation devices and delivery vehicles, which require high-tech and precision technologies. According to various sources of information, North Korea seems to have extracted enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear weapons.

A close examination by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the radioactive isotope content in nuclear waste from its power plants revealed that North Korea had extracted about 24 kilograms of plutonium. North Korea was supposed to have produced 0.9 gram of plutonium per megawatt every day over a four-year period from 1987-91. The 0.9g per day multiplied by 365 days by four years and by 30 megawatts equals 39 kilograms. When the yearly operation ratio is presumed to be 60 percent, the actual amount was estimated at 60 percent of 39kg, or some 23.4kg. Since a 20-kiloton standard nuclear warhead has eight kilograms of critical mass, this amounts to a mass of material of nuclear fission out of which about three nuclear warheads could be extracted. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, North Korea possesses enough plutonium (25-30kg) in spent nuclear fuel to produce perhaps five or six nuclear weapons.

Until 1994, the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that eight kilograms of plutonium would be needed to make a small nuclear weapon. Thus, the United States' estimate of 12kg could result in one to two bombs. In January 1994, however, the DOE reduced the estimate of the amount of plutonium needed to four kilograms - enough to make up to three bombs if the US estimate is used and up to six bombs if the other estimates are used.

On April 22, 1997, US Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon officially stated, "When the US-North Korea nuclear agreement was signed in Geneva in 1994, the US intelligence authorities already believed North Korea had produced plutonium enough for at least one nuclear weapon." This was the first time the United States confirmed North Korea's possession of plutonium.

On August 7 this year, the Bush administration renewed its insistence that Pyongyang cooperate immediately with inspectors of the IAEA to determine how much plutonium North Korea had produced.

So although there is no evidence that North Korea possesses a nuclear weapon, Pyongyang is thought to be capable of building a first-generation nuclear device, given its current state of technology.

2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd.