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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Congressional Documents


(202) 225-0871


August 11, 1994

On August 12, the US and the DPRK agreed on the outline of a wide-ranging accord to resolve their differences on the North Korean nuclear program. The essence of the deal is that the US will provide North Korea with a light-water reactor, "make arrangements for interim energy alternatives" for the DPRK and work to "reduce barriers to trade and investment" so as to generally improve the North Korean economy. In return, "upon receipt of USA assurances" that the above conditions are being implemented the DPRK "will freeze construction" of its bigger graphite-cooled reactors, "seal the Radiochemical Laboratory" (its main reprocessing facilities), "forego" reprocessing of the 4,000 rods (even though the IAEA still will not have access to them), and accept a yet to be determined regime of IAEA inspections.

It therefore appears that the Geneva accords are an effort to induce North Korea to merely freeze some of its nuclear activities in return for a huge incentive package. None of the DPRK's nuclear installations will be dismantled, while the US and its allies will be providing another reactor as well as resolving many of the DPRK's endemic energy supply and economic problems. Washington seems to believe that once these measures are adopted, Pyongyang will no longer desire, nor be able to procure, nuclear weapons, save for the one or two devices it already has. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact of the matter is that North Korea already has close to ten operational nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles, and two nuclear devices that can be carried by truck or transport plane. All the warheads are 50kt nuclear warheads, each weighing around 500 kg (1,100 lb).

To support this, North Korea has an array of ballistic missiles which can carry nuclear warheads. This arsenal includes over 120 NoDong-1s, and a few hundreds of NK-SCUD- Bs and NK-SCUD-Cs, all in operational service. Moreover, the NoDong-2s can be pressed into operational service under extreme conditions.

Consequently, the notion that closing down the DPRK's 5mw reactor would end North Korea's nuclear potential would seen to be dubious to say the least.

(This discrepancy between the administration's assessment and the actual on the ground situation stems in some measure from two fundamentally different approaches to intelligence gathering and analysis. The first relies primarily on gathering and verifying intelligence by technical means -- from space-based collection systems to a variety of sensors and measuring systems of such international bodies as the IAEA. The second relies primarily on human sources -- defectors, spies, and other such "on the ground" assets.)

In this context, then, analysis has centered on determining just how much Plutonium North Korea has extracted from its 5mw reactors in Yongbyon. Washington insists that there is no verifiable evidence that Plutonium was extracted on any other than one occasion in 1989. Therefore, according to the United States, the DPRK cannot possibly have the Plutonium needed for nuclear weapons.

This, however, ignores the fact that, since June 1992, activities have intensified in the DPRK's primary nuclear weapons site at Yongbyon -- an elaborate underground complex called Building 500. Pyongyang has argued that the building is merely a nuclear waste storage site. However, in early 1993, IAEA inspectors requested access to Building 500 to confirm that it was being used only for those purposes for which it was claimed. The DPRK not only refused, but announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Shortly thereafter the North Korean Arm y (KPA) quickly established 40 military encampments, three airbases, a major ammunition depot, and deployed some 300 heavy anti-aircraft guns around the entire Yongbyon complex. When the IAEA continued to insist on inspecting Building 500, the DPRK declared its now infamous Semi-War State, ordering the mobilization of its armed forces. All this is quite surprising over a mere "dump site."

Subsequently, in early May 1994, the DPRK flagrantly violated the remnants of its agreement with the IAEA. Ignoring warnings from the US and the UN, including explicit threats of sanctions, the DPRK cancelled all IAEA inspections and began quickly removing 4,000 fuel rods from the 5mw reactor in Yongbyon, making it impossible to ascertain whether or not any Plutonium had ever been removed. (Measuring the extent of a possible removal of Plutonium from these fuel rods is the key to verifying through technical means the size of the north Korean nuclear arsenal.)

By theoretical calculations alone, since 1990 the Yongbyon 5mw reactor would have produced enough Plutonium for 4 to 6 nuclear weapons. In this context, various defectors have insisted that Plutonium has been extracted clandestinely over the years and used for the production of nuclear warheads. However, only samples and measurements of the fuel rods undertaken by IAEA inspectors on site in Yongbyon would have been able to either confirm or deny the defectors' accounts about the North Korean military nuclear program - a program that Pyongyang denies even exists.

Therefore, it seems to stand to reason that the DPRK's refusal to allow any inspection and measurement of the rods cannot but indicate that North Korea has something to hide. That "something" can be found in the persistent flow of information from North Korean defectors, as well as sources from Russia, the PRC, and other countries, about all aspects of the development of nuclear weapons in Yongbyon. These sources claim that the DPRK has secretly and incrementally removed Plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor for some time.

For example, Kim Dai-Ho, a former official at a North Korean reprocessing plant in Yongbyon who defected in May 1994, reported that in 1988 the DPRK had secretly removed 12 kg [26.4 lb] of Plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor. This fuel was used to produce two nuclear devices which were completed in 1990-1. In addition, it was recently learned that the DPRK has suspended reactor operations annually since 1989. These stoppages lasted 71 days in 1989, 30-odd days in 1990, and 50-odd days in 1991. In each of these periods alone it is feasible that the DPRK could have extracted an additional 22-27 kg (48.4-59.4 lb) of Plutonium, enough for 3-5 weapons.

Comparable quantities of Plutonium have since been removed from the Yongbyon reactor in incremental quantities and used in the production of the DPRK's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the DPRK has succeeded in acquiring 56 kgs (123.2 lbs.) of Plutonium from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) since early 1992 -- sufficient for the production of ten warheads, the first of which was completed in the Spring of 1993.

This data fits closely with a growing volume of information on the DPRK' 5 nuclear arsenal that has been obtained through various other sources. In fact, there is close agreement between the reports on the number of weapons and the reported extraction of Plutonium .

An example of this is a KGB document of 22 February 1990 which stated that the DPRK already had nuclear weapons for the "development of the first atomic explosive device had been completed" in Yongbyon. The KGB added that Kim Jong-Il "personally controls" the DPRK's military nuclear program which is aimed at "achieving military superiority over South Korea" as well as realizing "the prestigious aim of becoming one of the states possessing such weapons."

Similarly, Yi Chung-Kuk, a sergeant in a KPA chemical-warfare unit who defected in mid March 1994, disclosed that he had "heard on several occasions beginning in 1991 from high-ranking military cadres and his senior officers that North Korea has already completed nuclear weapons development." Also, Ko Yong-Hwan, a high level official who defected in the Fall of 1991, reported that Pyongyang expected to have a nuclear arsenal by 1993, at which point the DPRK would be able to produce 3-5 "small nuclear bombs" a year. Subsequent improvements raised the annual production rates to about five warheads per year from Plutonium extracted at Yongbyon and another 2-3 warheads from the Plutonium acquired in the CIS.

On the basis of this and a great volume of data derived from multiple other sources, it was possible to conclude by mid 1993 that the DPRK had about six nuclear weapons in operational status. Four of these were 50kt warheads designed for deployment on North Korea's ballistic missiles. At the very least, the DPRK has already "virtually completed" these six nuclear weapons and has classified them as "laboratory nuclear devices."

* * *

In order to confirm the status of the North Korean military's nuclear capabilities, a high level delegation of West European diplomats and experts based in Beijing visited the DPRK in the early Winter of 1993. Returning from Pyongyang in mid December, the delegation reported that the DPRK had "several atomic bombs and the vehicles to launch them." The delegation also confirmed much of the data provided by defectors, including claims that North Korea "has built several kilo-size bombs." On the basis of the DPRK's verified Plutonium production at Yongbyon alone, the delegation concluded that the DPRK already had "at least half a dozen bombs" to be delivered by a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles.

As if to support this, the latest assessment of the magnitude of the North Korean nuclear arsenal was provided by Kang Myong-To, the son-in-law of Kang Song-San, the DPRK's prime minister, who defected in May 1994. He reported that the DPRK "already possess [ed] five nuclear warheads" in October 1993, and would have about ten warheads by the end of 1994. The delivery platform in "long-range missiles."

Thus, there is ample evidence to suggest that the DPRK currently has at least seven or eight nuclear warheads (as well as two devices) and that by the end of the year it will have over ten warheads. In this connection, it is noteworthy that the available multiple-source data about the extraction of Plutonium and weapons' production rates in North Korea corresponds to that which would be expected if Pyongyang had a nuclear arsenal of the size that has been reported.

With this in mind, the value of IAEA inspections should be questioned. Indeed, as early as February 1990, the KGB was stressing that Pyongyang's interest was in "concealing from world opinion and from the controlling international organizations the actual fact of the production of nuclear weapons in the DPRK."

Furthermore, in late January 1994, a highly informed Chinese official reported that he had "recently heard from a senior North Korean official that North Korea is hiding nuclear weapons in an underground warehouse in the mountains near Pyongyang and that any thorough inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities by the United States will fail to locate them." Yi Chung-Kuk also learned "from his senior officer that it will be of no use to inspect Yongbyon because nuclear weapons are being produced at another place."

Also, it is known from other sources that the work on the warheads made from the Plutonium acquired in the CIS is conducted away from Pyongyang. Indeed, in the Fall of 1993, a defector reported the existence of "a dreadful underground nuclear plant in the Chagang-Do province in the northern area" where the most sensitive weapons related activities take place.

Not surprisingly, therefore, high-level North Korean defectors have always questioned the validity of the negotiations with the US. In fact, as early as mid-191, Ko Yong-Hwan had warned that as far as Pyongyang was concerned, "negotiations for nuclear safeguards are only a delaying tactic." He went on to explain that the highest levels in Pyongyang had concluded around 1985-986 that they "cannot cope with the situation with conventional (classic) weapons; therefore nuclear weapons must be developed ... [as] the last means for preserving their political system."

Kang Myong-To tells a similar story:

"North Korea's nuclear development is not intended as a bargaining chip as seen by the Western world, but for the maintenance of its system under the circumstances in which it is faced with economic difficulties and a situation following the collapse of Eastern Europe....Therefore, I think that until at least ten nuclear warheads are produced, Kim Jong-Il will continue to adopt delaying tactics."

Kang Myong-To stressed that the DPRK had acquired its nuclear weapons "to secure an advantageous position its talks with the United States and Japan. North Korea believes the United States would not be able to attack it then because of nuclear [weapons]." Therefore, Kang Myong- To concluded, in no way would the DPRK give up its military nuclear capabilities because Pyongyang "sees nuclear development as the only means to maintain Kim Jong-Il's regime."

As an outgrowth of this, defecting North Korean officers have described a chilling scenario for the possible use of the DPRK's nuclear warheads in the event of a major crisis. These officers believe that Pyongyang will order a preemptive launch of nuclear weapons against a few select objectives in Japan. "As a preemptive strike, North Korea would attack US military bases in Japan and then launch air raids on Japan's major military bases," explained an officer who defected in 1993. According to another former KPA officer who defected in the Fall of 1992, it is virtually common knowledge among the elite units of the KPA that their country has nuclear weapons and that "our missiles could destroy even Japan, the United States, or South Korea."

More likely and no less complex is the potential introduction of a North Korean nuclear ultimatum in the context of a surprise non-nuclear invasion of South Korea. A threat from Pyongyang to hit Japan, including Tokyo, and perhaps Russia, with nuclear weapons to prevent the United States from intervening in a war would, in the North's view, be bound to attract attention in Washington.

At the very least, deliberations in Washington or. the appropriate reaction to a North Korean invasion and its potential nuclear implications would take long enough for the KPA, by Pyongyang's own worst case calculations, to complete the occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Under such conditions, Pyongyang is convinced, the US would give up on a war to drive the North back. A senior official of the South Korean Ministry of Defense concurs that Pyongyang's strategy is "to initiate a surprise attack on the South and occupy some territory and negotiate for the termination of war, or to deny US reinforcement by threatening to use nuclear weapons."

Meanwhile, the US-DPRK negotiations on nuclear issues have resumed in Geneva. They are still based on the premise that no North Korean extraction of Plutonium from the Yongbyon 5mw reactor has been confirmed except for one case in 1989. The negotiations continue even though the DPRK stresses that it would not permit access to Building 500 or an IAEA examination of the fuel rods (even though all evidence of extraction had already been destroyed). Moreover, the DPRK has informed the US that it will continue to expand its nuclear program and complete a 50mw and a 200mw reactor unless it gets a Russian-made modern light-water reactor and other economic incentives. The accord reached in Geneva on August 12 changes none of these provisions.

Indeed, the Geneva accords constitute a profound change in US policy concerning the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Washington gave up on preventing the DPRK from becoming a nuclear power and no longer even insists on verifying the extent of the North Korean arsenal through IAEA inspection. Instead, the US has opted to appease and bribe North Korea with the hope that Pyongyang will freeze its nuclear build-up.

In short, Washington is buying time while maintaining the charade that the DPRK does not have nuclear weapons. Consequently, the US and its allies have settled into the "do-nothing-for-now" mode, merely postponing the hour of reckoning in the hopes that time will deliver a mutually acceptable status quo that Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and even Seoul and Pyongyang, can learn to live with.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis in North Korea continues to grow and it would appear that only drastic measures will be able to prevent Pyongyang's economic collapse. With such being the case, North Korea would appear to have only two viable options: To attempt a regional nuclear extortion, demanding that the US, Japan and South Korea rebuild its economy, or to launch an all out effort at attaining reunification by force. The Geneva accords, in this connection, would seem to be an implicit surrender by Washington to Pyongyang's first option.

Thus, ignoring the DPRK's real nuclear arsenal in the Geneva negotiations is perilous. Pyongyang's position, Kang Myong-To warns, is that "by 1994, if we are capable of possessing about ten [nuclear weapons], we will be able to make it known to the international community, and to hold the North-US talks or South-North summit talks from a position of advantage." Left unclear is in what form will such an announcement would take place. Given the overall context of Pyongyang's acquisition of nuclear weapons, it is quite likely that the announcement will come as a nuclear ultimatum, perhaps during an invasion.

Moreover, even if the Geneva accords are implemented, and even if there is no new Korean War in 1994, the North Korean threat to the US will only continue to rise simply because by the mid to late 1990s the DPRK will be able to field the nuclear-tipped NoDonq-X ICBM which is capable of reaching the continental US. This fact alone will introduce a whole new dimension to the crisis in Korea. Hence, the looming spectre of the new Korean War, with its nuclear component, will remain with the United States for as long as Kim Jong-Il and his regime remain in power in Pyongyang.

by Yossef Bodansky & Vaughn S. Forrest

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