UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Weapons - 2002 Developments

In an announcement that shocked the world, Washington said on 16 October 2002 that North Korea had admitted to secretly developing uranium enrichment technology for nuclear weapons, in violation of the 1994 agreement with the US.

By the end of 2002 North Korea said it was lifting the freeze on facilities frozen under the agreed framework between the United States and North Korea, including a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Furthermore, North Korea asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove its cameras from the Yongbyon facility. North Korea defied world opinion on 21 December 2002 by removing United Nations seals and cameras at a nuclear power plant suspected of making weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea tampered with surveillance devices the UN nuclear watchdog installed at the Yongbyong complex. The agency said the North cut most of the seals on equipment and tampered with cameras at the five-megawatt reactors. North Korea says the agency did not respond to Pyongyang's requests that it remove the equipment. The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was trying to keep communications open with Pyongyang. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said it was deplorable North Korea had ignored requests for talks.

On or about 24 December 2002 North Korea moved fresh fuel to the 5MWe reactor. North Korea reportedly estimates that the 5-megawatt reactor could be up and running in one to two months, while the IAEA reportedly believed it could take longer. As of 26 December 2002 the IAEA reportedly estimated that North Korea will have the five-megawatt reactor operational by the end of February 2003. A senior South Korean official concurred with that estimate. "We believe it will take one or two months to restart the reactor," said the official, Chun Young Woo, director general for international institutions at the Foreign Ministry.

The IAEA said North Korea could start removing about 8,000 spent fuel rods stored in a special pond at the Yongbyon plant. North Korea's purpose might be to move the spent fuel rods to sites around the country where they could be weaponized, in order to convince the US that there could be no pre-emptive strike. The plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon could be ready to begin producing fissile material for bombs within a few months, according to the director general of the IAEA.

US Senator Joe Biden said he believed North Korea's restarting of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor poses a greater threat than Iraq. He said within months Pyongyang could have enough material for five more nuclear weapons. The incoming chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, said Washington must actively engage its allies in the region.

Western assessments of futher steps that the DPRK might take included starting up the plutonium reprocessing line, formally withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty, declaring themselves a nuclear power [with a `Korean bomb' intended to protect the whole of the Korean people by keeping the Americans from starting a war], resumption of long-range missile testing, and conducting an actual nuclear test.

By taking possession of the 8,000 spent fuel rods in late December 2002, the North could conceivably begin producing plutonium-based bombs in as little as six months -- by late June 2003. Commercial satellite images from Digital Globe depicted possible North Korean efforts to prepare for the reprocessing of spent fuel in order to extract plutonium. A pair of images acquired on 15 January 2003 and 28 January 2003 showed smoke coming from a coal fired steam plant as well as steam coming from the steam line connecting the steam plant to the plutonium reprocessing facility. The preponderance of evidence would suggest that by mid-2003 North Korea had completed reprocessing the spent fuel, and that North Korea's stockpile consisted of the two nuclear weapons it had prior to 2003, and an additional six nuclear weapons produced during 2003. The stockpile may have been depleted by one device tested in Pakistan in 1998.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:39:09 ZULU