On Nuclear Terrorism Cut the Hype Surrounding North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

Article excerpt

NO one disputes that North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability is a significant security threat to the region and to the United States. South Korea and Japan are major US allies and trading partners; President Clinton has rightly linked continued US security to the region's stability.

But many in Washington have been hyping the current crisis over North Korea and offering unfounded speculation about Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities, with potentially disastrous circumstances. Few experts doubt that North Korea is working on a bomb, but no one knows exactly when they will acquire one.

We do know that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has conducted eight inspections in North Korea since Pyongyang signed an inspection agreement with the agency in April 1992. The IAEA has since confirmed that North Korea had developed the capability to produce and reprocess plutonium.

North Korea reported to the IAEA that it had produced several grams of plutonium - thousands of times less than is needed for even one nuclear bomb. But the IAEA suspects that North Korea has produced even more plutonium than it admits to. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin recently disclosed that North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor for 100 days in 1989, giving it enough time to remove fuel elements for reprocessing. But the IAEA has not been granted access to facilities that might enable it to determine how much plutonium has been produced or if a significant amount of fuel has been removed from the reactor.

CIA director James Woolsey testified before Congress this year that the "possibility" exists that North Korea has already produced enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. But at no time has the CIA or the IAEA confirmed that North Korea has produced and extracted enough material for use in a weapon. And while there is some evidence that North Korea has been developing the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons, there is no reliable information that they have reached the technological point where they could actually build a nuclear bomb.

DURING World War II, the US developed two types of nuclear weapons, one fueled with uranium - Little Boy - and a second powered by plutonium - Fat Man. The physics of Little Boy, which was dropped on Hiroshima, was so well understood by 1945 that no explosive tests of the device were necessary to be confident it would work. Fat Man's design, however, which used plutonium, was much more complex than Little Boy's and had to be tested to ensure it would work.

Even if one assumes that North Korea has enough plutonium for one or two weapons and that it has progressed far enough to construct such a weapon, it would be very difficult for North Korea's leadership to have confidence that such a device would work without testing it first. …