North Korea: A Threat to Regional Stability? Bryan Dorn Reviews North Korea's Nuclear Weapon and Ballistic Missile Programmes

By Dorn, Bryan | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

North Korea: A Threat to Regional Stability? Bryan Dorn Reviews North Korea's Nuclear Weapon and Ballistic Missile Programmes


Dorn, Bryan, New Zealand International Review


North Korea's nuclear programmes was the focus of large international attention during 1994 when North Korea and the United States appeared on the brink of war. The 1994 Agreed Framework avoided a military clash and sought to halt North Korea's plutonium programme in exchange for the construction of light-water reactors and energy assistance. In negotiations with US officials during October 2002, however, North Korea reportedly revealed the existence of a prohibited uranium enrichment programme. The failure of US intelligence adequately to determine Iraq's weapons of mass destruction status has raised questions about the existence and status of Pyongyang's highly enriched uranium (HEU) programme. This article will indicate the difficulty in accurately assessing North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Intelligence reports have provided mixed assessments of North Korea's nuclear weapon programme. In December 2001 the US National Intelligence Council reported that North Korea had obtained the fissile material from the spent-fuel rods removed from the 5-megawatt experimental reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. During November 2002, an unclassified CIA paper stated that the 'North has one or possibly two weapons using plutonium it produced prior to 1992'. (1) In December 2002 North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from its plutonium facilities. On 10 January 2003 Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and 'restarted its 20-megawatt reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon'. (2) By June 2003 the North Koreans had apparently extracted the plutonium from 8000 spent fuel rods, which could provide enough fissile material for 6-8 nuclear weapons. (3)

The Bush administration's suspicion of North Korea was reinforced by Pyongyang's 10 February 2005 announcement that it had 'produced nuclear weapons'. However, ambiguity continues to surround North Korea's nuclear weapon capability. On 16 February 2004 Porter Goss, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that North Korea had 'increased' its capability to produce nuclear weapons. Goss provided no assessment of North Korea's actual nuclear weapon inventory, if one indeed exists. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Thomas Fingar stated that there was 'no evidence' that North Korea had developed a nuclear weapon or 'mated them to a missile capable of delivering them to the United States'. (4) Although Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby reported on 28 April 2005 that North Korea could now miniaturise its nuclear warheads for a ballistic missile, there is no conclusive evidence that it possesses this capability.

Uncertain validity

The validity of North Korea's February 2005 statement is difficult to verify. However, subsequent events did project an even more alarming picture of Pyongyang's nuclear status. During April 2005 North Korea reportedly shut down its 25-megawatt plutonium reactor. This could provide Pyongyang with an additional 12-19 kilograms, sufficient for four additional nuclear weapons. (5) While these assessments comprise the basis of US suspicion, discrepancies regarding the extent to which North Korea has been able to undertake reprocessing of the plutonium undermine US intelligence analysis.

During January 2004 Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 'that the fuel rods were no longer in storage when he visited North Korea earlier that year, but he could not verify North Korea's reprocessing claim'. (6) North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, stated that Pyongyang planned to extract the plutonium to increase North Korea's 'nuclear deterrent'. (7)

The shutdown of the reactor does not necessarily indicate Pyongyang's intention to extract the material for nuclear weapons. …

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