Magazine article Insight on the News

North Korea's Nuclear Threat. (Fair Comment)

Magazine article Insight on the News

North Korea's Nuclear Threat. (Fair Comment)

Article excerpt

There is a new crisis looming for the Bush administration this summer, and it is not Iraq. But it does feature a harshly repressive regime trying to hide its weapons of mass destruction from international inspection. The crisis is brewing on the Korean peninsula and involves the end game of a deal made eight years ago by the Clinton administration. In 1994, in return for a freeze on its nuclear facilities, the United States promised to build Pyongyang "proliferation-resistant" nuclear reactors and supply North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel off annually. The North Koreans promised to open their facilities to international inspection and get out of the nuclear-weapons business altogether.

The Clinton administration managed to defuse the immediate crisis and keep North Korea off the front pages for most of its two terms. Its spokesmen gradually began to tout the deal as a major Clinton foreign-policy success; Bill Clinton himself claimed that he got the North Koreans out of the nuclear business. In truth, few of our negotiators thought there still would be a North Korea by the time the bill came due.

But North Korea still is standing and, with regard to nuclear weapons, it has not been standing still, according to the intelligence community. It appears that instead of freezing its program, it used the time to develop nuclear warheads. This startling news first was revealed in the public version of a National Intelligence Estimate on "Foreign Missile Developments" published in December 2001. It says, "The intelligence community judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons." That is not what the community said in the mid-1990s; the estimates then dealt only with plutonium production, not nuclear warheads.

Presumably, this new assessment was not made lightly. It implies that North Korea has mastered the manufacture of nuclear warheads. The use of plutonium implies an implosion-type warhead because it is unsuitable for simpler gun-assembly designs. Implosion designs require more-sophisticated testing and manufacturing skills. Intelligence-community statements also indicate that the North Koreans have engineered a warhead small enough for delivery on a North Korean missile.

More worrisome are new assessments that indicate those light-water reactors may not be so "proliferation-resistant" after all. Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has unearthed a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory assessment that concludes that one reactor alone could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 50 nuclear warheads. …

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