Monday, April 15, 2013

The Curious Case of North Korea:

Tidbits from the history of the DPRK's nuclear program. 

Just let me say, really quickly now, that there's a lot that I don't know about the world. And one of those things that I never knew a lot about was North Korea. They existed as a shadowy "other," the third country of Bush II's "Axis of Evil," always lurking somewhere in the dark, presumably waiting for the opportune moment to do...something.

For a long time, that "something" was to secure access to nuclear weapons.  That milestone came and went, presumably in 2009 when the DPRK formally announced that they had developed a nuclear weapon. Now, they are widely believed to possess a relatively small stockpile of relatively small nuclear weapons. 

Now, in 2013, the DPRK has been all over the news for weeks as tensions between North Korea and just about everyone else have dramatically increased. Everyone's been asking: what's next for Kim Jong Un and the DPRK? 

 Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, on a horse. 

Then, of course, there's the interesting aside that Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen publicly  since about April 1st. Also, the fact that as of April 12th, the DPRK has explicitly singled out Japan as a target that, at the first sign of provocation "will be hard hit before any others"(referencing, probably, the interceptor missiles in Tokyo, compiled as a precaution against a North Korean declaration of war). And finally, the sobering reality that the Pentagon can't really agree on what North Korea's nuclear capabilities look like right now. 

Naturally, everyone's been asking what's next. Yesterday marked the 101sth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birthday, another missile test has been promised, the drama continues to unfold. I could write for days about what could happened, but I wanted to address the questions that I've been asking myself during this whole affair. Because some of my history is a bit rusty I've been asking not what comes next, but how did we get to this point? 

So I found out and compiled a short list of important items fundamental to North Korea's nuclear history.  And it began precisely where I expected it to begin: in the process and the aftermath of the Korean War.  Since that war (that lasted approximately three years and claimed some 2 million lives), North Korea has occasionally asserted its need for a nuclear deterrent--in light of US threats to use nuclear weapons against it during that conflict.

From this initial incident, the North Korean nuclear program developed in phases, which I have outlined:

Phase 1: Origins, 1950s - 1960s 
DPRK nuclear programs began with Soviet support and assistance. In the early '50s, North Korea began developing the capability to train personnel for a nuclear program. In December 1952, the Atomic Energy Research Institute was established. Pyongyang signed an agreement with the Soviet Union in 1959 on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This agreement contained a provision that obligated Soviet assistance in establishing a nuclear research complex in Yongbyon. North Korea had been working with the Soviets prior to '59--in '56 they signed the founding charter of the USSR's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and sent scientists and technicians to the Soviet Union for training. 

Yongbyon became the centerpiece of North Korea's nuclear program. Construction began in the early 1960s, with Soviet assistance. This included the installation of a Soviet IRT-2000 nuclear (pool-type) research reactor. This small reactor was used to train personnel and to produce radioisotopes. Construction of the IRT-2000 began in 1963 and it became operational two years later. 

It is important to note that while the DPRK's nuclear program was enhanced by early assistance from the USSR (and even China, to some small extent), it developed by and large without "significant foreign assistance." Particularly in the case of China. Reportedly, after China's first test in October '64, Kim Il Sung requested Beijing to share its nuclear weapons technology. Mao Zedong refused this request. 

Phase 2:  Further Development and the Plutonium Program, 1970s - 1993
By the early '70s, North Korea began to acquire plutonium reprocessing technology from the Soviets.  In July of 1977, North Korea (along with the IAEA and the USSR) signed a trilateral safeguards agreement. This agreement brought the IRT-2000 reactor and critical assembly in Yongbyon under the purview of IAEA safeguards. 

Significant development took place in the early '80s. The DPRK constructed a 5MW(e) nuclear reactor, a fuel rod fabrication complex, and uranium mining facility. By the mid 1980s, North Korea had begun construction on a 50MW(e) reactor in Yongbyon, expanding uranium processing facilities, and began experimenting with high explosives tests that are required for assembling the triggering mechanism for a nuclear bomb. 

Simultaneously, Pyongyang explored the acquisition of light water reactor (LWR) technology.  In December 1985, Pyongyang sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state in exchange for Soviet assistance constructing four LWRs. 

pictured: pumpless light water reactor
courtesy: wikipedia

On 18 December 1991, President Roh Tae Woo announced South Korea free of nuclear weapons, following the announcement made by President George H. W. Bush to withdraw US nuclear weapons from South Korea in September of that year. Both North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The following year, the DPRK signed an IAEA safeguards agreement. This agreement kickstarted six rounds of IAEA inspections of North Korean sites that began in May '92 and concluded in February of '93.  Here, things began to get tetchy. IAEA analysis indicated that Korean technicians had likely reprocessed plutonium on three occasions -in '89, '90, and '91--figures that did not match what Pyongyang had officially declared. When the IAEA requested access to two suspect nuclear waste sites, Pyongyang blocked them--declaring them off-limits military sites. 

Satellite imagery of Yongbyon site in early '90s. 

In 1993 the IAEA asked the UN Security Council to authorize special ad hoc inspections of North Korean sites. Pyongyang did not take kindly to this development and announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT on 12 March 1993.

Phase 3: The Agreed Framework, 1994.
North Korea continued to operate its 5MW(e) reactor as talks with the US over the DPRK's return to the NPT dragged on. The crisis worsened on 14 May 1994, when North Korean technicians began removing that reactor's spent fuel rods without IAEA supervision. The Clinton Administration announced its plans to ask the UNSC to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, to which Pyongyang replied that it would consider any form of economic sanctions and act of war. 

Top of the core of the 5MW(e) nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, showing fuel channel access points
courtesy: IAEA

The situation defused in June 1994, when Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il Sung. After their talks, Kim accepted the broad outline of a deal that was later finalized as the Agreed Framework in October '94.  In this deal, North Korea agreed to, with IAEA monitoring, freeze work at gas-graphite moderated reactors and facilities; consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and to remain a party to the NPT. In return, the United States agreed to lead an international consortium that would construct two light water power reactors and provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per year until the first light water reactor came online. This was projected to happen in 2003. In addition to this, the United States was to provide assurance to North Korea that it did not intend to use nuclear weapons against it. 

This framework proved to hold for nearly a decade.

Phase 4: End of the Agreed Framework and Subsequent Withdrawal from the NPT, 2001-2003
The Agreed framework, naturally, had its problems. It managed to freeze North Korea's plutonium program, but neither side was satisfied. This, predictably, led to the collapse of the compromise. The international community became concerned that North Korea might have an illicit HEU program, and in the summer of 2002, US intelligence indicated evidence of transfers of HEU technology/materials from Pakistan to the DPRK in exchange for ballistic missiles technology. Later, of course, it was revealed that Pakistan's A. Q. Khan sold gas-centrifuge technology to not only North Korea, but also to Libya and Iran.

Bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea resumed in October of 2002, when the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly visited Pyongyang. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James A. Kelly

During this visit, Kelly informed North Korean officials that Washington was perfectly aware of their illicit HEU program. The North Korean officials allegedly admitted to having such a program, only later to argue that it only admitted to having a plan in place to produce weapons, which they asserted was in self-defense. 

The situation deteriorated.  In December 2002, the US suspended heavy oil shipments to the DPRK, and Pyongyang retaliated by lifting the freeze on its nuclear facilities, expelling IAEA officials who had been monitoring that freeze, and promptly announcing its withdrawal from the NPT (to take effect on 10 January 2003). The Agreed Framework fell apart in dramatic fashion. At this point, however, North Korea claimed that it had no ambitions to create nuclear weapons; it planned on using the reactors to generate electricity. 

Phase 5: The Six-Party Process, 2003-2005
U.S. Intelligence efforts endeavored, and in early 2003 activities around the Radiochemistry Laboratory (reprocessing facility at Yongbyon) were detected. These activities indicated that North Korea was likely reprocessing some 8,000 spent fuel rods. In September of that year, a DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman announced that North Korea had completed reprocessing of this spent fuel. This process, as everyone was quick to put together, would give North Korea enough plutonium to assemble 4-6 nuclear devices. 

Dialogue aiming to end Pyongyang's  nuclear weapons program began in April 2003 in Beijing. These talks were initially trilateral, with representatives from the United States, China, and North Korea, but eventually expanded to include Japan, Russia, and South Korea. The first round of the Six-Party talks began in August 2003, followed by a second in February 2004, and a third in June 2004. Talks stalled for a year due to tensions between the parties (particularly between the United States and North Korea), but began again in July 2005. 

While the talks had been stalled, North Korea froze its 5MW(e) reactor and removed its spend fuel. However, before it was shut down, the spent fuel could have produced plutonium sufficient for 1-3 nuclear devices. In July 2005, satellite footage indicated that the reactor had started up again. 

The fourth round of the Six-Party talks concluded on 19 September 2005. It bore fruit; the parties signed a Statement of Principles. This agreement required North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs and return to the IAEA safeguards regime and the NPT. The United States affirmed, yet again, that it had no intention of attacking North Korea (conventionally or otherwise) and that Washington had no nuclear devices in South Korea. This agreement also reinstated the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 

While this seemed to be a promising development, further squabbles between the United States and North Korea sent potential progress off the rails.  The Six-Party Talks stalemated, and the Statement of Principles remained dormant. 

Phase 6: Testing, 2006-2009
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006 at 10:35am (local time) at Mount Mantap, Punggye-ri, Gilju-gun, North Hamgyeong Province--6 days after it had publicly promised. 

Map showing seismic activity related to North Korea's 2006 Nuclear test
courtesy: USGS

The yield was smaller than expected, less than 1 kiloton when North Korea reportedly expected somewhere around 4 kilotons. 

Following this test, UNSC Resolution 1718 was quick in the offing and imposed sanctions on North Korea.  In December 2006, after intense diplomatic measures by the Chinese government and other individuals involved in the Six-Party Process, the parties met yet again.  In February 2007, the parties agreed on the Initial Actions for the Implementation on the Joint Statement. Here, the DPRK agreed, once again, to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs and return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards regime. It also established a 60-day deadline for North Korea to shut down its main nuclear facilities. In return, they got a package of incentives that included energy assistance by the other parties. 

In July 2007, the shut down began under IAEA supervision.  The parties adopted the Second Action Plan, which required North Korea to disable main nuclear facilities and declare all of its nuclear programs by 31 December 2007. The DPRK failed to meet this deadline, but released its declaration some 6 months later on 26 June 2008. Reports claimed that the declaration failed to address both North Korea's alleged uranium enrichment program and suspicions of its nuclear cooperation with countries such as Syria.  And by late August 2008, Pyongyang announced it had restored its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and barred all international inspectors from entering the site. 

On 11 October 2008, the United States finally removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after reaching a deal in which the DPRK agreed to resume dismantling facilities and allow inspectors on the sites. Six-Party talks resumed in Beijing in December--however negotiations failed to come to agreement on verification protocol to ensure the dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program. Talks remained stalled. 

In March 2009, following a dispute over rocket launches, Pyongyang  once again dismissed IAEA and US inspectors and stared to rebuild the Yongbyon 5MW(e) reactor to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel rods--in direct violation to the promises made during the Six-Party Talks.  And on 25 May 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, sparking UNSC Resolution 1874. North Korea frankly didn't care, indicated its intention to not return to the Six-Party Talks, and assured the rest of the world that uranium enrichment processing would commence.

Phase 7: Other Recent Developments, 2009-2012
Tensions continued to rise throughout 2010 and 2011, with Pyongyang announcing the construction of a LWR at Yongbyon with 2000 P-2 centrifuges in six cascades, and culminating with the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011.  He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un.

In February 2012, Pyongyang announced a moratorium on nuclear testing, uranium enrichment, and long range missile tests in exchange for food aid. But on 12 April 2012, the United States withdrew food aid after the DPRK attempted to launch a satellite into orbit. In December 2012, North Korea successfully placed a satellite into orbit. The UN Security Council quickly followed with UNSC Resolution 2087 that demanded Pyongyang to end all nuclear missile programs.

Video stills from launch of Unha-3
Courtesy: Reuters

2013 has certainly been lively. There was a third test in February, and a fourth expected. How the coming weeks plays out, of course, remains to be seen. 

For more information on the history of North Korea's nuclear program, please visit:

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