Welcome to another brand new edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that seeks to explain the major issues for peaceful purposes only.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss North Korea’s (isn’t it the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea now?) pursuit of nuclear power and its effects on its people and on international relations. Gotta keep track of the axis of evil!
The United States has, in recent weeks, again demanded that the North Korean government suspend all nuclear enrichment and agree to join “Six Nation” talks, aimed at stopping any development of nuclear weapons. North Korea insists that their progress is strictly for peaceful purposes, ie. nuclear energy, and refuses to stop its production.
Progress on a new nuclear reactor north of Pyongyang that is capable of producing enriched uranium has developed much faster than international experts had predicted. When Pyongyang revealed its development back in 2010, the American witness to the program Siegfred Hecker (former Los Alamos Lab Director) was “stunned” by the modern and highly sophisticated lab hidden inside an old fuel production building. This uranium
enrichment facility is now complemented by an experimental light-water (that’s regular H2O, while heavy water has deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen) reactor that the N. Korean government insists is purely for electricity generation using lightly enriched uranium (Uranium oxide that is not super concentrated). The uranium enrichment facility is capable though, of generating heavily enriched Uranium 235, the isotope of Uranium needed for a nuclear reaction in an atomic weapon. The rows and rows of centrifuges (used in a gaseous diffusion process to enrich Uranium) seen by Mr. Hecker on his visit confirmed this possibility and confirmed the reports from U.S. intelligence. In 2009, the last American and international nuclear inspectors were thrown out of N. Korea and at that time the new facility had not yet been completed. In secret, the North has quickly built this new facility and now is announcing great progress in their project to “enrich uranium for fuel.”
With the new facility going public last year, it has put a kink in the Obama administration’s plan for reducing global nuclear arms and has had the U.S. seeking out international nuclear watchdogs, South Korea, Russia, India, Japan, and most notably China, to put pressure on Kim Jong Il. To bring the issue of countries obtaining new nuclear weapons to the light again, the President chaired a UN Security Council Meeting this past week aimed at committing all countries involved to adopt a resolution on stopping any creation of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear power conjures an interesting question: Why would any country want a nuclear weapon anyways? Wouldn’t they want peace and not a nuclear war?
- First off, having a nuclear weapon is the ultimate card to hold in the gambling game of international relations (see Crisis, Cuban Missile). Just the possibility of a nuclear weapon being used is enough of a deterrent to keep others from interfering in your own country’s affairs.
- This also means that North Korea probably just wants the kind of “respect” and political power that comes with obtaining this weapon, much like Truman, and later Stalin discovered.
- Using the (possibly true) veil of only pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear power, ie. nuclear power for electricity, a country can hold and use reactors that may be able to create a weapon (even if they don’t let weapons inspectors in. See Iraq, Iran).
How did North Korea get to a stage where they might possibly hold a political royal flush with a nuclear weapon? Let’s examine the history of the North Korean nuclear program as well as its resonance to the Soviet nuclear program.
Korea became divided into two protectorate zones after Japan was defeated at the end of WW2 in 1945, with the Soviet Union controlling the North and the U.S. the South, divided at the 38th parallel latitude. A provisional communist government led by Kim Il Sung was then installed with Soviet help. With support from Mao after the Chinese Civil War saw communism rise in Red China, and support from Stalin after the Soviets had successfully created an atomic weapon, North Korea decided to invade the South in June of 1950 to force “reunification” under a communist regime. The Korean War was one of the first showcases of the two superpowers facing against each other without actually fighting each other, but this conflict escalated to a point an atomic bomb was considered for use on N. Korea by Truman (thankfully not dropped). After the 1953 armistice, Kim Il Sung saw the importance and power that came from obtaining nuclear technology and worked closely with the regime friendly Soviets (who already had the bomb). The new country of North Korea made it a priority to conceive nuclear power under their control and therefore wanted to have its own fleet of scientists and physicists capable of running their own nuclear program.
In 1955, the North established its Atomic Energy Research Institute and with help from the Soviets, trained personnel, established a nuclear research center, and built a nuclear light water reactor that first began operation in 1969 (now the site of the new reactor). In the 1970’s the North continued research and pursuit of nuclear power. Though the light-water reactor was initially built with help from the Soviets, the North pursued other models such as the graphite moderated reactor, instead of light or heavy water; they were clearly determined to become nuclear capable on their own. By the 1980s, the North had constructed their own reactor and fuel fabrication plant with no apparent outside help. North Korea with their pursuit of nuclear power as well as their antagonism with the U.S. and South Korea was becoming more isolated and secretive, even with the presence of weapons inspectors. This has only continued since the installation of Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il in the early 1990s who has been as erratic and distrustful a leader as there could be.
This secret activity has made it difficult for the international community, as well as American intelligence to determine whether N. Korea has been actively pursuing highly enriched Uranium to use with an operating reactor to create a nuclear weapon. In the 1990s, evidence from transfers of a certain type of centrifuge used in purifying/enriching uranium arriving from the A.Q. Khan Network (the Pakistani nuclear research facility who developed the gas centrifuge enrichment program headed by A.Q. Khan) surfaced. Pakistan’s former President General Pervez Musharraf acknowledged the transfer of information and equipment in his memoirs. Despite this and other evidence, it is difficult to say whether there is enough equipment material that has been brought into the N. Korean atomic program to constitute a definitive program of uranium enrichment.
Prior to 2009’s ousting of IAEA officials from North Korea, work on enrichment was done in secret facilities. Once isolated from international inspections, Pyonyang issued the public announcement that they were pursuing their own enrichment program for energy. Which brings us back to the beginning of the article and the showcase of a sophisticated facility that could possibly produce enriched uranium for more than energy.
We can take away these points from the development of N. Korea and its nuclear program:
- Since the installation of a communist regime, the invasion of S. Korea, non-compliance and later ousting of Atomic Agency watchdogs, N. Korea has placed itself as an isolated antagonist to the US, S. Korea, and the UN.
- N. Korea pursued a method of creating their own nuclear industry and scientists so they could develop nuclear energy independently.
- N. Korea has gained significant strides in creating a modern facility for enriching uranium and a reactor to produce energy/weapons, much faster than anyone predicted.
The Soviet Union’s atomic program had a late start because Stalin did not see the military and political impact the bomb brought. Until Hiroshima in August 1945, only a relatively small build up of the atomic program, mostly an investigation, was in place in the USSR. After the Americans stunned the world with the 20 kilo-ton U-235 explosion over Japan, Stalin realized that the Soviets needed to have this weapon, and ASAP. He invested huge resources in the project (even though the Soviet economy and infrastructure was destroyed from the war) essentially giving the physicists anything they needed (along with a very comfortable living situation). With Lavrentia Beria administrating the project, the scientists got what they needed, but with a huge weight on their shoulders that they succeed (or you know what). The program was highly secretive and the CIA only had a small amount of intelligence as to the progress of the bomb. After only 4 years of heavy investment in the project, the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic weapon, a plutonium bomb, over Northern Kazakhstan in September of 1949. The CIA had given their best estimate for a Soviet bomb to be finished by 1953. This development balanced the world scale of power and sped up the arms race as the elephant in the room during the Cold War.
the Soviets were able to do this because:
- A great build up of highly intelligent and homegrown physicists had been working on nuclear energy and had been ready to jump into the project since nuclear fission was first attained in 1938.
- A huge wealth of intelligence gained from spies, most notably from Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the Manhattan Project and helped speed up the project by providing the Soviets detailed designs and estimates.
- The almost overnight creation of an atomic industry with the search and mining of Uranium, the creation of a reactor facility, enrichment facilities, and fuel fabrication centers.
- Stalin allocated much of available resources to the project; at the expense of millions of Gulag laborers, social projects that could have helped the Russian people recover from the war, and a huge cost to the natural environment.
We can see the parallels here between the N. Korean project and the Soviet program with its secrecy, speed of development, isolation, and impact on international relations.
We can also see the parallels on the impact on the people of both countries.
North Korea is a country of extreme contrast socio-economically. The majority of its citizens suffer from poverty, hunger, and poor social programs while Kim Jong Il plays the role of a jewel laden emperor with several mansions, luxuries, and a secret police force of 100,000. The tale of the tape is the spending on military projects, most particularly the nuclear project. Kim is content to allow his people to suffer (and deny it) while attempting to build up a military to be reckoned with that is backed by a nuclear weapon and retain power. This is evident in the famine of 1996-8 when 3 million people (out of a population of 22 million ppl) died, reminiscent of the Ukrainian famine that led to massive deaths in the late 1930s in the Soviet Union. Foreign aid has been diverted to fund military projects and to downplay the suffering in his country, Kim either doesn’t allow data published publicly or the data published is inaccurate. UN data is non-existent on the poverty levels in N. Korea.
So, the nuclear program of N. Korea, like the Soviet program is largely built at the expense of the many. So much so that writer Jasper Becker likens North Korea to a “Gulag with nukes.” Kim Jong Il has disregarded the human cost so long as his drive for nuclear power is sustained and achieved.
Let’s wrap up this long and stirring topic with some conclusions to take with us:
- North Korea looks increasingly more likely to gain a reactor capable of producing a nuclear weapon.
- North Korea could want a nuclear weapon for many different reasons, but most likely to use as a political gambling tool.
- North Korea’s nuclear program reflects some patterns from the early Soviet nuclear program in its secrecy, isolation from the international community, and overall impact.
- A military and nuclear priority for Kim Jong Il has impoverished his people, violated human rights, and has clear cut a similar policy for his son who will take over in due course.
The events conspiring on this topic will shape our world’s atomic energy and weapons policy. N. Korea will receive lots of attention for their program as it develops in secret and will most likely continue to stress publicly that its enrichment program is for energy and peaceful purposes. The major question that will be vital to watch is whether conflicts and small skirmishes between North and South Korea that have occurred the past 2 years will escalate and whether nuclear weapons are being developed for an eventual conflict. A chilling nightmare to think of, but a possibility none the less considering the North’s previous aggression to reunify the Korean peninsula.
Well, that’s it for this week, thanks again for tuning in (hope you didn’t tune out halfway through)
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Authors note: this is of course, another subject which I try and tackle that has a huge background and topics for debate that I don’t address. Remember people, I’m not writing a book (yet). This was simply analyzing the state of a fascinating program that continues to baffle the best intelligence in the U.S. The parallels to the Soviet Union’s project are not direct, but follow similar patterns.
My own personal touch on the cliche “history repeats itself” is this: events follow similar patterns as those in the past but diverge in their unique time, place, culture, people, and surroundings. (Trademark it!)
David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: the Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956