News Backgrounder: North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

The sudden death of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-Il, from a heart attack has naturally raised questions about the transition in the isolated nuclear-armed state as power is handed to his youngest son Kim Jong-Un believed to be in his late twenties.

For arms controllers, the difficulty lies in sifting fact from fiction in North Korea, given the rare opportunities to gather first-hand information about its nuclear weapons capabilities. But despite two nuclear tests – and recent rumors that a third might be on the way – there has been no confirmation that the North Koreans have been able to construct a bomb with a workable delivery system.

North Korea first disclosed in October 2002 to a visiting U.S. official (Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James A. Kelly) that it had developed nuclear weapons in a clandestine program, after being confronted with hard evidence that it had broken the terms of a 1994 framework agreement with the United States. Three months later, the hermit state broke out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and expelled U.N. weapons inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA estimated that North Korea held enough plutonium for up to six bombs.

Since then, outside experts have confirmed that not only has Pyongyang reopened its mothballed Yongbyon nuclear complex – providing a plutonium route to the bomb – but also was engaged in a second pathway via uranium enrichment.

In November 2010 Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, a nuclear scientist at Stanford University, was shown what he called an “astonishingly modern” uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, with 2,000 spinning centrifuges. His report was the first confirmation of the North Korean enrichment program which had long been suspected by the U.S. although denied until then by Pyongyang. Hecker also saw a light water reactor under construction.

However he said that the plutonium program had remained frozen since 2007, “and has perhaps even taken another step backward”. He concluded: “It is possible that Pyonyang’s latest moves are directed primarily at eventually generating much-needed electricity. Yet, the military potential of uranium enrichment technology is serious.”

Hecker’s visit raised questions about how the North Koreans had progressed so far on what they insisted was an indigenous program, and there have been suggestions that they had received assistance from the Pakistan network of disgraced scientist A.Q. Khan, but also – worryingly – from China.

As of now, North Korea is estimated to hold enough fissile material to make up to 12 bombs.

But there is another troubling aspect of North Korean regime’s nuclear program – its willingness to proliferate, thereby presumably finding a source of much-needed financial support. The IAEA has found that a Syrian reactor destroyed by Israel in September 2007 was designed and constructed with help from North Korea. There have also been unconfirmed reports of possible nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran, and earlier between North Korea and Libya.

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