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NUCLEAR SECURITY IN 2015: THE CASE OF NORTH KOREA Joel S. Wit, Columbia University Looking seven years into the future of any country is a difficult exercise but it is particularly difficult when talking about the Democratic Peopleâs Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its nuclear weapons program. There is a high level of uncertainty, largely because it is unclear whether the Six Party Talks in Beijing will achieve their objective of denuclearizing North Korea. Moreover, Pyongyangâs political stability also is unclear. THE SCOPE OF THE CHALLENGE What is the scope of the potential challenge? What do we know about North Koreaâs nuclear weapons program? The short answer is that there is more we do not know than we do know, but the general outlines of its effort are fairly clear. U.S. intelligence estimates are that North Korea may have produced anywhere from 35- 60 kg of plutonium, enough for a maximum of 15 weapons.334 Pyongyangâs first nuclear test in late 2006, may not have been entirely a success but nevertheless, most experts believe that the North can and has produced nuclear weapons. Whether those weapons can be mounted on the Northâs existing inventory of ballistic missiles, particularly its medium-range Nodong missiles, also remains unclear. The center of the nuclear program is the Yongbyon installation, which has a number of facilities including an operating reactor and reprocessing plant. There may also be other locations related to nuclear weapons development, assembly, storage and even deployment. In my meetings with North Korean nuclear scientists, they state that they do not know where the nuclear material goes once it leaves their installation. There are likely other facilities that continue the weapons production process to completion. Various intelligence agencies estimate that there are about 5,000 nuclear personnel at the Yongbyon facility. As for the total number of scientists, engineers and technicians working on the North Korean program, a best guess is 20,000, of whom about 5,000 participants are central to the weapons program. 334 Peter Crall, âNK Delivers Plutonium Documentation,â Arms Control Today, June 2008, available at www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_06/NKPlutonium.asp; accessed July 31, 2008. 237
If left unconstrained, by 2015 the size of North Koreaâs nuclear arsenal would grow, albeit slowly. How much is unclear. Key uncertainties would be the age of North Koreaâs sole reactor and the availability of fresh fuel. Most experts believe the North does not have any additional fuel loads beyond the rods that are currently in the reactor, although it could modify other rods produced for a different model. If that is true, it would certainly severely limit Pyongyangâs ability to produce additional plutonium. North Koreaâs suspected uranium enrichment program seems to be much less advanced than the George W. Bush Administration claimed in 2002, when it discovered that effort. It is highly unlikely that the North can produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons. Indeed, its program may not have advanced beyond the research and development phase. As a result, North Korea would probably be unable to produce HEU for additional weapons over the next seven years. There is no information about the security measures surrounding Pyongyangâs stockpile or its nuclear technology but presumably they are extremely tight. Knowledge of its true capabilities is certainly compartmented, confined to a very small number of the top leadership, Kim Jong Il, the military, and the head of the defense-industrial organization responsible for the program. FACTORS SHAPING NUCLEAR SECURITY What about the future? Projecting to 2015 is particularly difficult in the case of North Korea because of uncertainties about the future of the negotiations in Beijing designed to achieve its denuclearization. Those talks have made some progress over the past six months by shutting down Pyongyangâs operating reactor, beginning a process of disabling its known plutonium production facilities and, hopefully, producing declarations by the North Koreans containing information about their nuclear program. (Eventually, we should be able to paint a more complete picture of its program as a result of these declarations.) However, the bulk of difficult work remains to be done. Key issues remaining include: convincing North Korea to disclose whether it has an HEU program, to dismantle its nuclear weapons, ship its spent fuel and weapons-grade plutonium out of the country, and put in place extensive verification measures. Moreover, if there is a price to be paid, it will be high and may include the provision of light-water reactors (LWRs) to Pyongyang. That issue is still a difficult one for the United States to address since LWRs were a centerpiece of the unsuccessful 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework. Even if all of this was agreed tomorrow, the process of denuclearization would continue for yearsâcertainly until 2015 if not beyondâand may cost billions of dollars. A second factor complicating attempts to project to 2015, is that there have been and will continue to be uncertainties about the future of the North Korean political system. Just how brittle that system is has been the subject of periodic debate ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, predictions of Pyongyangâs demise so far have been, in the words of Mark Twain, âgreatly exaggerated.â Nevertheless, the sudden end of the North Korean political system can not be ruled out. Its demise might be triggered by events such as the death of Kim Jong Il before a firm process of 238
leadership transition is in place, humanitarian disasters, social instability caused by economic reform, or economic collapse. Demise may never happen but if it does over the next seven years before North Korea is denuclearized, it may be sudden, unexpected and have real implications for nuclear security. In the context of a messy collapse, which might entail an internal power struggle that could degenerate into fighting and even civil war, a key question will be the fate of North Koreaâs nuclear material and small nuclear arsenal, not to mention its other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials and stockpiles. Another important issue might be the fate of North Korean nuclear weapons scientists who could flee the country, including to states that Pyongyang has maintained close ties with over the years, such as Iran and Syria, that also present proliferation concerns. All of this speculation lends itself to a matrix, which combines different outcomes for the denuclearization process and the political evolution of North Korea. The worst case scenario would be that the negotiations in Beijing fail, the Northâs arsenal gradually expands, and central control in Pyongyang collapses in chaos. The best case scenario is that denuclearization proceeds and central control continues. THE WORST CASE SCENARIO Considering the worst case scenario first, what are the prospects for international cooperation, and specifically U.S.-Russian cooperation, in dealing with the nuclear consequences of North Koreaâs demise? In the worst case scenario, locating, safeguarding and disposing of materials and stockpiles of weapons would be the highest priority for the United States, which presumably would be working closely with South Korea, and any of its forces that might intervene in the North. This task would not only include nuclear weapons but also chemical and any biological weapon stockpiles. Successfully completing such a task would be enormously difficult, not only because of the possibly chaotic situation on the ground, but also because Pyongyangâs WMD may be dispersed at both suspected and unknown sites, many of which could be underground. Securing materials, facilities and related personnel could require as many as 10,000 troops (assuming some estimates of 100 known sites are correct), many hundreds more to search for unknown facilities, and perhaps thousands more to secure them once they are located. Planners will also need to consider the long-term disposition of the weapons, materials, and personnel, including a transition plan for people and international monitoring of the destruction of weapons and materials. While the United States and South Korea have given a great deal of thought to how to deal with this possible scenario, it is likely that other countries would also be greatly concerned. For example, in recent conversations with American experts, the Chinese military has stated that it has contingency plans for dealing with the demise of North Korea and, specifically with its inventory of WMD if central control collapses. The Chinese are concerned that such materials might find their way into their country and into the wrong hands. Presumably, Russia would also be concerned about the disposition of North Korean WMD stockpiles, materials, and personnel in the event of demise not only because of its political, security, and economic interests in the Korean peninsula, but also because of the 239
proximity of the Russian Far East to North Korea (including a common border). Of particular interest might be preventing any WMD materials or personnel from slipping across the border in the chaos that might follow collapse. All of these considerations argue for joint contingency planning in dealing with North Koreaâs WMD in the event of Pyongyangâs demise, since leakage would have an adverse impact on the security of bordering countries as well as the international community. Such planning might include information sharing on current contingency planning as well as discussions of a possible division of labor in case of collapse. While official cooperation seems unlikely, since any leaks would provoke a harsh North Korean reaction given the ever-present reality of demise, private consultations might be conducted through unofficial channels, intelligence services or even in academic meetings. A BETTER CASE SCENARIO A better case scenario is that the denuclearization process proceeds, and the North Korean central government continues to function. In that context, given North Koreaâs limited financial and technical capabilities and the abundant resources of the other Six Party Talks participants, international cooperation in achieving a nuclear-free North is inevitable. Moreover, the international community can bring to bear its extensive experience cooperating in many of the areas necessary for denuclearization: dismantling nuclear weapons, shipping spent fuel and weapons-grade plutonium, dismantling nuclear facilities, conducting environmental remediation, redirecting nuclear scientists, and verification. A number of experts have argued that conducting such cooperative activities with North Korea will be impossible since, among other reasons, it has not made a final definitive decision to give up its nuclear weapons. No doubt working cooperatively inside the North will be difficult for this and other reasons, but if historical experience is any guide, on-the-ground cooperation is possible. This conclusion is based on the experience of governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations operating inside North Korea in the 1990s, including the U.S.-North Korean joint spent fuel storage project, the KEDO reactor effort, and assistance programs run by non-governmental organizations. Such cooperation has already been evident in the disabling of North Koreaâs main nuclear installations at Yongbyon, which is being conducted by American experts working closely with North Korean technicians at the site. Moreover, a key task of disablement will be unloading spent fuel from the Northâs nuclear reactor and storing it until the rods can be shipped out of the country. Following the conclusion of the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, experts from both countries worked together on a similar project. All of the necessary denuclearization activities will require extensive international cooperation as well as financing if the task of making sure the peninsula is free of nuclear weapons is to be successfully completed. Each of the potential participants has both strengths and weaknesses. South Korea, for example, has the political will, the financial resources and the technical skills but its experience in working cooperatively in the nuclear field is limited. China has the technical skills but its financial resources are likely to be limited. Russia would seem to have the most to offer in conducting cooperative programs in North Korea. Moscow has a political interest in successfully achieving denuclearization, has 240
maintained close ties with the North Korean nuclear and scientific community, has the technical resources and know-how required for denuclearization, and has extensive experience in working with the United States and the international community on threat reduction efforts in its own territory and in other countries. Implementing a cooperative process of denuclearization will serve as something of an insurance program over the next seven years and beyond if North Koreaâs demise does take place. First, the participants will gain a much greater understanding of North Koreaâs nuclear weapons programâits materials, weapons, installations, and personnelâas that process advances, and that knowledge will serve all of the participants well in case of collapse. Second, in the context of cooperation, inter-organizational and personal ties hopefully will be established inside North Korea. Those ties could make the job of securing materials and weapons in the event of Pyongyangâs demise much easier. Finally, as a process of cooperative denuclearization takes place, the nuclear dangers posed by the central governmentâs demise, particularly leakage, will diminish. U.S.-RUSSIAN COOPERATION Looking at the range of tasks required by denuclearizationâremoval of North Korea spent fuel and plutonium, dismantlement of nuclear weapons, environmental remediation, redirection of North Korean nuclear weapons scientists, and establishment of an effective verification regimeâit is clear that Moscow and Washington could cooperate on a number of denuclearization tasks. For example, the redirection of North Korean nuclear weapons scientists will become an important priority as denuclearization proceeds. As was mentioned earlier, a redirection program may deal with up to 20,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians, many of whom are the most highly-trained individuals in North Korea. Pyongyang will want to put these individuals to work in contributing to economic development. For the other five parties, a successful scientist redirection program will help provide assurance that they will not have to address the problem of a nuclear North Korea again. Moreover, such a program will serve as another tool of verifying that resources are being devoted to peaceful purposes. The United States and Russia obviously have the most extensive experience in redirection of WMD scientists among participants in the Six Party Talks and can lead a concerted program in North Korea. Such a program might also serve as the foundation for future efforts to deal with the thousands of scientists from Pyongyangâs chemical and biological weapons programs. South Korea will also likely play an important role given its political interests, technical know-how, and financial resources. Moreover, there may be a role for private South Korean companies in helping to commercialize any redirection effort. Another potential participant currently not part of the Six Party Talks may be the European Union, which has past threat reduction experience as well as an interest in peace on the Korean peninsula. A redirection program led by Washington and Moscow could consist of a number of initiatives including: â¢ an international science center, based in Pyongyang that would provide North Korean weapons experts with the opportunity to 241
o contribute to the solution of national and international science and technology problems o reinforce Pyongyangâs economic modernization program o support basic and applied research o promote integration of North Korean scientists into the global scientific community â¢ multilateral cooperation designed to reinvigorate North Koreaâs peaceful nuclear activities, focusing on the production of radioactive isotopes for medical, industrial, and agricultural uses. An important component of such a program would be the conversion of North Koreaâs standard Russian designed IRT research reactor from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU). The North Korean reactor, which began operation in 1965, currently operates intermittently and probably uses 36 percent enriched fuel. There are approximately 40 kg of 80 percent enriched spent fuel on site. According to technical experts, there is no barrier to using the same conversion process and LEU fuel developed for the Libyan reactor, which was converted in 2006, in the North Korean IRT. The Libyan reactor conversion was carried out under the auspices of the U.S.-Russian Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors Program and included the repatriation of 17 kg of HEU and the provision of new LEU fuel by Russia.335 â¢ reestablishing international ties with North Korean nuclear institutes, such as the Institute for Atomic Energy, which has a number of units and 600 scientists and technicians focusing on cyclotron operations, radio isotopic production, radiation detection, nuclear fusion research, and nuclear electronic engineering.336 Russia, working closely with the United States and other participants in the Six Party Talks, might make other significant contributions to the denuclearization process. Such activities might include participating in: 1) the dismantlement of North Koreaâs nuclear weapons and the destruction of non- nuclear components 2) the removal of spent fuel and plutonium from North Korea to Russia, possibly as the destination for such shipments 3) the decommissioning of North Koreaâs graphiteâmoderated plutonium production reactor, an area where Russia has extensive experience planning such activities 4) environmental remediation, particularly in planning for dealing with seriously contaminated sites like the Yongbyon nuclear facility where U.S experience is more limited U.S.-Russian cooperation may also extend beyond the conduct of threat reduction programs to the provision of important incentives to North Korea in order to secure its agreement 335 Nuclear Threat Initiative, âPast and Current Efforts to Reduce Civilian HEU Use,â available at www.nti.org/db/heu/pastpresent.html; accessed July 31, 2008. 336 I visited the IAE in January 2007, and met with the Deputy Director, who is very anxious to resume contacts with the international scientific community. 242
to denuclearize. One issue which has yet to be seriously addressed is Pyongyangâs persistent demand for LWRs. Whether that demand will continue is the subject of much speculation. Certainly, from a technical viewpoint, North Koreaâs energy needs would be much better served by conventional energy sources such as coal-fired plants. Nevertheless, it is worth understanding that the North Koreanâs have had a consistent and continuing interest in LWRs since the 1980âs. Chances are that this interest will continue into the future. Whether Russia would play a role in any new project is unclear. Certainly Moscow has wanted to participate in a reactor project for some time now. A persistent barrier to such a role has been the lack of financing available to pay for a Russian-led project and the opposition of South Korea and Japan. Any new project would have to overcome these political and financial hurdles. CONCLUSION While significant uncertainties about the nuclear future of North Korea remain, U.S.- Russian cooperation could play an important role in dealing with potential problems. Much will depend on the overall state of political relations between the two countries. But both countries share a common interest in ensuring that any future demise of North Korea does not result in the leakage of WMD stockpiles, materials or scientists. Moreover, if denuclearization proceeds as a result of the Beijing Six Party Talks, close bilateral cooperation on key issues where each could bring to bear extensive technical and historical experience would seem to serve the interests of both Washington and Moscow as well as the other parties to those discussions. 243