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Confusions over North Korea’s status as a Nuclear Power By Dr. Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0071/ 2015

When North Korea “successfully” conducted a third underground nuclear test on February 12, 2013 in defiance of previous United Nations Security Council resolutions that followed similar nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, the issue of North Korea’s nuclear capability emerged a fresh of discussion and debate amongst nuclear and security experts. On the one hand, this put a setback to all efforts to denuclearize the North and on the other this development created an uneasy situation in its immediate neighbourhood.

North Korean state media hailed the nuclear test as a success, saying it “did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment.” Pyongyang claimed it successfully detonated a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force” than previous tests. This led analysts to say that North Korea may have set off a plutonium-fuelled bomb, suitable to be placed atop a missile. There is no conclusive evidence to this view, however.

There had been speculation in the past few years that North Korea has been enriching uranium for use in its nuclear weapons. North Korea is believed to have only enough plutonium for a small number of weapons. But a supply of domestically enriched uranium would allow it to have a larger nuclear arsenal. In this connection, the North Korea-Pakistan nexus and the trading of enriched uranium in return for ballistic missile technology gains credence. If indeed uranium was used in the nuclear explosion, Pakistan’s imprint was more than visible. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was a key player in furthering clandestine nuclear linkages between Islamabad and Pyongyang by personally carrying key information about uranium enrichment to and from North Korea. In return, North Korea offered to provide Pakistan long-range missiles to offset its imbalance with India’s integrated guided missile development program then led by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Since then, Pyongyang has accumulated substantial missile capability.

According to Shyam Bhatia, by the year 1993, Pakistan was under the spotlight as never before on bartering enrichment technology for missiles, with Russia, India, and Western secret services monitoring every nuance of its military research. In his controversial book Goodbye Shahzadi, Bhatia says that Benazir never repeated her conversation with him whenever tape recorders were in sight and she always insisted during on-record interviews that the North Korean missile was acquired in a cash deal and unaccompanied by a quid pro quo in the form of transfer of technology. Though the Pakistan-North Korea missile-for-nuclear weapons link is an established fact, surprisingly the Ministry of External Affairs of India reacted in a milder way than the European Union and the rest of the world. This time, however, the Indian government expressed deep concern that North Korea acted in violation of its international commitments and urged Pyongyang to “refrain from such actions which adversely impact on peace and stability in the region”.

Japan and the US soon deployed aircraft with special equipment to collect radioactive gases. An analysis of those gases was to determine what type of nuclear material was used. South Korean officials said tremors recorded by seismographs around the world suggested the device had a yield of six to seven kilotons. North Korea is believed to have only enough plutonium for a small number of weapons but if it has accumulated enriched uranium by using technology acquired from Pakistan, it could have a larger nuclear arsenal.

North Korea claimed an initial underground test in 2006, but some scientists contend that one might not have triggered a nuclear explosion. A second nuclear test North Korea claimed in 2009 had an estimated yield of two to seven kilotons. By comparison, the US nuclear bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the final days of World War II in 1945 carried a yield of about 20 kilotons.

Scientists analyzed data from the test to determine the strength of the explosion and what it might portend about the country’s ability to accumulate a nuclear arsenal. The UN agency that is charged with monitoring nuclear tests around the world said the blast was at least twice as powerful as one the North Koreans set off in 2009 and “much larger” than the country’s first test, in 2006.

The US Geological Survey said that the test was a kilometer underground, which as an indication was consistent with a nuclear blast. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency that monitors the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty also said the tremor had “clear explosion-like characteristics.” It remains difficult to determine independently if North Korea conducted the test of a uranium weapon, based on a uranium enrichment capability it has been pursuing for a decade, or like past two tests of 2006 and 2009, used plutonium reprocessed from one of the country’s now-defunct nuclear reactors. At present, North Korea has enough plutonium for a half-dozen or so bombs but the situation will change with enriched uranium if it has already mastered the technology.

According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, “it is too early to say the North has succeeded in weaponizing its nuclear technology.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in Washington was circumspect in its comment on the test. It said, “North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion” with a yield of “approximately several kilotons.” Both James Acton, a physicist and nuclear weapons expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy institute in Washington, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was an “underground nuclear weapon test.”

There were two key questions about the blast: what kind of device was used and whether North Korean scientists were able to produce sufficient amounts of highly enriched uranium from a facility that the secretive Stalinist regime revealed only in 2010. North Korea’s two previous nuclear tests involved plutonium recovered from spent nuclear-reactor fuel rods, a source of explosive material that would limit the country’s likely arsenal to perhaps a dozen weapons. But if North Korea has refined enough uranium to produce a weapon, the supply of fuel would be unlimited, as long as the country could obtain supplies of unprocessed uranium.

New findings

According to Joel Wit, a top North Korea analyst at Johns Hopkins University, scientists in Pyongyang have succeeded in miniaturising nuclear warheads to enable them to be fitted to ballistic missiles and that the regime is likely to have a stockpile of 100 atomic weapons by 2020. Wit told a seminar in Washington on 24 February 2015 that Pyongyang is believed to already have an arsenal of between 10 and 16 plutonium and uranium based nuclear weapons and that its technological prowess has advanced to the stage at which it no longer needs to carry out tell-tale nuclear tests.

North Korea has so far carried out three underground nuclear tests, the most recent in February 2013 and each of increasing power. It has also stepped up development of its medium-range Nodong ballistic missiles, which are able to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, while the Taepodong-2 missile is assumed to have a range of more than 3,700 miles. According to Wit, at a minimum, North Korea will be able to deploy 20 nuclear weapons by 2020, but a far more likely scenario puts that stockpile at 50 weapons by the end of the decade.

A “worst-case scenario”, in which North Korea makes dramatic technological advances in both its nuclear programme and delivery systems, would permit Pyongyang to have 100 atomic weapons available. Analysts believe these weapons would have a yield of as much as 50 kilotons, compared to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 which had a yield of about 20 kilotons.

The issue of nuclear bomb in the possession of North Korea is not the only matter of concern; there are fears of these spreading to other states. Even as North’s nuclear knowledge and weapons stockpile grow, there is an increased likelihood of nuclear exports to states that similarly wish to possess atomic weapons. This puts added responsibility and challenge to the US, South Korea and Japan to address to this issue so that peace and stability in the region is not threatened further by an unstable and belligerent nuclear-armed regime in North Korea.

South Korea, however, has a counter view. South Korea’s Defense Ministry dismissed reports on the current size of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile and its capability to produce miniaturised nuclear warheads as a “presumption without any evidence”. Defense ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok stated that although the communist nation has reached a significant technological level, it has not yet demonstrated miniaturisation capabilities and therefore there are no signs showing that North Korea can build nuclear-tipped missiles. Amidst claims and counterclaims, there are speculations in South Korean media that Pyongyang was going to carry out its fourth round of nuclear tests as early as in May 2015. If that really happens, tensions in the peninsula shall be further aggravated.

A former high-level International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official has, however, cast doubts on the report estimating that North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons could reach 100, potentially by 2020. “It’s not a normal forecast, even in a worst-case scenario, that (North Korea) could build 100 nuclear weapons in six years,” former IAEA deputy director general Olli Heinonen observed. Expressing scepticism about Wit’s assessment, Heinonen said the estimate of Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile should be taken as the amount of fissile material, not the number of nuclear weapons, as Wit’s report projects. He further points out that the difference between having nuclear material for a weapon and having a [nuclear] weapon needs to be kept in mind in making projection. This is because a [nuclear] weapon is a very complicated thing and it takes time to manufacture, he explains. Rejecting media speculations in South Korea for an imminent fourth nuclear test in May 2015, Heinonen said North Korea could develop a nuclear weapon without having to test it and part of the testing can be omitted by getting assistance from other countries, and some crucial information can be obtained through computer simulations. Not even the US was able to pull 100 nuclear weapons in six years in the past.

Such scholarly speculations about North Korea’s nuclear status was rubbished by a high ranking diplomat in Seoul when he said that North Korea’s hope to win recognition as a nuclear state will never be realized as Pyongyang is the most “blatant” case of nuclear proliferation. According to South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul, “the international community will never grant any status (of a nuclear-weapon state) whatsoever to the country known for the most blatant case of nuclear proliferation”. Cho made this remarks in a keynote speech for the Conference on Disarmament (CD) held in Geneva in early March 2015. Cho was representing South Korea at the high-level meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the U.N.-backed CD. In the same conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong also delivered a speech to defend the North’s stance over its dismal human rights record and possession of nuclear weapons. Ri also warned that Pyongyang has the power to deter nuclear threats by Washington with a “pre-emptive” strike if needed. These suggest that with no possible solution in sight, the world’s dilemma on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue is destined to continue for more time and one does not know how long.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is presently a New Delhi-based independent analyst on Northeast Asia’s security/strategic issues. E-mail:

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