Policy Area: Nuclear Weapons
Dj-Vu All Over Again: How Reliable is U.S. Intelligence on North Korea's Nuclear Program?
Steve LaMontagne, Council for a Livable World, February 2004.

Two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, President Bush warned in his State of the Union address, "If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him."  In the face of this imminent threat, Iraqi officials continued to flatly deny possessing any weapons of mass destruction. 

Today, the United States is still unable to prove that Iraq was lying.  David Kay, who recently resigned as head of the Iraq Survey Group, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, 2004, "It turns out we were all wrong" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.  It increasingly appears that overconfidence in intelligence led to the invasion of Iraq.

Now, the impasse that preceded the war in Iraq may be replaying itself on the Korean peninsula.  As the United States and North Korea prepare for a new round of six party talks on the current nuclear crisis, a fundamental disagreement could result in continued stalemate:  The United States is demanding that North Korea dismantle a uranium enrichment program that North Korea claims it doesn’t have.

 

The Uranium Dispute

The nuclear crisis erupted when Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly confronted North Korean officials in October 2002 with allegations of a clandestine uranium enrichment program.  North Korea reportedly admitted to the program, and has since expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted its 5-Megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, and claims to have reprocessed plutonium for nuclear weapons. 

However, North Korea now denies that it ever admitted pursuing a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program.  According to Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who visited the Yongbyon facility last month, "Officials of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs … stated categorically that the DPRK has no program for enriching uranium. Moreover, they claim to have no equipment and no scientific expertise to do so."

China, too, has reversed its assessment.  In June 2000, Japanese media cited Chinese reports of a secret North Korean uranium enrichment plant at Mount Chonma based on information provided by a North Korean defector.[1]  However, at a meeting last month in South Korea, Fu Ying, a senior Chinese diplomat, stated that China did not believe that North Korea possessed an HEU program, and that U.S. evidence has failed to convince China that such a program exists.  Chinese embassy spokesman Sun Weide later added, "We have no knowledge of DPRK's nuclear program or its capabilities.  We do not know if DPRK has an HEU program."[2]

The United States continues to believe otherwise.  In a State Department briefing on January 22, 2004, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, responded, "I remain convinced by that conversation [at the October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang] that a uranium enrichment program was admitted."

Despite U.S. certainty, the intelligence supporting U.S. allegations is not conclusive.  In a November 2002 unclassified summary of North Korea’s nuclear program, the Central Intelligence Agency assessed that "the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational-- which could be as soon as mid-decade."  However, the existence of such a plant remains in dispute and its exact location remains a mystery.

The CIA based its conclusion on reports of North Korea attempts to acquire high-strength aluminum tubes that have legitimate non-nuclear applications but are also ideally suited to construct gas centrifuges to enrich uranium.  German intelligence officials intercepted one such shipment of aluminum tubes in April 2003.  However, the CIA did not mention the shipment in its semi-annual report to Congress on the acquisition of technology related to weapons of mass destruction covering the first half of 2003.  Although new evidence confirms that the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, may have provided centrifuge technology and design information to North Korea, the United States is only beginning to discover the true extent of North Korea’s procurement efforts.  It remains unclear whether those efforts cross the line into a dedicated HEU program.

 

Other Uncertainties

The dispute surrounding the existence of an HEU program is just one example of the enormous intelligence challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  Uncertainties also surround the fate of spent reactor fuel at Yongbyon and the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Plutonium reprocessing: On January 21, 2004, Siegfried Hecker testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korea had removed 8,000 spent fuel rods previously stored in a cooling pond at Yongbyon under IAEA supervision, and further claims to have reprocessed all of the fuel.  However, the United States does not know the location of the 8,000 spent fuel rods and can not verify whether they have been reprocessed.  Although he was shown a glass jar containing what the North Koreans said was plutonium metal, Hecker could not certify its contents.  Chinese intelligence reports, on the other hand, conclude that North Korea has reprocessed the spent fuel, which contains enough plutonium for perhaps several nuclear bombs.[3]

In July 2003, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe North Korea possesses a second facility for reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel.[4]  However, the United States is unable to substantiate the claim, and does not know the location of the suspected facility.

Nuclear weapons:  It is unclear whether North Korea has succeeded in building nuclear weapons, how many weapons it might possess, whether those weapons will work reliably without nuclear testing, and whether the North has a capacity to launch the weapons great distances.  In 1998, the CIA reported, "We assess that North Korea has produced enough plutonium for at least one, possibly two, nuclear weapons."[5] This assessment has not changed significantly in the past several years.  An August 2003 CIA report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence obtained by the Federation of American Scientists stated, "We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests." 

However, depending on the level of technological skill one ascribes to North Korean scientists and engineers, the actual size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal may be higher or lower than the CIA estimate.  Siegfried Hecker testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee that the North Koreans did not convince him that they had succeeded in building a viable nuclear device or mating it to a delivery system.  On the other hand, some South Korean and Russian reports, relying on different assumptions about the amount of plutonium North Korea needs to make a nuclear weapon, estimate the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal at 3-5 nuclear bombs.  If North Korean reprocessing claims are true, the 8,000 spent fuel rods previously stored at Yongbyon yielded enough plutonium for perhaps several nuclear weapons.  In addition, the 5-Megawatt reactor at Yongbyon can produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon per year. 

 

Implications for North Korea Policy

In a January interview with the Los Angeles Times, Vice President Dick Cheney stated, "Intelligence is almost never beyond a shadow of a doubt... it's rarely 100% complete."[6] However, in the case of Iraq’s WMD programs, the conclusions drawn from U.S. intelligence estimates did not reflect this inherent uncertainty.  The primary lesson of the Iraq war is that intelligence alone is no justification for pre-emptive military action.

The United States must not stumble into the same trap with North Korea.  Compared to Iraq, North Korea is a far more difficult intelligence target.  In the words of Nautilus Institute Director Peter Hayes, analyzing the North Korean program is like "peering into a black hole."[7]

As negotiations proceed, the United States must maintain its firm stance that North Korea completely and verifiably dismantle its nuclear program.  At the same time, the United States should recognize the inherent gaps in its intelligence.  Assessments of North Korea’s nuclear program can justify only cautious conclusions, and the void of uncertainty should not be filled with suspicions that serve as the basis for rigid ultimatums.  Such ultimatums will plague any attempt at a negotiated settlement of the current crisis, and possibly bring the United States and North Korea closer to military confrontation.  As the Iraq war demonstrates, the same uncertainties and suspicions that drive preemptive military action also undermine its legitimacy.  

-- By Steve LaMontagne, former nonproliferation analyst at the Center and now a Master’s candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"Peering into the Black Hole:"

Assessments of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

 

URANIUM ENRICHMENT

United States

North Korea

China

 

"The North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational-- which could be as soon as mid-decade."

-- Central Intelligence Agency

November 2002

 

"I remain convinced by that conversation that a uranium enrichment program was admitted."

-- Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, January 22, 2004

 

 

"Officials of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs… stated categorically that the DPRK has no program for enriching uranium. Moreover, they claim to have no equipment and no scientific expertise to do so."

-- Siegfried Hecker, Senior Fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratory

January 21, 2004

 

"We have no knowledge of DPRK's nuclear program or its capabilities.  We do not know if DPRK has an HEU program."

-- Sun Weide, Embassy Spokesman

January 2004

PLUTONIUM REPROCESSING

United States

North Korea

 

"We cannot confirm North Korea’s claims that it reprocessed nearly all of the nuclear fuel that was removed from this [Yongbyon] reactor."

-- Defense Intelligence Agency

February 11, 2003

 

"Restarting the 5MWe reactor would generate about 6kg per year.  The 50MWe reactor at Yongbyon and the 200MWe reactor at Taechon would generate about 275kg per year, although it would take several years to complete construction of these reactors."

-- Central Intelligence Agency

November 2002

 

 

"The DPRK successfully finished the reprocessing of some 8000 spent fuel rods. … We will reprocess more spent fuel rods ... in Yongbyon without delay when we deem it necessary."

-- Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

October 3, 2003

China

South Korea

 

"China believes North Korea has reprocessed enough plutonium to complete a nuclear bomb."

-- Chinese intelligence reports, Asian Wall Street Journal

July 18, 2003

 

 

"South Korea's intelligence agency said it believes North Korea recently has reprocessed "a small number" of reactor fuel rods to obtain plutonium for use in nuclear weapons."

-- Asian Wall Street Journal

July 10, 2003

 

NUCLEAR WEAPONS

United States

North Korea

South Korea

 

"We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests."

-- Central Intelligence Agency

August 2003

 

"I saw nothing and spoke to no one who could convince me that they could build a nuclear device with that metal, and that they could weaponize such a device into a delivery vehicle."

-- Siegfried Hecker

January 21, 2004

 

 

"They said they had nuclear weapons."

-- Richard Boucher, State Department Daily Press Briefing, April 28, 2003

 

"It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons."

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