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The Korean Nuclear Program

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Conventional wisdom has it that weapons of mass destruction compromise the security of nations on both regional and global levels. Although the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the USSR minimized the likelihood of a large-scale military conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, the very existence of these weapons poses a serious threat to the survival of humankind. Special attention is thereby given to the so-called threshold states, which have the essential prerequisites for the development of the nuclear weapons. Their success could greatly change the balance of power, rupture the status quo, and disrupt overall stability. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has embarked on a quest for the nuclear weapons of its own. Nuclear ambitions of North Korea have destabilizing impact on the volatile Northeastern Asia, as well as undermine the security of South Korea and Japan. However, the DPRK’s nuclear program poses a threat to the international community as well, for it makes inroads on the international regime of nuclear non-proliferation and stipulates the possibility of exporting nuclear technologies to other states. Notwithstanding the fact that brainwashed North Koreans zealously support the idea of stockpiling nuclear arsenal, they also are susceptible to the indirect effects of the DPRK’s nuclear program. Senior leadership of the country is prone to rash decisions. Clinging to the venturesome politics, they risk antagonizing the US and the rest of the world, which may result in economic, political, or even nuclear retaliation. Since Kim dynasty brought itself to power, the populace has had little to celebrate (although ideologically indoctrinated North Koreans themselves oppose such claims). Despite the avalanche of TV and print coverage of the DPRK’s nuclear crusade, the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy, which embosoms this crusade, still needs to be unraveled.

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According to Oberdorfer (2002), “The North Korea’s nuclear program traces its roots to the early 1950s”, when the bulk of research into nuclear sphere was accumulated, appropriate infrastructure created and human resources capacity building initiated. Expeditious development of the scientific and industrial base, as well as the uninterrupted series of adamant attempts to leverage foreign assistance for the creation of a nuclear power complex, which would be capable of reducing significantly the acuity of the energy crisis in the country, characterized the North Korea’s nuclear program in subsequent periods. In particular, the Soviet Union conducted a plethora of geological surveys and other prospecting expeditions aimed at exploring the unfathomable bounty of iron ore that lies beneath North Korea’s tiny terrain. These surveys revealed that DPRK possesses nearly 26 million tons of uranium, four of which are eligible for industrial exploitation (Cumings, 2005, p. 347). Nuclear ambitions of the DPRC took comfort from the solid economic and political support of the USSR, and, perhaps, China. The Soviet Union sponsored construction of the first uranium mines (Robinson, 2007, p. 129). In 1956, the DPRK and the USSR signed an agreement on cooperation in training of nuclear scientists and managed to prepare nearly 300 specialists by the late 1980s. In 1959, the USSR agreed to facilitate the DPRK’s peaceful nuclear energy program. In 1964, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center (YNSRC), a driving force behind the DPRK’s nuclear program, was built 30 miles away from the capital (Robinson, 2007, p. 180).

The second landmark milestone in the DPRK’s nuclear program started in the late 1970s and continues to this time. This period is characterized by the self-reliant development of the scientific and industrial base and simultaneous attempts to enlist outside support for the North Korea’s efforts in liquidating energy crisis. The 1974 accession to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) entitled North Korea to have access to the numerous materials about nuclear energy (Pritchard, 2007, p. 142). In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Hurrying on, the DPRC found itself locked in a series of intense crises (1993-1994, 2002-2003) over its unyielding refusal to comply with the NPT obligations and act in accordance with the IAEA Agreed Framework.

The second wave of perfecting the YNSRC’s modus operandi occurred in the 1980s, when construction of the gas graphite nuclear reactors began. The first reactor with installed capacity of 5 MW started operating in the late 1980s and became a basis for the production of plutonium (Myers, 2011, p. 203). Construction of the second nuclear reactor with actual capacity of 50 MW began in 1984. The third gas graphite nuclear reactor with installed capacity of 200 MW was erected soon (Myers, 2011, p. 207). Because of the implementation of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, operation of the gas graphite nuclear reactors was suspended in 1994. The first reactor resumed operations afterwards and functioned until 2008, when it was partially dismantled by the mutual consent of the DPRK and other participants of the six-party talks (the US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea) in a bid to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.  Operations at 2 other facilities with capacity of 50 and 200 MW respectively have not been resumed yet. As the IAEA monitoring group observed, all of the aforementioned reactors are in decrepit condition (Chang, 2006, p. 275). The older IRT-2000 nuclear reactor does not stand idle, but uranium irradiated in this reactor has low efficiency in the production of plutonium.

The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) Agreed Framework helped to bind Pyongyang into international norms and compelled it to wind down the nuclear weapons program. The US, South Korea, and Japan decided to reciprocate these concessions by obliging to authorize North Korea to build two light-water nuclear reactors, deliver 500,000 tons of residual fuel oil for the North Korean thermal power stations annually, as well as to throw their weight in the DPRK’s favor on international arena. Due to a cleavage between the US and the DPRK, implementation of the agreement ended up in a cul-de-sac. In December 2002, North Korea promulgated its intentions to resume the nuclear weapons program (Park, Snyder, 2012, p. 85). In January 2003, it withdrew from the non-Proliferation Treaty. A paranoid nationalist state explained this demarche by the necessity to protect its national interests under conditions of intensified belligerent politics and pressure exerted by the US.

In February 2005, the DPRK spoke of the successful acquisition of the nuclear weapons, which was of comprehensively defensive character and meant to play the role of a nuclear deterrent (Cha, 2012, p. 383). In order to bear out this claim, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test in October 2006. According to the most conservative estimates, its yield was from 5 to 15 kilotons of trinitrotoluene (TNT) (Pritchard, 2007, p. 158). Partially in response, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 on 14 October, which demanded that the DPRK discontinue the fulfillment of its nuclear weapons program ( Pollack, 2011, p. 96).

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Prompted by desire to consolidate its positions, North Korea detonated its nuclear weapons once again and banished the IAEA inspectors from its territory in April 2009. In 2009, the DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a diplomatic note, in which it was clearly stated that the country would continue building up nuclear arsenal if the US did not give up its trenchant politics in regard to Pyongyang (Park, Snyder, 2012, p. 317). In May 2009, North Korea conducted another underground nuclear test, which yielded from 10 to 20 kilotons (Cha, 2012, p. 429).

The ensuing events fanned the suspicion that the DPRK’s nuclear program was in full swing. Thus, in May 2010, this Stalinist relic of a country announced that it had made great strides in its thermonuclear fusion endeavor and contrived to increase significantly the capacity of its nuclear warheads. An image obtained by a US reconnaissance satellite in November 2010 revealed that construction of a light-water nuclear reactor with installed capacity of around 30 MW was on the anvil in North Korea (Myers, 2011, p. 175). In the end of 2010, the US Department of State received cumulative evidence that another uranium enrichment facility was successfully built on the YNSRC precinct. According to Pollack (2011), “The enrichment plant had 2000 centrifuges at its disposal as of 2010”, while “its productivity is equal to 8,000 Seperative Work Units (SWUs)”.

When the uranium enrichment facility at the YNSRC was declassified, North Korea conceded to the IAEA demands and empowered its inspectors to monitor operations at the plant. In an attempt to thaw relations, the US President Barack Obama met with his North Korean counterpart in New York in October 2011 (and in Geneva a few months later) to traverse the subject of reopening the six-party talks (Cha, 2012, p. 470). On 29 February 2012, the DPRK assented to ratchet down its activities in military and atomic spheres and discontinue nuclear tests in return for food assistance on the part of the US. Pyongyang entitled the IAEA inspectors to monitor its other nuclear installations into the bargain.

The aforementioned data on the history of the DPRK’s nuclear program development shed light on the North Korea’s veiled past and illuminate the key installations of its nuclear infrastructure, as well as explains why the country constantly resorts to its nuclear ambitions. It should be noted that despite the undertaken steps in a bid to denuclearize North Korea, it still disposes of the competitive scientific base, industrial technologies of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, as well as experience in producing other nuclear explosive devices (Pollack, 2011, p. 233). At the same time, capabilities of the DPRK’s nuclear infrastructure allow the country to produce sporadic specimen of the nuclear explosive devices. The existing plutonium production capacities are in degrading condition due to the 2008 dismantling procedures, while uranium enrichment capacity is in its infancy yet.

Nuclear scientists from North Korea utilized plutonium as a fissile material for its nuclear explosive weapons (Cha, Kang, 2003, p. 216). Judging from size of the uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon, application of the highly enriched uranium as a fissile material is hardly probable. With regard to the available information concerning the quantity of plutonium produced by the DPRK, it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that the country’s stockpile of this precious material is ample for the creation of 3-6 nuclear explosive devices. Nuclear tests conducted in 2006, 2009, and 2013 confirmed allegations that the North Koreans can produce quite efficient nuclear weapons.

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The praxis shows that sanctions against the DPRK, however crippling, do not yield a reach harvest of results. North Korea always manages to ride out a short-term psychological warfare against the international community. Word combination “international community” is not used accidentally in this case, as the country does not have close relations with any actors on the international arena. The DPRK realizes its aspirations cyclically, i.e. after each new set of sanctions it owns up to its nuclear program and obliges to give it up in return for certain concessions. In the long run, North Korea always resumes its nuclear weapons program. International community should consider this treacherous behavior and adopt a harder line on the issue. However, the new set of sanctions imposed on North Korea in March of 2013 has all chances to reach the fruition. Even the Celestial Empire, which maintained more or less friendly relations with its inimical neighbor, seems to approve of the sanctions.

Cumings (2005) reckons that “The USSR used North Korea to conduct a proxy war against the US” under its nuclear umbrella, but the things have changed. The DPRK seems to be full of resolve to levy a single-headed war on the United States. North Korea remains a bulwark of Communism and stays true to the screwball ideas of the Cold War-era period. Malice of the DPRK’s nuclear program lies in the fact the country does not have “no first use” policy, which means that it preserves a right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. The authorities of North Korea allege that its intermediate-range ballistic missile with range capabilities of up to 6,000 kilometers could deliver a warhead to the West Coast of the USA in a matter of minutes (Park, Snyder, 2012, p. 271). The newly minted North Korea leader covets self-affirmation. He wants the US to quake in terror of his country’s nuclear capabilities. Moreover, few people in the DPRK’s political class relish the idea of establishing a good image for their country by internationally acceptable means. In stark contrast to Iran (another country that prostrates itself before the juggernaut of nuclear weapons), any international actor does not lobby the DPRK’s nuclear program. The country does not maintain alliances, nor does it have fraternal relations with its neighbors. Cordial dislike of the US aside, vexatious relationship with South Korea still dominates its military thinking.

North Korea wants to have the world’s hegemons subscribed to its ideology and threatens to unleash nuclear weapons every time they refuse. Foremost, the DPRK flexes its nuclear muscle and boasts vaingloriously of its latest achievements in the nuclear sphere in order to elicit economic and political concessions from the Western powers. It dexterously manages to swap these concessions for its unsubstantiated promises to suspend the nuclear program. Even though wisdom is in short supply in North Korea, it will hesitate before unleashing its nukes. The tiny DPRK is not on fire with enthusiasm to incur a nuclear retaliation. This fact offers the hope that chances of North Korea dismantling its nuclear program and acceding to the NPT once again have not run out. However, the odds are still on the DPRK’s diminutive despot continuing to step up its not-so-clandestine nuclear program. Synthesis of diplomacy (not basketball kind though) and decisive measures is indispensable.

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