Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Short History of North Korea's Nuclear Program, Part I

*Special guest post by Eli Lewine

We have reached yet another crossroads in the future of the North Korean nuclear program. Decisions about economic aid and reactor disablement are in progress at this very moment and by the end of the year we may have further concrete evidence that the North is ready to abandon its nuclear ambitions and begin the process of becoming a part of the international community. Yet there is little reflection on how and why the North Koreans got into the nuclear game in the first place.

To begin, we’ll need to take a spin in the way-back machine as the seeds of North Korea’s nuclear ambition have their origin in the Korean War. The United States had from the very beginning used the implicit threat of nuclear weapons as a coercive tool against the Chinese and North Koreans. In July of 1950, for example, President Truman sent 10 nuclear-armed B-29 bombers into the theater and used phrases such as taking “whatever steps are necessary” in order to stop Chinese intervention.

As the war dragged on, the seemingly endless nature of the conflict pushed President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to again openly consider the use of nuclear weapons. By May of 1953, the National Security Council had decided that references to the nuclear threat would be made in an attempt break the deadlocked war. It took just two months from the time the last round of threats were issued to bring the parties to the table to finalize an armistice. Yet while the crisis of the day had ended, the North Koreans would not forget the lesson that had been taught that year about the coercive power of nuclear weapons.

The North understood that without a nuclear deterrent of their own, they would constantly be at a disadvantage with U.S. military forces and the umbrella they provided to the South. As the Sino-Soviet split became more pronounced, the North realized that they could not count on its two closest allies to provide the deterrent against possible U.S. nuclear strikes. Instead, they would need to follow the principles of juche (self-reliance) and jawi (military self-defense). Initially issued by Kim Il’Sung in late 1955 as a way to strengthen the North Korean political regime, jawi became especially important to the nuclear issue as it demanded that the state build military forces of its own and not rely on those of any other state. Part of this policy would be the development of nuclear technology to counterbalance the American power and serve as diplomatic leverage.

In the decade that followed the end of the war, North Korea sent scientists to both the Soviet Union and China to learn the secrets of nuclear technology. By 1964, North Korea had begun its own nuclear research center in Yongbyon and by the next year, the North had progressed enough to be able to purchase a small research reactor for the facility. At the same time, a major surveying operation found large quantities of natural uranium that would give the North Koreans to ability to fuel their own nuclear research. None of these activities raised the concern of the international community as several other nations were conducting similar experiments in nuclear technology through President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative.

Over the next 20 years, the North’s nuclear program continued to mature and the country began to flirt with steps to bring its program into compliance with international norms. In 1974, North Korea became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and by 1977 it had even allowed outside inspectors to come in to view their Soviet-purchased equipment. But by the early 1980s the North seemed to reverse course.

In 1979, North Korea began construction on a new reactor that would quickly become an issue of concern to the West. In his book North Korea and the Bomb, Michael Mazarr describes this reactor,

It was much larger than an average research plant, yet was not attached to any power grid that would allow it to serve as an energy producer. It was also of a design nuclear engineers considered most suitable for one deadly task—making plutonium, a by-product of a nuclear reactor that is a favorite material of bomb builders.

Satellite photos taken in the mid 1980s eventually revealed to the West not only this reactor but also other sites, such as weapons testing grounds and a plutonium reprocessing plant. As the primary sponsor of North Korea’s nuclear program, the Soviet Union was pressured by the U.S. and others to pressure the North Koreans to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to open its sites to inspection. Mindful of its contribution and not wanting to seem to be violating the NPT’s prohibition against assisting, encouraging or inducing non-nuclear weapon states to acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S.S.R. offered to build large power reactors in North Korea in exchange for the North's ascension to the non-proliferation regime. North Korea signed on the NPT dotted-line in December of 1985.

According to the stipulations of the NPT, however, North Korea had to negotiate an inspections regime with the IAEA, yet it failed to meet the deadline to sign the “safeguards” agreement. Instead, the North Koreans argued that sites that the IAEA wanted to inspect were to be considered sensitive military installations unable to be visited and made the demand that the United States verifiably remove any nuclear weapons it has on the Korean peninsula. Eventually, the U.S. complied with this demand and the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed in 1991.

Lauded as a huge diplomatic victory for the forces of nuclear non-proliferation, the IAEA now had access to North Korean facilities and was on its way to conduct its initial assessment of the current status of the North’s nuclear program. The George HW Bush Administration felt that the issue was now on the correct path towards resolution and turned to domestic matters it considered to be more pressing, such as an economic recession and the upcoming presidential election. Little did the U.S. know, however, that by not continuing to help facilitate cooperation between the North Koreans and the IAEA, the inspections regime would falter and lead to an even greater crisis; a crisis that would be left to the incoming Clinton Administration to handle.

Stay tuned for part II...


Anonymous said...

Eli concludes his brief history by writing:

> Little did the U.S. know, however,
> that by not continuing to help
> facilitate cooperation between the
> North Koreans and the IAEA, the
> inspections regime would falter and
> lead to an even greater crisis; a
> crisis that would be left to the
> incoming Clinton Administration to
> handle.

First of all, I'm really surprised that you downplay the significance of the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the text of which follows far below. To get Pyongyang to agree to this, Bush 41's admin not only offered to remove all US nuclear weapons from the peninsula, but also to normalize relations with Pyongyang -- something the DPRK continues to claim to want.

The declaration was only part of what Bush 41's State/ACDA did to encourage positively the North Koreans to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement ("CSA") with the IAEA. At any rate, from 1985 until the early 1990s the Soviets had much more leverage to get Pyongyang to conclude an IAEA CSA. I mean, they were the ones who really pressured the DPRK to accede to the NPT.

In the end, however, the failure of the DPRK to conclude an IAEA CSA in a timely manner was a DPRK failure. The NPT required North Korea to begin negotiating for a CSA with the IAEA within 180 days acceding to the treaty, and to conclude the CSA no later than eighteen months after beginning negotiations with the IAEA. Pyongyang's refusal to do even this -- and, during the early Clinton years, Pyongyang's refusal to declare completely all of its nuclear materials and reprocessing facilities after it had concluded an IAEA CSA -- showed extremely bad faith.

You really ought to acknowledge that, if you don't want to write a thinly-veiled partisan history. An honest history of North Korea's nuclear program suggests that we should place value not on the words to which the DPRK show itself willing to agree, but rather the deeds that the DPRK actually undertakes.


Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
Signed January 20, 1992
Entered into force February 19, 1992

The South and the North,

Desiring to eliminate the danger of nuclear war through
denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and thus to create an
environment and conditions favorable for peace and peaceful
unification of our country and contribute to peace and security in
Asia and the world,

Declare as follows;

1. The South and the North shall not test, manufacture, produce,
receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.

2. The South and the North shall use nuclear energy solely for
peaceful purposes.

3. The South and the North shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and
uranium enrichment facilities.

4. The South and the North, in order to verify the denuclearization of
the Korean peninsula, shall conduct inspection of the objects selected
by the other side and agreed upon between the two sides, in accordance
with procedures and methods to be determined by the South-North Joint
Nuclear Control Commission.

5. The South and the North, in order to implement this joint
declaration, shall establish and operate a South-North joint Nuclear
Control Commission within one (1) month of the effectuation of this
joint declaration.

6. This Joint Declaration shall enter into force as of the day the two
sides exchange appropriate instruments following the completion of
their respective procedures for bringing it into effect.

Signed on January 20, 1992

Chung Won-shik
Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea;
Chief delegate of the South delegation to the South-North High-Level Talks

Yon Hyong-muk
Premier of the Administration Council of the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea;
Head of the North delegation to the South-North High-Level Talks

Eli said...

Oh, I completely agree that the Joint Declaration was a serious document that took much time to negotiate and lead to productive movement initially, namely the introduction of initial inspections by the IAEA. And the removal of nuclear weapons from the Peninsula was a serious and progressive move by the Administration, as was the cancellation of the Team Spirit joint military exercises that year. But from the point of the signing of that agreement until Bush left office, little was done to keep North Korea moving towards cooperation with the IAEA when, as you point out, it was relatively obvious they were hiding material and preventing access to important inspection sites. The U.S. left the IAEA to deal with the problem themselves, which arguable lead to them taking the unprecedented step of demanding "special inspections" in North Korea, and while certainly merited, this demand escalated the whole situation towards crisis.
I'm sorry if the piece read as if I was letting the DPRK off the hook for not meeting their NPT responsibilities. In the followup on the Agreed Framework, I will try to make it more clear. I also recognize that the Bush 41' team did put in significant effort to work with the North Koreans to try and resolve the crisis diplomatically, but the point I am trying to make here is that the "hot spots" of crisis have been directly preceded by moments of reduced diplomatic effort on the part of the United States. And this is not to say that the US is to blame for these crises, after all, it was not we who were removing spent fuel rods without supervision. I'm just trying to present a possible pattern in historical activity.

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