2003 July 18 Friday
Evidence Of North Korean Nuclear Reprocessing Grows Stronger

Fox News reports that the US has found signs that Yongbyon is reprocessing plutonium fuel rods into nuclear bomb material.

The United States also has multiple intelligence sources confirming that the North Koreans have been actively reprocessing at their Yongbyon (search) nuclear plant, the facility U.S. officials say is the possible center of North Korea's uranium reprocessing efforts. A Pentagon official also confirmed to Fox News that U.S. intelligence has detected traces of the uranium byproduct "Krypton 85" (search) in the air near North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Keep in mind that the Yongbyon facility is where the North Koreans have (or had?) their 8000 plutonium fuel rods. Somewhere else they are suspected of having uranium enrichment centrifuges running that are producing weapons grade uranium.

Let us put this in historical perspective. From a rhetorical standpoint North Korean started escalating the crisis in 2000 while Clinton was still President.

There was relative calm until 2000 when the North Koreans started re-issuing threats about reconstituting its nuclear program and resuming ballistic missile tests unless Washington granted concessions and normalised relations with Pyongyang.

However, the first substantive changes in North Korea's activities post-1994 (when North Korea signed the Framework Accord with the United States to supposedly halt North Korea's nuclear program) probably started happening in 1997. See this timeline of North Korea's nuclear program. The timeline may not be correct. But it is widely accepted that A. Q. Khan, hailed as the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, paid many visits to North Korea in the late 1990s.

"We developed hard confirmation of the program this summer," says a senior administration official. "There are shards of evidence of the North Korea-Pakistan nuclear relationship going back to 1997. Those turned into pretty clear suspicions by 1998, and in 1999 the North Koreans committed to this program."

On November 24, 2002 David Sanger reported for The New York Times details of the technology swap between Pakistan and North Korea.

North Korea provided Musharraf with missile parts he wanted to have available for use against India. In exchange, Pakistan sold technology and machinery to make highly enriched uranium for North Korea's clandestine effort to build a nuclear bomb.

Some in the Bush Administration say North Korea has been trying to enrich uranium ever since they shut down the Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor in exchange for aid from the US, Japan, and South Korea.

Armitage has provided the earliest estimate of the program’s origin, testifying February 4 that the U.S. government noticed “some anomalies in [North Korean] procurement patterns” starting in 1994. Similarly, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated during a March 26 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee that North Korea started the program to enrich uranium “before the ink was dry” on the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Yossef Bodansky says North Korean-Iranian nuclear cooperation predates the better known later cooperation between North Korean and Pakistan.

Asserts Yossef Bodansky, director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare: "We know there is cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the nuclear field. The Iranians have a very comprehensive military nuclear program, and North Korea has been crucial in that." He cites Middle East intelligence sources that indicate the collaboration began in the mid-1990s.

What can the United States do, short of military action, to stop North Korea's nuclear program? The answer to that question depends at least in part on how deep are North Korea's financial reserves. If Kim Jong-il has enough financial reserves to continue to buy loyalty and keep the core pillars of the regime functioning then he can keep developing nuclear weapons until he has so many that the US can not credibly threaten him. If a recent report Hae Won Choi wrote for the Wall Street Journal is accurate then the Pyongyang regime has $5 billion dollars in cash reserves to keep itself afloat in the face of attempts by the United States to reduce its sources of revenue.

According to interviews with high-level defectors, South Korean businessmen and Asian intelligence officials, Division 39 has generated a cash hoard as large as $5 billion that is salted away in places as disparate as Macau, Switzerland and Pyongyang. It produces a steady flow of money that Mr. Kim uses to buy political support and loyalty. Intelligence officials have also tied it to Pyongyang's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Look at it from Kim's perspective. He may be thinking that he just has to hang on for a year or two until he has a large pile of nuclear weapons and better means to deliver them. Then the US will be faced with a fait accompli. Japan will be reluctant to participate in air strikes at that point because Kim could plausibly threaten to retaliate with miniaturized nuclear warheads deliverable by missiles.

Update: Another point to note about the above history: The 1994 Framework Accord started to fail from the moment it was signed because it did not include an inspections regime that would allow a very large group of inspectors unlimited access to the entire country. Kim Jong-il could just shift to working on uranium enrichment with no means for the other parties of the 1994 agreement to know what North Korea was up to. No negotiated deal will work without a massive inspections capability. But Kim Jong-il will never agree to such terms. I've posted on this in the past. But you can read a more recent post at by Kevin at Incestuous Amplification where he delves into the need for verification and links to Stanley Kurtz's arguments on the subject.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 July 18 12:15 PM  Korea


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