North Korea: Yet Another Nuclear Weapon State?

Animesh Roul

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known to the World as North Korea, has indicated that it has increased its ‘existing’ nuclear arsenal to counter a possible preemptive invasion by the United States. Earlier, the self-proclaimed nuclear power has accused the United States of seeking to topple the government at helm. It also feared that the joint US-South Korean military exercises could pose as a preparatory war against the country.

Not surprisingly, North Korea has declared itself a nuclear weapons power and claimed to have joined the ‘notorious’ nuke club on February 10 by suspending its participation in Six-party nuclear talks for indefinite period, though it has not conducted a single nuclear weapon test until now. The announcement came by the North Korean Foreign Ministry when the regime snubbed the US attempt to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said, “[DPRK] had already taken the resolute action of pulling out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have produced nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration's undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK”. On an earlier occasion in April 2003 North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister admitted to have possessed nuclear weapons during the trilateral talks between delegations from the United States, China, and North Korea.

Way back in December 1985, North Korea had joined the NPT with the demand of removal of all US nuclear weapons deployed in neighboring South Korea. After six years, in late 1991, then President George Bush announced withdrawal of at least hundred tactical nuclear weapons from the south. The impasse came when IAEA discovered discrepancies in North Korea's initial reports of its installations. However, the communist regime took almost a decade to quit NPT since Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the non-proliferation regime in 1993, citing national security considerations.

The question whether the technology North Korea using is indigenous or not still remain a mystery and ambiguous. The leadership vehemently opposed the centrifuge connection in the face of revelation by the protagonist, Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan himself. Khan had revealed last year that he had sold gas-centrifuge technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Informed sources stipulated North Korea’s strength to one or two crude nukes and believed that it may have reprocessed plutonium for at least half-a-dozen bomb from spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), DPRK's arsenal has grown to an alarming level with as many as 10 nuclear weapons. Pyongyang had restarted its plutonium enrichment program in 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of violating the “Agreed Framework” (AF) of 1994. Under the AF, Pyongyang agreed to freeze all its nuclear reactors and related facilities and to allow the UN nuclear watchdog to monitor its facilities. In exchange, Pyongyang was to receive two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors (LWRs) and annual heavy fuel oil shipments.

As far as capability is concern, most recently Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, Porter Goss indicated while testifying before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, that North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal has grown substantially since CIA’s January 2002 assessment. In addition to pursuing nuclear weapons programme, Goss underscored that DPRK has an active chemical and biological weapons programs. CIA ‘s assessment notwithstanding, North Korea has several nuclear fuel cycle facilities capable of producing weapon grade fissile material and nuclear bomb.

Since August 2003, three rounds of nuclear talks have been held with North Korea under the aegis of six-nation talks that have been hosted by China, with the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and North Korea participating in it. All of those talks were inconclusive with Bush administration’s call for a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North’s nuclear programme did not gain any result. Although, North Korea refused to attend the last round of six-party talks last September, it has pledged to resume the stalled six-party talks earlier this year with some pre-conditions. It wanted the US President to adopt a friendlier attitude towards the so-called ‘axis of evil’. The United States has time and again refused to offer any concessions to lure DPRK back to the talks while the other three parties — China, South Korea and Japan — have advocated a conciliatory approach towards solving the stand-off, have urged the United States to be more flexible.

Now the US is looking for new ways of forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, besides the option for a preemptive strike. May be a package with lots of ‘carrots’ can change the prevailing atmosphere, or an economic sanction through UN Security Council. However, the later option is very much unlikely at this juncture with China and Russia opposing the move. While the US administration has been considering North Korea a nuclear weapons state (NWs), its intelligence agency believed that the country can very well validate its weapon designs without conducting an actual test.

Author Note
Animesh Roul, Research Coordinator, SSPC, New Delhi