North Korea has been intimidating the United States with a series of nuclear threats since October 2002 when U.S. officials stopped the supply of heavy oils to the North in retaliation of its confessed production of nuclear warheads violating agreements signed in 1994. Shortly after, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NTP) and agreements with the United Nations. While there is little proof that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it is strongly suspected that it does. This paper will discuss the North Korean weapon issue.
North Korea's Withdrawal from the NPT
Since its inception in 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) become the most widely subscribed to international treaty in history, with 187 members. However, there used to be 188 members prior to North Korea's withdrawal from the treaty in April 2003. This withdrawal marked the first time in history that a state has ever left the treaty. According to Potter and du Preez (2003): "The significance of North Korea's withdrawal will be measured by its impact on the validity of the NPT and the nuclear nonproliferation regime and on peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. North Korea's withdrawal could trigger further defections from the treaty and cause other states in the region to pursue nuclear weapons of their own. Of equal concern is the potential for North Korea to sell weapons-grade fissile material or nuclear weapons themselves to other states and non-state actors, including terrorist groups."
While North Korea's decision to withdraw from the treaty has shocked some people, many are not surprised. The country begrudgingly signed the NPT in 1985, solely due to the fact that the Soviet Union stated that the North Korean treaty membership was an absolute condition for the provision of coveted nuclear research assistance (Potter and du Preez, 2003). North Korea took five years to sign the treaty-mandated agreement with the IAEA to safeguard its nuclear facilities. Later, the agency discovered that North Korea had presented many discrepancies in the data regarding its nuclear program, leading to a 1993 special investigation at two plutonium storage sites at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. As a result, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT. However, the country's leaders did not follow through with the threat.
While many experts believe that North Korea has produced and separated enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons, there is no hard evidence of such development. North Korean officials have admitted having a nuclear weapons program in the past. In 2003, a North Korean official told a United States official "something to the effect of, 'Your president called us a member of the axis of evil.... Your troops are deployed on the Korean peninsula.... Of course, we have a nuclear program (Koppel and King, 2002)." However, state leaders have since denied making such an admission.
With its departure for the NPT, North Korea announced that it "has no intention of making nuclear weapons" and that its nuclear activities "will be confined only to power production and other peaceful purposes (Potter and du Preez, 2003)." The country says that its withdrawal from the treaty is in reaction to its inclusion in the "axis of evil" and being targeted by the United States' preemptive strike policy. When it withdrew from the treaty, North Korea dismissed IAEA inspectors, restarted a nuclear reactor that had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework, and started moving spent fuel rods to a reprocessing facility that can produce plutonium. This has caused great concern worldwide.
North Korea's Weapon Capabilities
Many world leaders are suspicious about North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT for many reasons. For one, it is a well-known fact that countries developing clandestine nuclear weapons programs take many measures to conceal information about these programs from the rest of the world (NTI, 2003). Therefore, without membership in the treaty, North Korea has made it difficult for world leaders to obtain information about the country's weapon capabilities.
According to NTI (2003): "Nuclear weapons programs need specialized materials, facilities, equipment, and training in order to produce the raw material for weapons -- either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium -- and then to fabricate explosive devices using this fissile material." In order to determine how many nuclear weapons a country can produce with a certain amount of material requires knowing the technological sophistication of the country and the explosive yield of the weapons. However, these specifications in North Korea are unknown.
As an extremely isolated and withdrawn state, North Korea is suspected to have a hidden nuclear weapons program (NTI, 2003). Evidence shows that North Korea probably has the capability to produce nuclear weapons. In 2001, the United States National Intelligence Council (NIC) found out that North Korea has developed one to two nuclear weapons. However, the exact status of North Korea's nuclear weapons capacity remains unclear.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program depends on its level of technical sophistication, "which may range from a high level requiring little fissile material to a much lower level of expertise requiring significantly greater quantities of HEU or plutonium (NTI, 2003)." Experts suspect that North Korea might be capable of using up to 3,000g of weapons-grade plutonium or 10,000g of weapons-grade uranium per weapon. If this is true, North Korea could produce two to three nuclear weapons with the 6,000-10,000g of separated weapons-grade plutonium it is believed to have.
It is unclear whether or not North Korea has the ability to produce more sophisticated nuclear weapons, such as boosted or fission-fusion weapons (NTI, 2003). In order to do so, North Korea would have to acquire sufficient amounts of tritium and deuterium, heavy forms of hydrogen, that fuse together to make weapons. While deuterium is somewhat easy to acquire, as it can be made from water, tritium is more difficult to produce because it is radioactive and has a relatively short life. However, it could be obtained from Pakistan or some other supplier. Yet there is no evidence for this acquisition or indigenous production of tritium. Therefore, while many believe that North Korea is more advanced that it lets on, there is no solid evidence that the country has sophisticated nuclear weapons.
Still, according to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, North Korea's suspected uranium-enrichment program is "not so far behind" its plutonium-based nuclear program in its capacity to produce nuclear weapons-grade material (Kerr, 2003). Kelly believes that the uranium-enrichment program could produce fissile material in "probably...months and not years."
There is great controversy over how to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program today. North Korea demands U.S. recognition of North Korea's sovereignty, security assurances, and no hindrance of the North's economic development (Arms Control Association, 2003). For South Korean political leaders, the U.S. is perceived as an unreasonable country that is unwilling to negotiate directly with North Korean officials in working out a deal that could resolve the current nuclear crisis peacefully. However, U.S. leaders are not convinced that a negotiated deal would permanently eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and they are reluctant to reward North Korea's bad behavior. President George W. Bush vowed in his State of the Union address, "America and the world will not be blackmailed (Arms Control Association, 2003)."
Basically, it is difficult to assess North Korea's objectives. North Korea says it is not out to blackmail anyone but U.S. leaders suspect that North Korean leaders view nuclear weapons as a means of forcibly reunifying the Korean Peninsula (Arms Control Association, 2003). There is little reliable information about the internal dynamics of North Korean decision-making and North Korean leaders have strong incentives to conceal their true intentions in order to increase their bargaining power and to minimize international reactions to their nuclear weapons program. Thus, the U.S. is simply not confident that negotiations…