On April 12, 2012, North Korea unsuccessfully launched a long-range missile that was intended to carry an Earth observation satellite into space. North Korea fired the long-range test rocket in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and an agreement with the United States. On the eve of the launch, the Academy convened leading North Korea experts to discuss the broader geopolitical and nonproliferation implications of North Korea’s nuclear program. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion, which served as the Academy’s 1984th Stated Meeting.
The Academy has chosen a propitious time to examine the implications of North Korea’s nuclear program. We are expecting that at any moment the country will launch a missile linked to a satellite — an act that the United States and much of the world regard as provocative. The missile launch is conjoined to speculation that North Korea may be in some stage of preparation for another nuclear test. So the issue is now at a boil. But those of you who follow nuclear affairs will know that this story has at least a twenty-year history. Indeed, the first crescendo was reached in the early 1990s, when a confrontation with the Clinton administration led to serious worries about war and to a last-minute diplomatic solution, the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for various kinds of U.S. assistance. Ambassador Bosworth played a major role in this process.
From that day to the present, North Korea’s nuclear program has never ceased to be a source of concern, though the issue has waxed and waned. Over the course of the last decade, North Korea has all but left the reservation. In 2003, it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2006, it conducted its first nuclear test (which was not entirely successful, but it did go “boom”). In 2009, it carried out a second test of a nuclear device. Along the way, it has conducted a small number of missile tests. That marriage of missiles and weapons is particularly disturbing to those who are within range of the missiles.
The present is an acute moment in a very long story. Fortunately, we have two exceptionally qualified people to help us understand and decode what is going on. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth is Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has a long and distinguished past in American diplomacy, serving from 1995 to 1997 as the head of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the institution created to help implement the Agreed Framework that was achieved in 1994. He was also Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1997 to 2001 and Special Representative for North Korea Policy in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.
Siegfried “Sig” Hecker is Research Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, where he is also Codirector of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Sig has also had a long and distinguished career in the American nuclear weapons complex. A metallurgist by training, he served from 1986 to 1997 as Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has also been a valued member of the Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative. Among other distinctions, Sig has had extensive exposure to North Korea’s nuclear facilities, visiting North Korea seven times. Along with one or two other individuals, he has seen more of North Korea’s facilities than anyone outside of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is unrivaled as a decoder of the technical dimensions of the North Korean program, both where it is today and where it is headed.
When I returned to the problems of North Korea in Spring 2009, having been away from them for almost ten years after I left Seoul as Ambassador, I found a number of fundamental differences. First, the strategic context within which the United States and our allies and partners were dealing with the threat of North Korea had shifted dramatically. In the 1990s, including when I was Ambassador to South Korea, we treated the North Korea issue largely as a matter for the United States to settle. But in 2009, I found an entirely different regional context.
First, in the 1990s, months would pass in which I did not consider China’s views on the North Korea issue because China, by choice, was not actively engaged in the diplomacy of North Korea. Second, the South Korea I returned to in 2009 was different in many ways from the one that I had known in the 1990s. In particular, the point of view of the South Korean administration on how to deal with its neighbor was very different from the view held by the Kim Dae-jung administration, which had been in power when I was there previously. Third, in my earlier experience, Japan had been a principal partner to the United States in trying to cope with the problems of North Korea. By 2009, Japan’s role was different, in part because Japan had become much more preoccupied with its own domestic condition. Although Japan was still concerned about nukes and missiles, its primary expressed interest was the fate of the Japanese abductees who had been taken by North Korea thirty years ago.
In the early 2000s, these three countries, together with the United States and Russia, formed what was called the six-party process to negotiate with North Korea. This multilateral context was quite different from the era of the early 1990s, when the United States had self-assuredly stepped forward to deal with the threat of North Korea. Some things, however, were the same. And in that sense, we were able to begin putting together a program for dealing with North Korea in the 2000s. All five nations continue to have a common interest in seeing that North Korea does not become a permanent nuclear weapons state. However, in addition to that common goal, each country has specific national interests.
China, for example, does not want to have a nuclear North Korea, but neither does it want to see North Korea collapse. North Korea plays the vital role of a buffer state between China and U.S. military ally South Korea. China’s nightmare is to someday wake up in a world where the Koreas have reunified and have a military relationship with the United States. From the Chinese perspective, that turn of events would be a sharply negative shift in the correlation of forces in Northeast Asia.
As I mentioned, Japanese policy is driven by strong public interest in the fate of the Japanese abductees. That is not to say that Japan is not actively concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program. But Japan has taken a somewhat less assertive role in regional diplomacy compared to the 1990s, when it was one of our key partners in dealing with North Korea under the Agreed Framework of Geneva.
The changes in South Korea’s role are perhaps the most interesting of all. As China’s preeminence in the region has risen, so has South Korea’s importance, at least from the perspective of the United States. South Korea has become an even more important U.S. ally and partner within the region than a decade ago. It is a flourishing democracy, a prospering economy, and a growing power both regionally and globally. The United States now looks to South Korea to offset somewhat the rise of China. The United States is very conscious of South Korea’s interests, especially with regard to North Korea. The result, from a U.S. policy-making perspective, is that South Korea now has more sway in the formulation of a coordinated U.S.-South Korean approach to North Korea than was the case in the 1990s. I am not saying that the United States failed to consider South Korea’s interests in the 1990s; but I can assure you that, based on my experience in both periods, we give much more importance today to what South Korea wants.
For the United States, given this mélange of interests and activities, North Korea’s nuclear program is an even more complicated geopolitical issue than it was in the 1990s when we operated under the Agreed Framework. The threat from North Korea has remained much the same. That threat is twofold. One component is the nuclear threat, a strategic concern that has clearly deepened. The fissile material that North Korea had in the 1990s was estimated to be sufficient for one or two nuclear devices. After breaking out of the Agreed Framework, the country was able to produce enough fissile material for an estimated eight to twelve devices, assuming that it has not produced any fissile material from the technology Sig Hecker glimpsed when he visited in 2010: namely, uranium enrichment. In the past, their fissile material was all plutonium-based. But we believe that North Korea has made significant progress in uranium enrichment – specifically, that it has enriched uranium to a level whereby it could potentially be used for producing more fissile material and, eventually, nuclear weapons.
The second, and in some ways the greater, threat that North Korea presents within the region is instability. It is essentially a failed state in the heart of what is perhaps the most important region in the world. Its neighbors are concerned that its instability could explode at any time. That concern has, of course, been exacerbated over the last few months with the death of Kim Jong-il and the coming to power (or at least coming into office) of Kim Jong-un. I am not among the observers who believe that Kim Jong-un has any great degree of authority over decision-making in North Korea. But he clearly has a role; he is the public face of the regime, and he seems to be asserting himself in a fairly vigorous way.
So it is not just the nuclear and missile programs that are worrisome. It is the longer-term problem of a potentially unstable North Korea. Our options for dealing with this second threat are, to say the least, not good. Some argue that our goal should be somehow to prompt regime change in North Korea. Believe me, if I could see a way to do that without putting several million South Koreans at risk, I would be sorely tempted, because this is a despicable regime. But in addition to its nuclear capabilities, North Korea has the capacity to hold the ten to twenty million South Koreans in metropolitan Seoul hostage to its conventional forces – namely, rockets and artillery. The U.S. military has estimated that North Korea could put several hundred artillery shells a minute into metropolitan Seoul. Such an attack would do horrendous damage to South Korea. So North Korea must be dealt with very gingerly.
The other option is to try to engage with the regime, to change its perception of its self-interest. We have been trying to do that for nearly twenty years. The problem is that North Korea is very difficult to engage. Moreover, it is very difficult for democracies to sustain the kinds of policy necessary to maintain engagement on an extended basis. Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he said that exercise of foreign policy is one of the weaknesses of democratic systems because (to paraphrase him) foreign policy success requires the steady application of attention and force over a protracted period of time.
In our system of government, where our perception of interests and the world changes on a fairly frequent basis (or at least with our electoral cycle), that requirement is very hard for us to meet. And unfortunately, North Korea has become a contentious issue within our domestic body politic. It is difficult to sustain the level of commitment and attention required to engage with North Korea over a long period of time. Yet we do not have an alternative. Diplomatic engagement may be challenging, but it is the only mechanism I see us being able to pursue in order to change gradually the environment of the Korean peninsula.
To some extent, we need to reduce our focus on the nuclear and missile issues that have constituted the heart of our North Korea agenda over the last twenty years. We must begin to address the longer-term issue of instability. As long as North Korea feels that it has leverage with us because of our concerns about its nuclear and missile programs, it will use that leverage and will become even more difficult to deal with. While we made some progress during my time as Special Representative for North Korea Policy, that progress has proved not to be lasting. North Korea has now taken us back to where we were in Summer 2009 following its tests of a missile and another nuclear device.
My role in the North Korea problem has been a technical one. I am not a diplomat and will leave the diplomacy to Ambassador Bosworth; but I will venture into the technical side of how to deal with the impossible situation that he described. First, I will give you a breakdown of the nuclear program and the missile program, then I will discuss the threats we face and where we stand.
I have been to North Korea seven times, so much of what I will tell you I have seen in person. In our Track II diplomacy interactions, the North Koreans have shown me much of their nuclear program. On the basis of what I have seen, my colleagues and I have put together the best estimate of what their capabilities are. We still have many questions, but we are better off today than we were seven years ago in terms of understanding just what North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs entail.
I agree with Ambassador Bosworth that the North Korea problem is much more than a nuclear and missile issue. But in the United States, our glasses have nuclear colors; every time we look at North Korea we see only nuclear issues. Yet we cannot deal with the problem by focusing on nuclear weapons alone. North Korea has the bomb, but it does not have much of a nuclear arsenal. In my view, neither South Korea nor the continental United States and our assets around the world are currently in danger of being attacked by a North Korean nuclear weapon. However, North Korea indeed wants to put us at risk. It has continued to enhance its nuclear program to give the impression that it can do so, and the government has not veered from that objective over the last twenty years. The country has been developing nuclear capability for more than fifty years, but it is only in the last twenty that we have become greatly concerned.
I would give North Korea credit for four to eight plutonium bombs. Because we know that a bomb requires about the amount of plutonium that was in the Nagasaki bomb (approximately 6 kilograms), we can make an estimate based on what I saw in North Korea and on its production records. We can see when its reactors operate. We know that it has conducted two nuclear tests, though we don’t know exactly how much plutonium was used in those tests. And we also have an idea of how many processing losses it would have incurred. All this information suggests that North Korea has somewhere between 24 and 42 kilograms of plutonium: that is, enough for four to eight bombs. Some observers estimate twelve; others say that the number is lower.
At less than 1 kiloton, the first test was not very successful (in comparison, Nagasaki was 21 kilotons, or the equivalent of 21,000 tons of TNT). The second test was closer to 5 kilotons; in my opinion, that test was successful. And if they can do 5 kilotons, they can do 20. However, based on those, let’s say one-and-a-half, tests, I do not believe that North Korea has the requisite knowledge to miniaturize a nuclear bomb or warhead that it could then mount on a missile. Consider that the United States has conducted 1,054 nuclear tests, and that Russia has conducted 715. North Korea does not yet have that capability, and certainly would not have the confidence to launch a nuclear warhead. To miniaturize a nuclear warhead will be one of the strong drivers for North Korea to conduct further tests.
There is very little question that North Korea is working on miniaturizing. I am sure they have designs and computer calculations. But again, for comparison, the Nagasaki bomb weighed ten thousand pounds and was delivered by a B-29 bomber. To put a bomb on a missile, depending on whether it is short range or an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), it has to be less than 500 kilograms or so. That is a long way from the Nagasaki bomb. Moreover, with a nuclear warhead you not only have to make it go up, but you also have to bring it back down and put it through reentry. There are mechanical and thermal stresses, and you have to do a great deal of testing. North Korea is not there yet.
As far as missiles are concerned, the North Koreans are not calling tonight’s launch a missile launch; they are calling it a space launch. That is, they will attempt to launch a satellite into space. They have already conducted three long-range rocket tests. (Let’s just call them rockets, whether they are meant to have a satellite or a warhead on top.) The first test, which took place in 1998, scared the Japanese because it flew over Japan; but it was not fully successful. The second one, in 2006, blew up at the gantry and was a total failure. In the third test, in 2009, the first two stages were successful, traveling quite far. In the third stage, the rocket either blew up or did not disconnect right. North Korea never did get a satellite into orbit.
Why is North Korea trying another space launch (or missile test) now? First, three previous tests are not very many. We know that they have been preparing to complete the next long-range rocket test for several years, and the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth seems a good time for them to carry out the test. We have been expecting another launch attempt at some point, but also realize that North Korea’s nuclear program is actually quite slow.
The launch is predicted to take place at 9:30 tonight. Whether or not it is successful, the North Korean public will surely be told that it was. The North Korean people believe that the previous satellite launches (from two of the three long-range rocket tests) were successful, and that North Korea now has two satellites orbiting in space. I saw them personally at the planetarium museum in Pyongyang – two little red dots going around in circles. The guide was telling visitors that those were the two satellites. So as far as the North Korean public is concerned, the launch will be successful. [Note added in print: The rocket launch occurred at 7:37 pm that night and was a dismal failure; enough so that Pyongyang for the first time admitted a failure.]
North Korea maintains that it has a sovereign right to launch a satellite. Iran has done so, and, in fact, just recently launched its third satellite since 2009. The United States did not put up a terribly big fuss over Iran, but North Korea is regarded differently. The argument is that the latest UN Security Council Resolution, Resolution 1874, prohibits the country from conducting a missile launch of any kind, including a satellite launch. Certainly, North Korea is breaking the rules of the resolution. Why does this matter? Regardless of whether it is a space launch or a missile launch, the first two stages of this three-stage rocket pose a dual-use problem. Testing also presents an opportunity to learn a great deal about long-range missiles. This fourth test will provide information that could eventually be used to build an ICBM.
North Korea does not now have an ICBM; its rockets take too long to fuel. If we saw North Korea fueling a missile with a warhead to send our way, we would have time to react. The program also lacks the capacity for reentry; our best intelligence indicates that the necessary flight tests have not been conducted. So North Korea is still a long way from launching a missile with a nuclear warhead. However, if they do launch a satellite, they will undoubtedly learn more about the missile.
What worries me the most is the road-mobile, one-stage missile system that was brought out at an October 2010 parade in Pyongyang. Called the Musudan, this former Soviet SS-N-6 submarine ballistic missile system contained nuclear warheads. The fact that it is road-mobile makes the threat even greater because such a system is very hard to find. But there is no indication that the Musudan has ever been tested. However, some of my colleagues have speculated that the second stage of the Unha-3 rocket that is currently sitting on the launch pad looks just like the Musudan. So again, tonight’s launch might provide information. But do we have to worry about being attacked tomorrow? The answer is no.
As I mentioned, North Korea has 24 to 42 kilograms of plutonium bomb fuel; we think it takes around 6 kilograms to make a bomb. North Korea has voluntarily not restarted the Yongbyon nuclear reactor that was shut down in 2007. Observers in the United States say that the reactor cannot be restarted because it is decrepit, but I do not think this is true. Again, having been there and having talked to the North Koreans, I believe that they could restart the reactor if they wanted to. Still, the best they could do would be to make enough plutonium to power one bomb per year. But they are not producing plutonium right now; all they have is a handful of plutonium bombs.
When I visited in November 2010, they showed me not only uranium enrichment but also a light water reactor that they are building. The reactor they had was a gas-graphite reactor (gas cooled, graphite moderated) that could be fueled with natural uranium, so they did not have to enrich. They are now building a light water reactor because the Agreed Framework, which Ambassador Bosworth helped put together with KEDO (the Korean Energy Development Organization), fell apart during the Bush administration in late 2002. The agreement had stipulated that the United States would provide North Korea with light water reactors. So North Korea is telling us, “You didn’t keep your promise; we’re going to build our own.” The reactor will also make plutonium, but this fact does not concern me greatly: it will not make high-quality bomb-grade plutonium.
What about uranium enrichment? North Korea took the plutonium path to the bomb, but like every other country that has the bomb, it also took the uranium path. The difference is that the North Koreans have denied it. They may have admitted to enriching uranium in October 2002, depending on which side of the story you hear. Certainly, they denied it during the first six of my seven visits, claiming they had neither the personnel nor the equipment. But a number of signals pointed to the fact that they have uranium enrichment facilities. I once said to Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan, “I know, of course, that you have uranium enrichment.” His response was, “You don’t understand our country, Dr. Hecker.”
But in November 2010, they showed me the smoking gun. My jaw dropped. There weren’t just a few dozen centrifuges; there were two thousand of them, housed in an ultra-modern facility. I and my two Stanford colleagues said, “My God! How did they get so many of them?” Our North Korean hosts claimed that they had started enriching only after my visit in 2009. But to amass such a large number of centrifuges from April 2009 to November 2010 would have been impossible. Indeed, they had been working on uranium enrichment for decades, and on this particular setup for a number of years. Even though they say that the facility was designed to make low-enriched uranium – which is reactor fuel, not bomb fuel – it turns out that you can replumb that type of facility to make bomb fuel. I do not think that this facility is making bomb fuel, but there must be another facility – one that is also set up for low-enriched uranium but, in all likelihood, is being used for making high-enriched uranium as well.
The problem is that we do not know how much high-enriched uranium they have made. The best we can do is estimate how much of the key materials for centrifuges they could have purchased through clandestine networks. These networks include greedy European businessmen who hocked their wares to A.Q. Khan as well as connections in Malaysia, South Africa, and Dubai. All the same materials and facilities that A.Q. Khan, Libya, and Iran have acquired, North Korea has acquired, too. At present, North Korea might have some high-enriched uranium, but only a substantial increase in that capacity would present a grave concern.
The threat of a nuclear attack is very low. Although miscalculations and accidents are worrisome, uranium enrichment does not change the threat much, unless North Korea indeed makes a lot more. What concerns me the most is export of nuclear technologies. North Korea built a reactor in Syria for producing plutonium, which Israel destroyed in 2007. It also exported some of the precursors for uranium enrichment to Libya. This process of export is the main problem.
What should we do to deal with North Korea today? As Ambassador Bosworth noted, there are no good options. However, what we ought not to do is the same thing we have done during all previous crises and then expect different results. More UN Security Council sanctions will not do any good; China will not let sanctions have an impact. Maybe what we ought to do is not say much. Instead, we should focus on the things that will not make the threat worse. I have been pushing the U.S. government to pursue threat reduction. Although domestic politics presents some obstacles, we can go to China and say, “Look, we must reduce the threat, and you don’t want matters to get worse.” I have been trying to relay to our government what I call the “three nos”: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export. For the time being, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and there is not much we can do about it. They are not going to give them up in the short term.
But if we do not want North Korea to build more bombs, that means no high-enriched uranium, no plutonium, no better bombs, and, most important, no nuclear tests. We should also work to prevent North Korea from exporting sensitive materials and technologies, though that objective is hard to enforce. Ultimately, our main focus should be to ensure that North Korea does not conduct another nuclear test. In 2009, North Korea walked away from the six-party talks, launched a long-range rocket, and followed that with a nuclear test. We do not want to replay that event.