Once again Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, has succeeded in placing his country, and himself, in focus, “The developments in North Korea represents a serious threat”, state media headlines.
How concerned should we actually be? And in what ways has the government of the DPRK, North Korea, broken international agreements and treaties? We say we know so little of what goes on in their nuclear program. But is that really so?
On the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang four years ago we met – we, a delegation from IPPNW, the international movement for a world free from nuclear weapons – four well known US nuclear experts. “Yes, we go here regularly to meet our colleagues in North Korea” said one of the experts. The recently retired head of the Los Alamos Laboratories, Siegfried Hecker, wrote a paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences about his experiences in DPRK. He said that he doubted that the colleagues in Yongbyon, the North Korean nuclear laboratory, would be able to produce a nuclear bomb. The level of technology was far to low. The Koreans were trying to make a plutonium bomb, which is technically very demanding. They could not go for the much simpler uranium bomb, as they did not master the technology for uranium enrichment.
We know fairly well what goes on…
Siegfried Hecker was right. The bomb which was tested in October 2006 had an explosive capacity of less than one kiloton, in contrast to the four to six kilotons that had been expected in the message to the Chinese authorities. The bomb was almost a dud. At most, the DPRK has enough plutonium to produce a few bombs more. Will they dare test once more?
The Americans know a lot about the North Korean nuclear technology.
North Korea has succeeded in manufacturing in large numbers a missile for shorter distances, actually a copy of the Soviet Scud B. This rocket is reliable enough to be exported. A long-distance missile is quite another story. Taepodong-2 has been tested before and blew up. Recently a new test was done, now with the intention of placing a satellite in orbit. This failed too.
If the DPRK shall be able to produce a reliable and accurate long-distance missile, it would probably need substantial help from other countries. To make a nuclear warhead, sufficiently light and sufficiently stable, to be carried on a long-distance missile implies one more, serious and huge challenge.
North Korea and the Non-proliferation Treaty
The DPRK joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, in 1985. Thus inspectors from IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, could check that the plutonium produced was not used to make nuclear weapons. In 1994 the DPRK decided to extract the plutonium from the fuel cells and the inspectors were asked to leave. They returned when the “framework agreement” had been concluded. One part of this agreement was that the United States should build two nuclear power plants of the light-water type, but this project did not advance far. Later the inspectors were expelled, returned again and now they have again been asked to leave as a consequence of the decision by the UN Security Council to condemn the DPRK missile test.
In 2005 the DPRK left the NPT. This is permitted under “extraordinary circumstances” regarding the security of the country. It was not obvious that such circumstances applied at the time. The Security Council demanded later that the DPRK should completely stop its nuclear program, North Korea obeyed and started the dismantlement.
Why is North Korea not allowed to test missiles?
The Security Council decided also (SC Resolution 1718) to demand that the DPRK should stop its “ballistic program”, and not test offensive missiles. There are reasons to question whether the Council had any legal basis for this decision. Why is North Korea, alone among all countries in the world, not allowed to test missiles? It is also doubtful if the Security Council’s condemnation of North Korea's recent missile test, - allegedly to launch a satellite - represents a correct interpretation of Resolution 1718.
The Security Council makes its decision in accordance with the interests of its five permanent members, if they can agree. North Korea has no friends among the SC or anywhere else. China, its most important trade partner, certainly does not want any unnecessary quarrel with its poor neighbour, but neither does it want to oppose the U.S. more than necessary. Both North Korea and the U.S. has strong reasons to exaggerate the threat from DPRK. For the U.S. a strong DPRK serves both as an argument for maintaining the American military dominance over South Korea and Japan and as an excuse for not abolishing its nuclear weapons.
What does the DPRK want?
Why is North Korea causing all this fuss? Because it deems that it serves it well. North Korea and primarily its weird dictator are back on the front pages. That strengthens Kim Jong Il, inside the country and among the ruling clique. His status is solidified when he defies the Security Council and the big powers. Furthermore the DPRK can, by promising once again to abandon its staggering nuclear program, obtain deliveries of rice and oil. If the DPRK, which is technically still at war with the USA, really wants a peace agreement it ought to be tested in serious negotiations between the two countries. One gets the suspicion that, perhaps, both countries need each other as enemies?
But isn’t North Korea an unusually bad rogue state in the international community? Certainly, if you think of the terrifying oppression within the country, probably worse than in any other state. But regarding lack of respect for international agreements and laws, it is not a worse offender than many other countries. Specifically concerning nuclear weapons, what North Korea now does is not as serious as what India, Pakistan and Israel have done. Israel, in addition, has defied a large number of very explicit decisions by the Security Council. The difference is therefore to be found in the rather different attitudes in these cases by the big powers. Sanctions against Israel have never been carried out, neither has even a weapons embargo.
The greatest threat
The five “old” nuclear weapon states - Russia, the United States, France, China and Great Britain break international agreements to a far larger extent than North Korea when they refuse to carry out their explicit and solemnly made pledges to abolish their nuclear weapons. On the contrary they retain, at least the first-mentioned three of them, their “right” to holding all humankind hostage by keeping thousands of nuclear weapons in immediate firing preparedness, “Hair Trigger Alert”. Two men, two men only, the President of Russia and the President of the United States, can exterminate humankind by pressing a button.
Does that not represent the greatest crime against international security today?
North Korea is one of the worst dictatorships in today's world. The repression is probably more effective and more pervasive in North Korea than anywhere else. Militarily, the DPRK is a potential threat against South Korea. Even in Japan there seems to be a certain degree of fear of aggression from North Korea. Artillery from the North is said to have the capacity to destroy Seoul from bases north of the border. The large army with more than one million soldiers might in a complete surprise attack reach far into South Korea before it is stopped by air forces from South Korea and the U.S.. There would be no need for nuclear weapons to be used in the defense. But before we get that far into speculations: Why would North Korea take the first step into such a suicidal mission?
So what “shall we have to do” about the problem the DPRK? I certainly have some perspectives and suggestions, but that would require another article.
Former President of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, IPPNW.