Politics & Policy

North Korean Nuclear Theater

Not worth the price of admission.

In attempting to get North Korea to disable its nuclear-weapons program, Washington is now bargaining for theater. On May 20, the White House announced that North Korea had agreed to blow up the cooling tower of its only declared plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon for all the world to see. The event could occur anytime in the next few weeks. Expect televised coverage, with U.S. officials confirming in stern optimism that our diplomatic efforts are finally paying off.

Unfortunately, in this drama what won’t get nearly as much notice is what’s going on off stage, which is at least as eye-popping. On May 14, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believe Pyongyang has squired away more than the 30 kilograms of weapons usable plutonium that it has declared to U.S. negotiators. Despite the 18,822 pages of operating records that Pyongyang handed over to U.S. officials to “document” its plutonium holdings, the U.S. intelligence community has determined that North Korea has stashed not 30, but 35 to 60 kilograms of plutonium. That’s enough additional bomb fuel to make quickly one to six additional primitive nuclear weapons.

Why does this discrepancy matter? Well, those most eager to give North Korea a pass on its past nuclear misbehavior insist that if we don’t, Pyongyang will only make more and better bombs and continue to sell nuclear goods to scary states. Yet, given the decrepit state of North Korea’s known nuclear-production plant (capable of no more than a bomb’s worth of plutonium a year, if that) and our demonstrated inability to detect Pyongyang’s nuclear exports reliably (and our disinclination to sanction them even when we do discover them), all of this seems inane. Certainly, if our intelligence-community estimates are correct, it could take North Korea at least until 2014 to make again as many weapons’ worth of plutonium as they may already have hidden away. The North, in short, may have a hidden stockpile large enough to produce a future nuclear breakout crisis even if it surrenders its declared stash of 30 kilograms of plutonium immediately and ceases further nuclear production. You would think this would argue in favor of being hardnosed now about North Korea’s failures to ’fess up, if only to spare the world possible nuclear shocks later.

Such realism, however, does not compute for those eager to show Pyongyang is fulfilling its February 2007 nuclear “disablement” pledges (no, it’s not nuclear disarmament, and U.S. officials are still unclear on exactly what it is supposed to cover). Sure, they know that Pyongyang has never admitted to having exported a plutonium-production reactor to Syria in violation of its pledge to disclose all. They also concede that North Korea has yet to come clean on covertly developing uranium enrichment to make uranium bombs and even admit that it is lying about how much plutonium it has on hand (also, in violation of earlier agreements).

To them, however, none of this much matters. We should get back to these problems later, they insist, and even reward Pyongyang now with more fuel oil shipments and normalized U.S. trade relations (i.e., dropping them from our trade list of terrorist states). We must pocket whatever nuclear restraint and “disablement” we can get, they argue. Otherwise, we risk only seeing Pyongyang regress to its worst proliferating ways.

All of this, for the reasons noted above, is a bit unhinged. Again, what these nuclear-disablement enthusiasts are most worried about — North Korea breaking out with more nuclear weapons or resuming illicit nuclear exports — either can’t be reliably detected or could just as likely occur if we don’t press them now about their nuclear past.

As for the production reactor at Yongbyon, nobody seems to know what it is capable of. Those eager to keep talking say it is already disabled and too old to function. They may well be right (in which case, North Korea’s destruction of the reactor’s cooling tower is a literally hollow gesture). More skeptical souls, however, fear the reactor could still be brought back on line — and, even without a cooling tower, might still work, with water from an adjacent river performing the tower’s function.

This technical dispute will surely generate fascinating footnotes to someone’s doctoral dissertation. It is not, however, the central point Washington policymakers should be focused on now. Instead, they need to understand that keeping this show going will come at the expense of our efforts to block the bomb’s further spread. Specifically, humoring North Korea when it lies and behaves badly will only encourage other nuclear-ambitious states, like Iran.

In any case, it would be a mistake to celebrate North Korea’s cooling-tower act as nuclear disarmament in our time. Instead, North Korea’s nuclear program should be seen for what it is — a hellacious mess that will only be cleaned up when the current criminal crowd running North Korea is taken off stage and ushered out.

– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and was just appointed by Congress to serve on the Commission to Prevent WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.


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