Escalation, North Korean Style

Apr 5, 2013

By Sharon Squassoni

Two months ago, North Korea conducted a third nuclear weapons test, prompting a rebuke from the UN Security Council and more sanctions from the United States and others. Amid the torrid rhetoric of preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States, some of Pyongyang’s activities, like moving missiles around and restricting the flow of foreign workers into the Kaesong Industrial Complex, seem designed to enhance North Korea’s posturing rather than its security. Part of the challenge in this tense month of April on the peninsula is determining how far Kim Jong Un might actually go in demonstrating a nuclear capability. Two recent announcements about its nuclear program offer ambiguous clues.
 
The first is an April 1st law passed by the parliament consolidating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) status as a nuclear weapons state. This reads like a nuclear weapons posture statement. Among the ten points, the first two are devoted to the objectives of nuclear weapons: defense, deterrence, “repelling the aggression and attack of the enemy against the DPRK and dealing deadly retaliatory blows.” The fourth point clarifies that “the nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”  This sounds like a no-first-use policy, oddly enough.
 
The laws next point is designed as an assurance to non-nuclear-weapon states: “The DPRK shall neither use nukes against the non-nuclear states nor threaten them with those weapons unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion and attack on the DPRK.”  Of course, this would include South Korea and Japan, which undoubtedly would join any military action in this area. The sixth and seventh points assure the world that the DPRK will manage, safeguard, and protect its nuclear weapons from theft or unauthorized use.  In addition to a last point about implementation, the remaining two points offer the DPRK’s cooperation in nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament.
 
Whether this accurately describes a real policy is in some respects irrelevant. In the worst case (that is, failure of disarmament talks), it would be years before any details about North Korean nuclear weapons could provide evidence that North Korea would act in this fashion.  It’s important to recognize that the audience for this statement is primarily foreign: the careful inclusion of elements regarding nuclear weapons use, command and control, security and accountability, suggest an attempt to depict North Korea as a “responsible” nuclear weapon state. It also seems designed to enhance North Korea’s bargaining hand if it should decide to return to talks.
 
The second announcement earlier this week was that North Korea would put all its nuclear facilities to use in expanding the quantity and quality of its nuclear weapons. This likely means a restart of its mothballed 5 MW reactor that had produced plutonium for its nuclear weapons program and a ramp-up in uranium enrichment. Other facilities (larger reactors) are unlikely to be resurrected.
 
No matter what, a significant qualitative and quantitative improvement in North Korea’s nuclear weapons is not on the imminent horizon. First, the 5 MW reactor can only produce about one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year.  It is probably the quickest route to producing more plutonium (others include the new light water reactor under construction and the old, larger reactor construction sites that were abandoned), but its timeline depends on two factors: reinstalling a cooling system and fabricating fuel. In 2008, the cooling tower for the reactor was destroyed, as well as some piping.  In December 2011, the General Bureau of Atomic Energy told visitors that it had a way to replace the cooling tower.
 
Recent analysis suggests that North Korea could connect pipes underground to a new pumping station at Yongbyon that has been built for the new light water reactor under construction.  Even if this could happen tomorrow, fresh plutonium for weapons would not emerge from the end of the process for more than a year, allowing for irradiation, cooling time, and reprocessing. And although officials from the General Bureau of Atomic Energy also stated in December 2011 that they had 100 tons of fuel available, enough for two cores for the 5 MW reactor, some of this fuel could need work before it can be used in the 5 MW reactor. However, the status of North Korea’s fuel fabrication capabilities is uncertain, given the substantial disablement of the original facilities under the Six Party Talks.
 
On the uranium side, the statement may indicate that Pyongyang will move towards enriching to weapons-grade levels rather than the 3.5% enrichment level to which they have publicly admitted, or that it will expand capacity. North Korean officials have in the past admitted to having some technical problems in the program, which they described as “quite natural.”
 
Over time, these technical problems are likely to be worked out. The reference to enhancing the “quality” of nuclear weapons could mean the North will mate its warheads to missiles, which would require miniaturization (a topic hotly debated), or that it will pursue a variety of techniques to boost yields while reducing size. With just three nuclear weapons tests under their belt, none of these developments is an immediate concern. However, all of these developments point to the need to find a way to get back to the negotiating table.
 
Ms. Sharon Squassoni serves as director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at CSIS.

This blog post is also available on CSIS's Asia Policy Blog, cogitASIA.