09 October 2006

Not Good

"The field of scientific research in the DPRK successfully conducted an underground nuclear test under secure conditions on October 9, 2006, at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation."

That is the opening sentence of North Korea's announcement to the world of their test of a nuclear weapon. The statement doesn't confirm if the device was plutonium or uranium based.

Seventeen years ago, the U.S. accused North Korea of pursuing nuclear weapons based, in part, on sattelite images of a suspected reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty five years later; and a year after that, U.S. and North Korean delegations settled on the Agreed Framework to suspend operations at Yongbyon and the construction of two other facilities in exchange for two light water reactors by 2003 and 500,000 tons of heavy oil fuel annually until the LWRs were operational.

The Agreed Framework did not prohibit, and the North Koreans did not cease, the continued uranium mining and milling at Pyongsan and Pakchon, or the continued uranium purification at Yongbyon. The pact was basically an attempt to get North Korea to cease aspects of its nuclear program as it related to the production of components for a weapons program, and the primary source of the nuclear material for a weapon that concerned everyone at the time was plutonium that would have needed to be refined from the spent fuel rods from the reactor at Yongbyon. Uranium would need to be enriched in centrifuges, which North Korea was not believed to have.

Unfortunately, it appears that North Korea provided missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistan's nuclear technology, including the transfer of uranium enriching centrifuges to North Korea. The U.S. accused North Korea of having a secret uranium enrichment program in 2002, and recent statements in a book by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seem to confirm that accusation.

There has been postulation that the recent nuclear test by North Korea used plutonium instead of uranium, but I don't know if that truly matters. Even without weapons grade plutonium, North Korea would have likely possessed enriched uranium which could have been used in a weapon. They have not been an honest or reliable partner in nuclear weapons negotiations since the 1990s, and something will need to be done to prevent their ability to build a nuclear arsenal or, worse, to provide materials and technology for the same to nations or organizations who may not possess the same desire for survival that will most likely keep Kim Jong-Il from doing more than just threatening to use those weapons.

Consider also that Iran's program is primarily uranium based, pulling fuel from LWRs and enriching it in centrifuges allegedly provided by Pakistan. How close may Iran be to nuclear weapons, and how will we deter them now that North Korea has apparently joined the nuclear club?

The whole world just got a whole lot uglier overnight.


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