North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Challenge

Volume 1, Number 36, November 22, 2010

The revelation regarding North Korea’s Yongbyon uranium-enrichment plant provides new insight into long-held suspicions about the country’s enrichment efforts, but also raises new questions. More importantly, it demonstrates that the proliferation challenge from North Korea will continue to grow if it is not addressed, and pursuing renewed negotiations with Pyongyang is the only viable option to tackle the problem.

What We Know

Dr. Siegfried Hecker has revealed that North Korea has a 2,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. North Korea claims that the facility will produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for a light-water reactor (LWR) North Korea has also revealed that it is constructing at the same complex, but the plant can be converted to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons. North Korea likely has a smaller-scale facility elsewhere which it operated before progressing to this point. That facility may have already been used to produce small amounts of HEU, as U.S. technicians detected HEU particles on North Korean aluminum tubing and the operating records of key nuclear facilities in 2008. Whether or not North Korea has other facilities of the scale viewed by Hecker which are dedicated to a military program is unknown.  Finding out will be a difficult prospect without a verifiable denuclearization process.

A recent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) assessment suggested that North Korea intensified its procurement efforts for a gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment program over the past several years, and acquired enough materials for a pilot-scale plant. This procurement would have built on early and sustained assistance from Pakistan during the 1990s and early 2000s. The apparent sophistication of the Yongbyon enrichment plant does raise questions as to whether Pyongyang received enough centrifuges and centrifuge components from Pakistan at that time to build a 2,000-machine facility, or if North Korea continued to receive assistance form other sources, such as Iran, after the AQ Khan network was shut down. Iran also received materials, equipment, and technology for the P-1 and P-2 centrifuges from Pakistan and has carried out extensive work on enrichment. Whereas Iran has primarily focused on the P-1 model, however, North Korea’s Yongbyon plant is apparently based on the P-2 variety.

What This Means for North Korea’s Weapons Capabilities

In the long term, if North Korea's capability is not addressed, this new plant will likely advance its nuclear capabilities. Once the facility becomes fully operational, and it is not certain that it is despite North Korean claims to that effect, it would be capable of producing enough material for 1-2 bombs each year. This is roughly the same rate at which it produced plutonium for its weapons. However, Pyongyang would still need to turn that material into a weapon, and then develop a means to deliver it. Plutonium-based weapons, which North Korea has relied on to date, are easier to miniaturize to fit on a missile, and North Korea may not have developed such a capability up to this point. Such miniaturization for HEU weapons will likely prove even more challenging and could require additional nuclear test explosions.

In the meantime, this development does not move North Korean military capabilities forward. In fact, North Korea seems to have abandoned the prospect of restarting its plutonium-producing reactor in the near term. The fastest way to begin producing nuclear material again would have been to restart its existing reactor by rebuilding the cooling tower and refueling it. Instead, Pyongyang is building a light water reactor where the cooling tower would have been and built an enrichment plant in the fuel fabrication facility for the plutonium-producing reactor. This does not rule out a reconstitution of the existing reactor operations, but Pyongyang has made the enrichment effort a priority, apparently at the expense of the plutonium program.

This means that, until North Korea can effectively run its centrifuges to produce HEU for weapons, its stockpile of weapons material is still limited at around 10 weapons, and likely fewer. On that basis, there remains an opportunity to cap the military program. Unfortunately, it also means North Korea is likely to argue that its “peaceful” enrichment program is off limits in any negotiation, pursuing a similar argument as that of Iran.

It is also important to remember that, while North Korea will not likely hesitate to use the enrichment plant to make HEU, just as Pyongyang genuinely wants the ability to launch satellites and long-range ballistic missiles, they do seem to want to have both a military nuclear capability and a capability that can be used for nuclear power. The possession of a light-water reactor program has been an issue of political symbolism for North Korea. That does not mean that North Korea should be able to violate its obligations for symbolic reasons, but that motivation should be considered when determining the nature of the threat that Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment efforts pose and ways to rollback its nuclear program.

What Needs to Be Done

There is only one way to seriously address this development and North Korea’s nuclear program as a whole, and that is through engagement. There are no viable military options and, even with the most stringent sanctions to date in force, North Korea was still able to construct this new plant. Moreover, this development should give pause to those who wish to pursue “strategic patience,” because Pyongyang is only using that patience to move its nuclear program forward.

The latest situation requires a renewed diplomatic push, led by Washington, in concert with its allies and China, aimed at freezing and then verifiably dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program without further delay. The construction of this new plant likely means that such a process will be drawn out even longer, with many steps being taken to roll back North Korea’s nuclear activities, but that means it is all the more important to start sooner rather than later, before Pyongyang expands its capabilities even further.

At the same time, the development of this plant is a violation of North Korea's denuclearization obligations and North Korea could not have acquired the materials and technology without violating international sanctions. The international community, and in particular the members of the UN Security Council and the Six-Party Talks participants, cannot turn a blind eye to such transgressions. In fact, North Korean tricks to skirt the sanctions were described in detail in the recent UN North Korea sanctions committee panel report.

China, as North Korea’s key economic and political partner, has an important role to play in demonstrating that Pyongyang cannot violate its obligations with impunity. Beijing may have sought to delay or prevent the publication of the UN panel report, but it cannot run from its findings and implications. Particularly since North Korea is believed to acquire many of the materials that it needs for its enrichment program through front companies based in China, it is in Beijing’s own interest to ensure that its territory is not being used to circumvent the very sanctions that it voted to put in place. Beijing should be able to address North Korean proliferation without undercutting its concerns about the stability of the regime, and the impact instability would have for China.

There is also an important lesson to be learned from the history of U.S. efforts to address the North’s suspected uranium-enrichment program. In 2002, the United States accused North Korea of pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, leading it to halt the implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, resulting in North Korea’s unfreezing of its plutonium program and its development of a nuclear weapons capability. But in the years since, the size and sophistication of that program came in doubt, and there was little evidence that North Korea had developed a functioning facility geared towards producing HEU for weapons.

It appears that it is only now, eight years after the Bush Administration scuttled the Agreed Framework, that North Korea has a pilot facility that could be used eventually to produce HEU. In other words, by acting on exaggerated threat perceptions, a working diplomatic process was abandoned in favor of a strategy of isolation and sanctions, which did nothing to stop North Korea from producing enough material for up to a dozen nuclear weapons and carrying out nuclear tests.

A diplomatic process is not easy, and the United States and its allies should not pay any asking price North Korea brings to the table over its nuclear activities. But we should not be afraid to go to the table to glean from the North Koreans directly what their positions and motivations are, and convey to them directly where our red lines are and what they stand to benefit from a change in direction. – PETER CRAIL

For more information see these additional ACA Resources on North Korea

ACA Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball responds to the revelation over the uranium-enrichment facility in the ArmsControlNow blog post, “North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Gambit Signals Trouble Ahead and the Need for Active U.S. Engagement with Pyongyang.”

The following articles: “Can Washington and Seoul Try Dealing With Pyongyang for a Change?” by Leon Sigal, and  “Work at North Korea Reactor Site Unclear” by Peter Crail, can be found in the current issue of Arms Control Today.

Also see ACA’s detailed Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.