Current State of North Korea’s Nuclear Infrastructure

The Current State of North Korea’s Nuclear Infrastructure

The Current State of North Korea’s Nuclear Infrastructure

By: Jason Ackerman

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea, has over the last fifty years become enormously invested in nuclear power and technology. While in recent years Pyongyang has focused on trying to achieve energy independence based on nuclear power, the primary purpose for their nuclear ambitions is military in application. The old philosophical concept of Juche (the Spirit of Self-Reliance) formed the ideological cornerstone for a robust and advanced nuclear power grid that would drive civilian and military industries. During the administration of Kim Jong-Il, the national ideology was further refined and morphed into Songun (the ‘Military First’ Policy). This shift would have a profound impact on the application of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and directly led to the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. North Korea perceives its nuclear capabilities as essential to deter aggression by those they consider their regional rivals, and to maintain a level of, what is in their opinion, prestige on the world stage.


“Our nuclear strength is a reliable war deterrent and a guarantee to protect our sovereignty,”
-Kim Jong-un (March 31st, 2013)

In North Korea the military is the institution around which all others orbit. In addition to its dominance over all other aspects of national life, the military is the instrument that wields the most influence in their relations with other countries.  In the last twenty years the vast North Korean nuclear energy complex has been appropriated by the Songun policy and much of the civilian expertise and materials diverted to projects focusing on highly enriched uranium and plutonium production.  Current nuclear weapons production is spilt between two major sectors. First are IRBM (Intermediate-range ballistic missile [BM25 Musudan]) and ICBM (Intercontinental ballistic missile [KN-08 and the KN-14]) missile deployment and construction of launch infrastructure, such as mobile launch vehicles, nautical based launchers, and stationary launch pads. The control and maintenance of these fall under a branch of the Korean People’s Army known as Strategic Rocket Forces. Second is the weapons-grade fissile material enrichment and reprocessing industry which is operated by the Ministry of Armed Forces.

There are two current nuclear weapons systems being developed by the Korean People’s Army. The Taepodong-2, which has yet to be successfully tested, will be North Korea’s primary Inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). The newest addition to the North Korean arsenal is the BM25 Musudan missile, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).  These missiles, while never fully deployed, may set off a regional arms race with South Korea and Japan.  Current estimates put the number of nuclear warheads under North Korean control from around ten to sixteen.  In contrast to the relatively small number of nuclear warheads in their possession, there has been a massive buildup in launch infrastructure, including mobile launch vehicles and stationary launch platforms capable of firing both IRBM and ICBMs. In addition to these upgrades, the North Korean Navy has purchased several ships, including submarines, capable of being fitted out to launch tactical nuclear missiles [specifically the KN-11 modified KN-08].  Considering the amount of resources and capital Pyongyang has put into its missile systems and large growing array of launch sites, it is reasonable to assume that expansion of nuclear arms production will continue and that it is heavily factored into North Korean long term military planning and strategic operations. The military establishment and, by extension, the military-industrial complex of the DPRK is dependent upon the idea that the nation is under a state of siege from enemies without and within. The nuclear weapons program provides an outlet for the military to continue to enjoy its prominence in society while at the same time perpetuating the country’s place as an international pariah. This in turn makes the military’s influence grow even further.

In the last decade North Korea has viewed its ballistic missile and nuclear technological knowledge not only as a military deterrent but a lucrative trade commodity. In the last twenty years there has been a steady exportation of missile technology in exchange for cash payments and sometimes for the importation of nuclear material and knowledge. Since North Korea is considered a rogue state by many in the international community, it tends to do business with other authoritarian regimes and rogue states. North Korean technical advisors along with some Iranian counterparts have recently assisted the Assad regime in Syria to maintain and expand its SCUD-4 program.  Considering Iran’s desire to expand its uranium enrichment program, its strong ties to Damascus, and the pressure the Iran-Syrian alliance is coming under from their neighbors, these weapons projects, which include North Korea, can lead to further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and push other countries to develop their own nuclear deterrent in response. In 2010 the United Nations Security Council issued a report which specifically states that North Korea had in the past, and still is, supplying nuclear and ballistic missile technology, much of which is banned by international treaties, to several countries including Syria, Yemen, Myanmar (Burma), and Iran. The special U.N. panel report further stated that North Korea “has the capability as well as the propensity to provide nuclear and ballistic missiles related equipment, facilities, technical advice to and through clients overseas.” The report points to “evidence provided in these reports indicates that the DPRK has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria since the imposition of these measures.”

The current phase of North Korea’s nuclear interaction with the greater international community began in 2007 with the sixth round of the Six-Party talks. The six parties consist of the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. The negotiators attempted to work toward an agreement which would diffuse the tenuous potential nuclear standoff by giving North Korea sixty days to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for aid and the lifting of certain economic sanctions. Significant progress was made including the shutting down and partial dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor; an aging relic built with Soviet assistance in the 1960’s.  These negotiations went on successfully, with North Korea in full compliance with IAEA inspectors, and even led to the joint agreement to start “Second-Phase Actions.” The list of the Second-Phase goals was more ambitious than the first and included a complete North Korean declaration of all nuclear programs and materials, both civilian and military, to the IAEA and the dismantlement of all fuel production and reprocessing facilities at the main Yongbyon reactor.  In April of 2009 talks broke down over a dispute over the launch of a missile which North Korean officials said was merely an attempt to put a Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite into orbit for broadcasting purposes. The United Nations denounced this action as a smokescreen for what was in fact an ICBM test; a test expressly forbidden by previous agreements.  This incident came at a time when the leadership within North Korea was undergoing a major transition. Kim Jong-Il, who had led the country as Supreme Leader for 15 years was in extremely poor health and was preparing for the coming transition to power of his son Kim Jong-un.  Later on that year North Korea received international condemnation for an underground nuclear test detonation of a scaled down warhead, in direct violation of UNSC Resolution 1718, which lead to directly to UNSC Resolution 1874.  UNSC Resolution 1874 would expressly demand a complete halt to the North Korean nuclear weapons program, impose sanctions on any monetary transactions whose intention would be to aid those programs, and would in effect constitute an import/export arms embargo on all military equipment aside from small arms and ammunition. This would put a serious roadblock in the trade dealings of a nation already under severe economic sanctions, costing it capital it could ill afford to lose.

Currently the North Korean military nuclear program has continued without much regard for the will of the international community and will continue to use their status as a nuclear weapons state as a bargaining chip in the foreseeable future. The reopening and expansion of its heavy water reactor and plutonium reprocessing plant will make the North Korean nuclear threat increase exponentially in the coming years. Only with their third nuclear weapons test in 2013 did economic sanctions imposed by China, North Korea’s main trading partner and only regional ally, had the potential effect of bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. However, these steps may just constitute smoke and mirrors on the part of China, trying to be seen in a more legitimate role in international affairs. “China has said it wants the U.N. measures enforced, but few analysts believe Beijing will take steps that significantly hurt North Korea as it is committed to a policy of engagement with Pyongyang…China has stepped up checks on shipments to and from North Korea, but the flow of goods in and out of the reclusive state appears largely unaffected, according to more than a dozen trading firms Reuters spoke to recently.”  In the past severe economic and political sanctions, while having some serious effects, have been written off by Pyongyang as an acceptable cost of playing regional power-politics.

North Korea has been pursuing nuclear power for the past several decades. The original goal was to foster energy independence. The current state of the North Korean civilian nuclear power program is quite advanced and growing. With the reopening of the Yongbyon power plant and its expansion, the ability for North Korea to create fuel for its reactors is essential to their long term domestic energy goals.  Of course these new reactors can be used for reprocessing used fuel rods and the plutonium it gains has civilian as well as military uses.  In the past, used fuel rods were buried or stored to comply with the UN and IAEA agreements reached in the last decade. Since the collapse of the Six-Party talks, reprocessing facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center have been reopened.  North Korea has also invested in a new scientific nuclear reactor which will use highly enriched uranium, officially for medical and scientific civilian research purposes. In addition to these upgrades, in 2009 construction began on a brand new Light-Water reactor (LWR) at the Yongbyon facility.  While LWRs have been used in North Korea since the 1980’s, this new reactor design is much more efficient to produce nuclear power and uses regular water as opposed to heavy-water, which must be manufactured, as a coolant.  Refurbished centrifuges are being combined with newly assembled centrifuge systems to increase the speed and volume of uranium enrichment. While official statements declare these new assemblies exist to supply medical and experimental reactors, that motivation seems unlikely. “Developing estimates of future production of fissile material is complicated because North Korea’s rationale for building a gas centrifuge plant is not well understood. The UEP’s [uranium enrichment program] purpose may be more involved than only producing 3.5 percent LEU [low-enriched uranium] for a civilian LWR or for that matter just making WGU [weapon’s grade uranium] for fission weapons similar to its plutonium based weapons. In fact, the development of gas centrifuges provides North Korea with flexibility in building more sophisticated nuclear weapons.”  The North Korean nuclear power grid fills many voids for their scientific, energy, military, and political needs. It’s a source of national pride, of national self-determination, and at its core, defiance. Propaganda aside, to understand the intensity the desire for nuclear energy is on the part of the North Korean government is to understand that far too much time, money, and emotional capital have been invested in these long term projects. It would not be likely for Pyongyang to give them up without a considerable amount of compensation. Even if that agreement could be worked out, it seems likely based on past performance that they still wouldn’t be willing to negotiate in good faith.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has at its heart a firm belief in its national destiny. In the decades after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, faced with serious economic and political challenges, they have used nuclear technology as a way to further promote energy independence, expand their technological capabilities, and deter foreign powers. Morality aside, North Korea is a textbook example of the reasons states seek to develop nuclear weapons. In the years since their first official nuclear weapons test, North Korea stepped out from obscurity onto the world stage. While still an extremely closed country and international pariah, the nuclear capabilities they possess force the world powers into negotiation. With China as their largest trading partner and military ally, North Korea can continue to thumb its nose at the western powers and extort aid at regular intervals. This situation may seem strange, but considering the military is in control of every aspect of life in North Korea, the erratic foreign policy starts to show signs of a pattern. Nuclear technology has been an essential part of the nation’s power supply, a major element in their domestic propaganda, and a continued excuse to give over more control of the nation’s resources to the military high command. The military establishment actually desires the rogue status given to them by the international community. In order to justify their oppressive control over the economy and population at home, they must be able to show that the country is constantly on the verge of attack by omnipresent enemies. The huge invest of monetary and political capital North Korea has made in its nuclear weapons program essentially purchases the perpetual continuation of the present regime.

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