NORTH KOREA’S WEAPONS PROGRAMMES: A Net Assessment, by International Institute for Strategic Studies staff. Palgrave Macmillan, 80pp., 2004, $90 (paper).

To America’s hard men of the right, North Korea harbors a full and fearsome array of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, and the willingness to sell them to any passing “ne’re do well” terrorist.

On the shores of forecasting, views have begun to soften as the claim that North Korea within 12 months will be able to produce nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit Britain remains unverified.

“North Korea’s Weapons Programmes” sets the record straight on North Korea’s likely arsenal.

In 1994, North Korea had a functioning 5-megawatt graphite moderated nuclear reactor and another 50-MW reactor close to completion, both capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a deal to mothball both in exchange for a series of political and economic promises including annual delivery of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) until two 500-MW proliferation-resistant light water reactors (LWR) were completed in 2003 by a U.S.-South Korea-Japan and EU Consortium.

As far as many in the United States were concerned, the deal was designed to provide time for the “failed regime” to collapse, but North Korea refused to act out this U.S.-ordained role and stubbornly survived.

When Japanese-North Korean relations seemed to be improving, the Bush administration sabotaged the rapprochement by claiming that North Korea had a secret highly enriched uranium (HEU) program that could produce nuclear weapons. Then it cut off the only part of the 1994 promises that were kept, the HFO deliveries, and terminated the LWR program. North Korea took its only option: reopening its nuclear reactor and reprocessing the stored fuel rods. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the threats of U.S. military intervention.

This book gives a realistic picture. First, North Korea at best has plutonium for a maximum of six to 12 weapons, none of which has been tested. No significant further plutonium will be available until after 2010.

Second, this study and more recent information from Pakistan and elsewhere indicate that North Korea almost certainly has blueprints for HEU weapons, but does not have the specialized material, let alone the components, for an HEU program. Nor does it have the independent power stations capable of delivering the constant steady supply of electricity necessary for operating thousands of gas centrifuges.

On the missile front, based on a joint Chinese-North Korean program initiated in 1975 (East Wind 61), North Korea has several hundred Hwasong and Nodong missiles capable of hitting South Korea (with the latter capable of striking Japan) and the Taepodong series of missiles.

Yet the Hwasong is too small to carry a nuclear weapon, and the Nodong would struggle to cope with the heavier and larger HEU bomb. Back in 1998, North Korea attempted to launch the satellite Kwangmyongsong using the long-range Taepodong missile, but the Taepodong platform’s third stage failed to ignite properly.

Even if adapted for military use, the Taepodong’s extended range doesn’t cover the U.S., and the payload is way too low to carry nuclear weapons. No further testing of the Taepodong has taken place following the country’s self-imposed moratorium at the EU Troika’s request in 1999.

This assessment concludes that there almost certainly are battlefield chemical weapons in some quantity but that North Korea probably has not produced biological weapons, although it is capable of doing so.

North Korea’s WMD program is to be deplored, but it must be seen in perspective. The country is outspent and outgunned by South Korea, whose military budget is four times that of North Korea. The military budget of the U.S. — North Korea’s main threat — is 40 times greater and rising.

North Korea also has little incentive to export “terror.” The consequences would likely be terminal. The risk is only worth taking for billions, and even al-Qaeda doesn’t have the money. If anyone is going to sell to “terrorists,” it’s likely to be a private-sector initiative in the former Soviet Union.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies has made it clear that there is time to negotiate a comprehensive solution: one that will provide a commitment to nonaggression from the U.S., an international commitment to humanitarian aid and development assistance in exchange for North Korea’s ending its nuclear-weapons program and committing to join the international community.

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