Tuesday, February 01, 2005

North Korea: The Doomsday Nation

Because of the paper's unreliability, I usually don't post anything from New York Times on my blog as factual. This article on North Korea's uranium-based bomb program, however, meets my standards because it makes sense, and a while back I predicted the scenario outlined by the reporters.

Scientific tests have led American intelligence agencies and government scientists to conclude with near certainty that North Korea sold processed uranium to Libya, bolstering earlier indications that the reclusive state exported sensitive fuel for atomic weapons, according to officials with access to the intelligence.

Now, intelligence officials say, extensive testing conducted at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee over the last several months has concluded that the material did not originate in Pakistan or other suspect countries, and one official said that "with a certainty of 90 percent or better, this stuff's from North Korea." One recently retired Pentagon official who has long experience dealing with North Korea said the new finding was "huge, because it changes the whole equation with the North."

"It suggests we don't have time to sit around and wait for the outcome of negotiations," he said. "It's a scary conclusion because you don't know who else they may have sold to."
But not only does the US have to deal with the threat of proliferation, we also have to understand that North Korea also likely has a working uranium-based atomic bomb based on a simple and highly reliable design that doesn't require testing. One only needs to review the history of America's Manhattan Project to understand what North Korea has probably done since its nuclear weapons program first made headlines back in the early 1990s.

Scientists working on the Manhattan Project during WW2 simultaneously pursued bombs based on plutonium and uranium cores for the simple reason that it increased the chance that the US could produce a working bomb design. If one bomb-type proved to be infeasible, the scientists would have the other as a fallback. American ingenuity eventually led to three working bombs, one based on uranium and the other two on plutonium. The scientists were confident that the uranium bomb would work; however, there were too many unknowns in the plutonium bomb, and so they decided to test one of the plutonium bombs in the New Mexico desert. It worked, and so the US was left with two atomic bombs which it soon dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

North Korea's pursuit of both the uranium and plutonium bombs through secret and overt means is likely to be part of a plan by Kim Il-Sung and successor Kim Jong-Il to ensure the survival of their regime. Logically, one might conclude that North Korea would not have signed the 1994 Agreed Framework treaty with the United States if it did not already have a working uranium-based bomb or at the very least, an advanced uranium enrichment program. In retrospect, the Clinton and Bush Administrations should have known that North Korea would pursue both the uranium and plutonium bomb routes, since almost every nuclear power to-date has similarly "hedged" themselves. The Bush Administration--with evidence gathered from defectors, satellite imagery and forensic means--quickly came to this conclusion. North Korea later admitted to this as such at a meeting with American diplomats in late 2002.

Of course, North Korea could be merely bluffing about their uranium program, but they would still have the weapons-grade plutonium fuel rods that they were inexplicably permitted to keep under the 1994 AF treaty. Given the paranoid nature of the Kim regime, I consider it unlikely that North Korea would have voluntarily given up its nuclear program in 1994 without having an "ace-in-the hole" (a working uranium bomb) in reserve.

Many pundits, including my sister-in-law who is a Beijing-based reporter for AFP, believe that North Korea has atomic weapons only as a deterrent and would never use or sell them. I happen to disagree with this Cold War-era logic. North Korea is a nation unlike any other, and its leadership is willing to think the unthinkable. If the North Korean leadership--huddled safely in their inpenetratable underground bunkers--believes that it can gain a military and political advantage by using or selling nuclear weapons, then their eventual use or sale by the North Koreans is a foregone conclusion. In this mode of thinking, North Korea would bank on the first use of nuclear weapons [either by itself, another rouge nation or terrorist group] to force a casualty-averse United States to sue for peace. Given that most Democratic Party leaders are willing to abandon Iraq at a moment's notice, this line of reasoning is not out of the question.


At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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I'll add this url to my list of blocked sites so i never waste my time here again. UGH!
Now Scotty, get me out of here!!


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