HEU is a problem because it is the direct cause of the 2nd North Korea nuclear crisis. The nuclear program that North Korea allegedly admitted to during an October 2002 visit by U.S. Assistant Sec. of State James Kelly involves HEU. The nuclear fuel material, uranium, turns into plutonium after it is used in a reactor. Therefore, one can calculate the level of weapon-grade plutonium extracted by examining the operation levels of nuclear reactors. The extraction of plutonium, which can be monitored and controlled, does not in itself imply intent to develop nuclear weapons. In contrast, the production of HEU does constitute in itself intent to develop nuclear weapons.
Two main issues concerning HEU are troubling the U.S. and North Korea.
First of all, the actual existence of HEU or an HEU program is a topic of debate. The U.S. claims that it has sufficient evidence and that North Korea also privately admitted to the program’s existence in October 2002. However, the U.S. has been refusing to disclose the evidence while North Korea claims that it never admitted to pursuing such a program.
Second, North Korea’s motive to develop nuclear weapons is questionable. Previously, North Korea’s claim that it would use nuclear technology only for energy generation and other peaceful purposes was a matter of debate. North Korea has now made its possession of nuclear weapons explicit. As serious as the situation is, the HEU allegations are not a debatable matter at this point. However, they will become a debatable issue during the process to resolve North Korea nuclear issue, especially in connection with Pyongyang’s twin liabilities: its previous violation of the Geneva Agreement and the ensuing criticism from the international community.
North Korea is believed to have considered developing nuclear weapons from as early as the 1950s. In the 1960’s, following the installation of a research-purpose nuclear reactor, North Korea received technical assistance from the Soviet Union to build large-scale nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. North Korea experts and know-how on nuclear technology were nurtured here. North Korea holds a particularly advantageous position for developing nuclear technology, as it has mines capable of producing 4 million tons of high-grade uranium. Through independently-conducted research focused on the nuclear fuel cycle (i.e., nuclear fuel refining & transformation) and manufacturing technologies, in the 1970s North Korea succeeded in upgrading the capacity of its research-purpose nuclear reactor. North Korea then began construction of a 5 MW-class research-purpose reactor (the 2nd reactor) in the 1980s.
It began operating uranium refineries and transformation facilities in 1986, and started building a 200MW-class nuclear power plant at Taechon in 1989. In addition, it focused on acquiring the facilities needed for the practical use of nuclear energy as well as weapons development through building massive reprocessing facilities in Yongbyon. North Korea is believed to have successfully completed the nuclear fuel cycle (from obtaining nuclear fuels to reprocessing) by the 1990’s. However, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether it has actually acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. This is because the development and testing of detonation devices (which requires highly sophisticated technology) has not yet been confirmed; similarly unconfirmed is the status of North Korea’s development of a suitable projectile for nuclear weapons (missile range, capability to mount nuclear warheads, etc.). However, considering its plutonium extraction abilities, it is almost certain that North Korea is capable of producing simple nuclear weapons. One cannot rule out the possibility that such weapons already have been produced. Although the scarcity of information leads experts to draw different conclusions, the general view is that North Korea holds one or two, and possibly as many as seven or eight, nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, China and Russia are publicly hesitant to believe that North Korea holds nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s first request is assurances for its regime security, while the second is economic aid. It is uncertain as to what North Korea’s ultimate objectives are. Although it seems clear that North Korea hopes for full normalization of U.S.-NK relations, some believe that the acquisition of nuclear capabilities is in itself an actual strategic goal, while others believe that the acquisition of nuclear capabilities is only a tactical means to achieve some other strategic goal.
Specific requests made by North Korea can be summarized as follows:
- Certain assurance by the U.S. to not attack North Korea (U.S.-NK Mutual Non-aggression Pact)
- Official U.S. recognition of North Korea regime (declassification as a terror-sponsoring state & lifting economic sanctions)
- Establishment of full U.S.-NK relations (installing embassy-level contacts)
North Korea’s bitter resentment of the Bush administration’s ‘axis of evil’ comments can be interpreted along these lines. The logic underlying North Korea’s request for economic aid is that giving up its nuclear program would incur great losses that would need to be compensated for with energy aid. It is because of this that the construction of light-water reactors and the transfer of crude oil were offered to North Korea. From North Korea’s standpoint, the security of its regime and economic aid must always be considered hand in hand. Therefore, North Korea nuclear weapons issue cannot be solved unless both aspects are tackled simultaneously. North Korea thus hopes to divide the process of giving up its nuclear program into stages, with it being rewarded with assurances and aid at every stage. In conclusion, because North Korea regards the U.S. with fear and distrust, it is reluctant to take any action unless a credible reward is presented first.
The basic U.S. position is that there must be “no rewards for wrong actions”. The U.S. believes that North Korea has a serious credibility problem, citing Pyongyang’s secret continuation of its nuclear program even after the announcement of the Geneva Agreement. Therefore, Washington is unwilling to continue negotiations unless North Korea first gives up its nuclear program. The U.S. position is that bilateral U.S.-NK talks are possible only after North Korea has given up its nuclear program first. The U.S. also desires the six-party talks to be a multilateral framework through which North Korea will be persuaded to give up its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Washington is open to engaging in bilateral U.S.-North Korea negotiations so long as they take place within the boundaries of the six-party framework.
QUnder what principles are parties to the six-party talks approaching North Korea nuclear weapons issue?
Topic South Korea US Japan North Korea China Russia Peaceful resolution of North Korea nuclear issue Supports Supports Supports Supports Supports Supports Denuclearization of the Peninsula Supports Supports Supports Supports Supports Supports North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons Opposes Opposes Opposes - Opposes Opposes Certainty on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons Uncertain Unofficially Believes so Unofficially Believes so Officially Announced Uncertain Uncertain Certainty on HEU existence Prudent Certain Certain Denial Uncertain Uncertain Method of negotiation North Korea gives up nuclear program, while compensations are given Negotiation only after North Korea first gives up its program Negotiation only after North Korea first gives up its program - - - Topic of six-party talks - Nuclear Weapons, Human Rights(?) Nuclear Weapons, Human Rights(?), Kidnapped Japanese Arms Reduction Nuclear Weapons, General Nuclear Weapons, General Security of North Korea regime Provide assurances Provide assurances only after North Korea first give up its program - Prior assurances Prior assurances Prior assurances Method of securing North Korea regime Aid after North Korea gives up nuclear program Full aid - Time to provide aid -