How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains the motives behind the hermit kingdom's threats.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits a military unit on an island in the most southwest of Pyongyang in August of 2012. (Reuters)

North Korea has been unusually blustery of late, threatening its southern neighbor with destruction, closing the jointly administered Keasong industrial complex , and flirting with what would be its fourth nuclear test since 2006. And while they probably lack the capability or even the intention of nuking the United States , the Kim regime's mere possession of weapons of mass destruction is reason enough for pause. Perhaps more worrying than the current crisis is the mere fact of North Korea's present capabilities: one of the world's most oppressive and belligerent governments managed to obtain some of the most destructive weaponry on earth, despite concerted international diplomacy, a restrictive sanctions regime, and decades of diplomatic and economic isolation. They're even planning on re-opening a plutonium complex that was closed under a 2007 agreement.

The world is rightly focused on the ever-increasing temperature along the DMZ, but it turns out that the Kim regime's decades-long path to the bomb holds some lessons of its own. I recently spoke with Mark Hibbs, a Bonn-based senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , and one of the world's foremost non-governmental experts on nuclear weapons procurement and development. As recounted in a 2006 Atlantic piece, Hibbs, a former journalist with an intense specialization in the minutia of the global trade in nuclear technologies, helped expose the existence of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's global procurement and proliferation network, a feat that led William Langewiesche to write that he "must rank as one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today." In the early 1990s, Hibbs' work also helped prove that Saddam Hussein was perhaps only three years away from a nuclear weapon at the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

Nuclear technology is no longer state of the art, not even for a country as isolated as North Korea --for this reason, Hibbs believes that nuclear proliferation has to be countered through addressing the complex political factors underlying it.

We touched on a broad range of topics related to the possible spread of nuclear arms. In part one, we discuss North Korea's uranium enrichment program, whether the A.Q. Khan network is still in existence, and why export controls alone can't prevent a determined country from obtaining nuclear technology.

Can North Korea increase its nuclear capacities to the point where the types of confrontations that we're seeing now become even more fraught?

There are two different ways of making nuclear weapons. One is uranium, and one is the implosion route, which is normally associated with plutonium.

The plutonium route -- implosion technology -- may be more difficult to produce. But North Korea has been at this for a while, and regardless of which of the two technologies may be favored or which has certain advantages, the bottom line is that for whatever reason the North Korean regime is doing this -- whether it's because there's an internal power struggle, or they're trying to get the U.S. and South Korean "sunshine" diplomats to pay them off, or whether they're trying to test the new South Korean government -- who knows. We don't really know the reason. But right now, the North Koreans are pulling out all the stops they can to escalate the situation. And they're trying to project as many threats as possible....

We know that there's an inventory of plutonium in the country. We don't exactly know how much there is, but we assume there's enough for a number of explosive devices. The assumption has been that as of 2010 at the latest, they were getting into uranium enrichment, and that they would be making bombs with uranium...

Now what we're hearing [with the announced re-opening of the Yongbyon facility] is that plutonium is back on the agenda. They're pulling that lever, but the bottom line is that we know that they've got two options and that they're trying to do both of them. That's not by any means a surprise. There's an indication that they're expressing, at least at scientific levels, some interest in thermonuclear technology.

North Korea, which has had a nuclear program for many years, is not at the beginning of this process. They have been at it for a long period of time. Contrary to the views that some people are recently expressing, this is not a race to the bomb. This is a country that has been in the business of doing nuclear research for almost half a century.

The politics of this are more important than the technology, because eventually North Korea is going to have all of the eggs in its basket, and it's just going to be a matter of whether their leadership decides it wants to deploy these assets or not. Fundamentally, the politics are trumping the technology.

How much do we know about North Korea's uranium enrichment capabilities? In what ways does it differ from plutonium bomb production?

The plutonium route requires a country to operate reactors, and it requires them to have another facility, a reprocessing plant to take the spent fuel that they remove from the reactors, dissolve that material, and separate the plutonium from the spent fuel. It's a messy process -- there are lots of intelligence signatures. Satellites are going to find the reprocessing plant. They've done that in North Korea. We know where the reprocessing plant is located. They have one reactor that was operating for several years and it was basically suspended in 2007. They've got a couple of other reactors they've been constructing. We know where they are.

If the North Koreans really are paranoid about being attacked, if they're really concerned about the survivability of their nuclear weapons infrastructure, then they're going to have be interested at some point in uranium enrichment because it's technology that they can hide [in underground facilities]...

At some point, the North Koreans are going to have to think about how to make their threat credible over the longest possible period of time. And that brings them to thinking about uranium enrichment. They have the technology -- we know that they obtained design know-how from Pakistan. We know that through a very considerable procurement network that they've operated for an enrichment program at least since the early 90s, that they have acquired an inventory of equipment and materials that they need to build these machines -- and that they're basically in the position of being able to replicate these centrifuges and minting them, if you will, like coins. [NOTE: In a part of this interview excised from the published version, Hibbs said that it's currently unknown whether the bomb North Korea detonated last February was of uranium or plutonium design].

North Korea is an incredibly poor and isolated country in almost every respect. How is it that a country like that is in a position where there are no barriers to it developing thermonuclear weapons, or a production line where there are few limits on the number of warheads it can obtain?

Let's look at the history of this. North Korea has been in the business of doing nuclear research for decades. During most of that period, they were in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [North Korea left the treaty in early 2003.] They were more or less an ally of the Soviet Union. The rest of the world looked at North Korea as a state which was basically being subject to nonproliferation enforcement by the USSR. In those days, the North Koreans were part of a family of Soviet-oriented countries that was doing nuclear research together. They were all subject to controls and enforcement by Moscow. The Chinese were likewise looking at North Korea, and not contributing, as far as we could tell, at that point, to any proliferating activities in that country.

At one point -- in the 1970s, 1980s -- they started accumulating what we would call today "sensitive nuclear technologies." They were interested in spent fuel reprocessing, plutonium, R&D. At one point [North Korean agents] went to a meeting in Vienna and chatted up some people from Belgium who had a design for a plutonium separation plant. Lo and behold, it wasn't long before the North Koreans obtained the design information for that installation, and they squirreled it away for a number of years -- and then eventually over a period of 10 to 15 years they set that technology up, they deployed the plant, they started to experiment with it and use it...

When the Cold War came to an end...North Korea reacted to what it perceived were existential threats, from the United States, from the South Koreans and elsewhere. They eventually left the NPT, but by then they had been in the business of doing nuclear research for 30 or 40 years. So they had this equipment, they had this technology and then they started using it for nuclear weapons purposes. After all, these are techniques which could be used for the most part for both peaceful use and non-peaceful use...

North Korea is continuing to procure equipment. Part of it is politically tolerated. It's not a secret that China is a source for a huge amount of dual-use items that get into the country. These are things you can use to make bicycles with that you can also use to make centrifuge equipment or nuclear-weapons parts. If you talk to people around the UN in New York and in Vienna who have been watching this activity with a certain amount of trepidation over the last 10 to 15 years, you will hear that the Chinese are not really engaging with them to try to interdict it.

We know the reasons why China tolerates North Korea. But in the longer term it's not really going to be in China's interest to have a country on their border which in 10 or 15 years might have advanced nuclear fission and thermonuclear weapons...

About six months ago I was in a UN agency and I saw a North Korean watch list. And the watch list was very instructive. You looked at it, and you could see where it was believed the North Koreans were trying to finance and ship [nuclear components] from. The watch list had three ports in the UAE. Malaysia was on it. Cayman Islands. Cyprus, Lichtenstein, Greece, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Mauritania, Thailand, Singapore. The North Koreans are all over the world, trying to figure out ways to fool export controllers, and export controllers are trying to stay a step ahead of them...

The trouble is...that there has to be an agreement among all of those countries that they're going to interdict an item that was stopped in one country -- in other words, if country X's export control people find that North Korea is trying to buy equipment there, then they make a note of it, and they send it to 46 other countries and say look, North Korea just tried to buy this from us, and we want to make sure that you guys know that they're doing this.

By the time all of that transpires and all the paperwork is done, the North Koreans have invented a different company that's not identified because it's brand new. They set it up in some other mailbox location in some other island in the world, and they're back in business because they're operating under an identity which has not been detected. They keep at this, and they will be successful. Over the long haul, it will not be very likely that we will succeed in preventing this technology from spreading.

So eventually, as I say, the politics have to kick in and people have to get the message that essentially you're going face to the prospect of more nuclear weapons in the world if you don't address the local or regional security issues that, in part, are drivers for these countries.

You helped expose the existence of the A.Q. Khan network. Khan himself is out of the picture, but are there still global procurement networks that could provide nuclear materials or technologies to poorer countries that might want a bomb?

George W. Bush and others in his administration claimed that they had shut Khan down. What they meant by that, of course, was that Khan had been put under house arrest -- he was under prosecution, there was going to be a certain amount of internal bloodletting in the nuclear program in Pakistan about how they organized their procurement. And they persuaded the Pakistani government to share a certain amount of information with the atomic energy agency in Vienna and others, including the United States government, concerning the operation of the procurement program. But it would be misleading to conclude that the procurement network per se has been shut down.

...Back when AQ Khan began his quest to set up the enrichment program in Pakistan back in the 1970s, all of the nuclear trade that was involved in the initial enterprise was point-to-point exporting and importing. AQ Khan would call a friend of his in the Netherlands who he used to work with when he was back working in the Urenco program in the early 1970s, and say, "I need parts X,Y, and Z. Would you get those for me and put them in an envelope and then send them to Islamabad?"

In the early days that's how the trade worked. It was point-to-point. Pakistan Atomic Energy people would contact their foreign sources and ask them to supply equipment, and they would supply it.

Over the years, governments in Europe and the U.S. particularly got wind of this activity. They tried to shut it down and they forced Pakistan and others to use circuitous and devious routs to try to circumvent the more robust export controls that began in 1974, after India tested a nuclear device. It had been fairly simple before the Indian test, and then after that, and after it was revealed that Khan himself had purloined centrifuge design data from the Netherlands and Germany -- the export control regime has since woke up and started tightening.

After that, the transactions were no longer point-to-point -- they involved cut-outs, middle-men, and, increasingly in the last ten years, trade brokers, shipping companies, phony bank accounts, addresses for firms that don't really exist where equipment is being billed to or shipped through...

You have a whole number of illicit players out there that can be mustered by a country's nuclear program to obtain equipment which otherwise they would not be able to obtain.

Who are some of the worst offenders in this respect?

Well that's the $64,000 question...The difficult area is with equipment or materials are so-called dual-use, where it's not clear from the outset that what is being sought by your customer are necessarily items which would be used for nuclear weapons production, or even for nuclear use.

A good case is North Korea. At one point, they went on a shopping spree to buy a certain quantity of aluminum. They were trying to find it in China, they were looking for it in Italy, Germany, the U.K., the U.S., and Austria. Eventually they found some. It took an extra effort to interdict this trade. In one particular case there was a German trader who had gotten his hands on some of the aluminum, and was willing to export it to China on the basis that China would be the end-user.

But in fact what customs authorities were able to find out was that its ultimate consignee was in North Korea. And it was difficult to prosecute this case, because people who were involved in expediting it claimed that they didn't know that it would be used in a nuclear program....

Eventually, most of the technology, most of the equipment, most of the materials will by nature percolate through the entire world economic system and it will become, with time, easier for a proliferater to find out where he can get this equipment. In the longest run, we have to be pessimistic that export controls alone will suffice....

In my historical files on procurement by Pakistan in the Netherlands during the period of I'd say, about 1990 to 2003 and 2004, what I see are daily phone calls and faxes from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Agency and the Khan enterprise to procurement sources in Europe for an indescribable gamut of equipment. Most of the orders that I have on record are for items which you and I would describe as common hardware equipment. They were buying paper clips, wire, glue, envelopes -- everything they needed from these sources.

As you can imagine the customs authorities in these countries were overwhelmed.

Or just baffled.

Yes. And the method to the madness is that if you've got 150 orders for all of this junk that's supposedly useless from the point of view of a nuclear weapons program, you're going to have one or two items that are sensitive. And that's what happened.

There are many, many procurement strategies. There are many ways that countries that are trying to import equipment and materials go about trying to flummox national authorities in countries that they're targeting. In this particular case, Pakistan was after some fine steel bearings that were an important part of their centrifuge project.

Amidst all the orders for paper clips and wire and glue, there was an order for these bearings which were described as spindles for making bicycles. And in another case they were described as parts for ballpoint pens. Countries will go to great lengths to disguise their activities in this area.

...In the early days of nuclear weapons development, the initial programs in the world were crash programs. The United States rushed to the bomb, because they were in a race for life and death with Nazi Germany. And they did it in three years. They threw an enormous resource base at it, and they did it.

But other countries, including North Korea, but also other ones like Iran and Pakistan, have taken a much longer route to these capabilities. Iran has been operating a nuclear R&D program for decades. The same goes for Pakistan. And these countries have not been in a hurry. Pakistan was never in a race to get nuclear weapons. They did it very deliberately. It had to decide how it was going to organize its program. It began looking at both plutonium and uranium. They took their time at this.

And eventually they got to the point where they were able to test a nuclear device in 1998. It took them almost a quarter of a century, but they got there and they did it...

At the end of the day, the controls that matter come from the heart of the international regime. They come from international politics. They come from fostering confidence between [developing] countries and the countries that do have nuclear weapons that, over the long haul, the nuclear weapons in the world will be de-emphasized and they will be disarmed.

That's going to be the basis of the future of the non-proliferation regime. If the non-proliferation regime is going to prove sustainable for many decades in the future, it won't be sustainable because it has a rock-hard export control regime. It will need a capable export control regime. But ultimately, it will rely on political good will between the countries that don't have nuclear weapons and the countries that do have them.