North Korea’s Nuclear Statements to the United Nations
September 4, 2009
Q1: What statements have the North Koreans made about their nuclear weapons programs?
A1: North Korea’s official mouthpiece, the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), proclaimed last evening (EST) that in a written response to the UN Security Council the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has declared the following: (1) reprocessing of spent fuel rods, from which plutonium is extracted to make nuclear weapons, has nearly been completed; and (2) “[u]ranium enrichment tests have been successfully carried out and that process is in the concluding stage.”
Q2: What is the significance of the latter statement?
A2: The statement is significant because it is the first official public admission by the North, after seven years of denial, of its secret pursuit of nuclear weapons through a second type of program (i.e., uranium in addition to plutonium). This stands in violation of several agreements to which Pyongyang had committed, including the 1992 North-South denuclearization declaration and the 1994 U.S.-DPRK denuclearization agreement. The former agreement stated the two Koreas, “shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons,” and that they “shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” In 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with accusations that Pyongyang was pursuing a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program in violation of standing agreements. The North Koreans first defiantly admitted to such a program, but then later denied its existence, seeking to shift the blame to the United States for allegedly falsely accusing Pyongyang.
Q3: What is the difference between the two programs and how close are they to developing uranium-based nuclear weapons?
A3: North Korea’s Yongbyon facility basically takes spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor and puts them through a reprocessing procedure that extracts plutonium usable for nuclear weapons. The uranium-based programs extract weapons material through the spinning of uranium gas in centrifuges. The latter program can be done in small unidentifiable facilities, no larger than a warehouse, which are difficult to identify. Until last evening’s statements, experts believed the North was still years away from developing weapons from uranium. North Korea has sizeable deposits of high-quality uranium ore, estimated in the range of 4 million tons.
Q4: Why has Pyongyang made this announcement at this time?
A4: The specific context of the KCNA statement was a written response to the UN Security Council. The more general cause is that the North is trying to demonstrate to the world that they are “bolstering their nuclear deterrent” in the face of the continued implementation of UN Security Council sanctions authorized by UNSCR 1874 levied after the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009.
Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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