If you have been following the North Korean nuclear crisis closely you have been getting an equivalent of a Higgs boson and a gravitational wave about twice a week. Boy, was this week no exception. In fact, this weekend we got ourselves a particle that completely upends the standard model. I am sure we have all seen reports on the latest intelligence assessment of North Korea’s nuclear activities, best divided in terms of capability and intent. There is an important connection to Iran that we should not lose sight of as well.
In a nutshell, on capability, we have the revelation that North Korea has multiple, minimum three, secret uranium enrichment plants and on intent we have the Ernest Rutherford style revelation that North Korea has purposefully set out to deceive US negotiators about its nuclear activities, capabilities, and policies as détente on the Korean peninsula proceeds. Trump’s button is bigger than Kim’s but the size of Kim’s is now more known, and it’s bigger than hitherto supposed.
The US intelligence community has developed an assessment that is completely at odds with the rhetoric on North Korea coming out of the Trump administration, and from none more than Trump himself we might also add. The vacuous nature of Trump’s reality TV summitry has been further dramatically exposed.
Hence we can justly say that both Kim and Trump have been exposed by the reported US intelligence assessment.
The closest parallel that I can think of is with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the one that concluded Iran had halted a clandestine nuclear weapons programme in 2003 which undercut the narrative about Iran’s nuclear activities then being promoted by neoconservatives within and without the Bush administration. The connection to Iran is a potentially ominous one, as I shall explain, because the way things are going with Iran multiple secret enrichment facilities are a real possibility even there.
Earlier in the week 38North published an analysis from Frank Pabian, Joseph Bermudez, and Jack Liu on new infrastructure at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. This attracted a lot of media attention, given that it is contrary to the rhetoric coming from the great negotiator, however what really interested me was the water vapour on the roof of the uranium enrichment complex
The increased roof staining at the northwest corner of the cascade halls, as shown in Figure 7, indicates continued operations at the Uranium Enrichment Plant. The staining is caused by the deposition of water vapor coming from the six cooling units associated with gas centrifuge operations
That clearly indicated that North Korea is continuing to produce fissile material for its nuclear weapons, which would be consistent with Kim Jong-un’s New Year address where he stated that is precisely what he would do. The Yongbyon enrichment plant reportedly houses 2000 P-2 centrifuges (based on the URENCO G-2) each of which has an approximate 3-5 SWU/yr enrichment capacity. That is consistent with the enrichment needs of the 25-30 MWe experimental light water reactor North Korea is constructing at Yongbyon. Note the analysis of the advanced stages of work on the ELWR at Yongbyon in the 38North paper linked above. Since the April plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea Pyongyang has placed emphasis on the economic development aspect of its Byungjin line policy, but that doesn’t preclude “mass production” of its strategic nuclear capabilities as promised by Kim in the new year address.
Then came the off the Richter scale seismic shocks. NBC news reported, based on information from at least a dozen intelligence officials, that a US intelligence assessment has concluded that North Korea has multiple clandestine enrichment plants and that it has expanded production of fissile materials at those multiple clandestine plants in recent months.
The Yongbyon enrichment plant was shown to Western experts in November 2010, including the former director of Los Alamos Siegfried Hecker, and it was stated to them at the time that the plant began construction in 2009 and was completed just prior to their arrival. The speed of construction strongly suggested that North Korea had a second secret facility of longer standing, if not more.
In August 2017 the US intelligence community drastically increased its estimate of the number of nuclear weapons North Korea may have produced given its estimated fissile material production. As Ankit Panda at The Diplomat reported the estimate spiked from 40 to 60 because of “ongoing uranium enrichment activity at various facilities across North Korea” and the assessment that North Korea can develop composite pits composed of Pu-239 and U-235, which lowers the amount of plutonium needed per weapon. When plutonium is at a premium composite pits are used, as was the case with the United States before the expansion of the US nuclear weapons complex following the Oppenheimer controversy and the subsequent need to develop warheads with a high yield-to-weight ratio. For North Korea, plutonium is at a premium. Given that North Korea a month later, that is September 2017, went on to test a thermonuclear weapon, the composite pit assessment is surely accurate.
The NBC report therefore further solidifies the prior upper bound assessment of 60 nuclear weapons, but now, additionally, the assessment is that fissile material production has increased in 2018. The August 2017 estimate assumed that North Korea could produce enough fissile material for 12 nuclear weapons a year. If North Korea, as per the reports of the intelligence assessment, is now producing fissile material at a higher tempo then that estimate basically becomes a lower bound.
Just let that sink in. But if that isn’t enough for you, think about the connection to developments in Iran.
Consider. Senior Iranian officials have stated that the JCPOA is in ICU following Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the agreement, and as US use of its leverage over the global financial system begins to bite the Iranian economy, even before the reinstating of sanctions later in the year. Ayatollah Khamenei has decreed that the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran should immediately work to developing the capacity to go to 190,000 SWU/yr enrichment capacity if needed, but more significantly the head of the AEOI was interviewed earlier in the month saying that Iran has the capacity to produce 60 IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges a day, and after dealing with what he called manageable problems with the IR-6, which he claims has a capacity of 10SWU/yr, that also could be produced at 60 a day.
In other words, if you like your secret enrichment facilities in the mountains of the Korean peninsula you will love them under the desert of the Persian Gulf. That is now a very real possibility. Just this weekend Rudy Giuliani, a close political backer of Iran, explicitly stated that the US objective in Iran is regime change. North Korea’s secret enrichment facility began because, in part, Pyongyang refused to accept limitations on its nuclear programme whilst at the time facing economic sanctions which were supposed to be dismantled under the Agreed Framework. History, sometimes, has a nice way of repeating itself. Iran has stated that it won’t accept constraints on its nuclear activities whilst facing economic sanctions.
One interesting thing about all this, on which I will not speculate, is not just how many secret enrichment facilities North Korea has but for how long it has had them. It was reported by the Washington Post in May that the original enrichment facility is known as Kangson, and it reportedly has twice the capacity of the enrichment facility at Yongbyon. The clandestine facilities additional to it became known to US intelligence, according to The Washington Post (linked above), in the period since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. How long have they been spinning away?
Just a small technical aside on arms control. Should we end up with multiple undeclared gas centrifuge plants in North Korea and Iran we would have then the type of nightmare scenario long by the advent of the Zippe centrifuge. The gas centrifuge route to highly enriched uranium consumes a relatively low amount of energy and a facility, depending on the efficiency of the centrifuges that make up the cascades, can have a relatively low footprint making it easier to conceal than other approaches to the bomb. The response to the Zippe centrifuge has been dominated by supply side approaches, including multilateral ones through the NSG and the Zangger Committee. Supply side approaches seek to prevent trade in the components necessary for the construction of a gas centrifuge plant to an exclusive group of states, but our nightmare scenario would suggest that it is demand side, not supply side, approaches that are the most effective in meeting the challenge posed by gas centrifuge technology to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The other revelation regarding North Korea concerns intent. The US intelligence community, it appears this is a DIA assessment according to the report in The Washington Post, concludes that it has unequivocal evidence that North Korea intended to deceive the United States about the number of nuclear facilities it has, including fissile material production capacity, number of warheads, and number of missiles. The whole box and dice, in other words. This was to be done with the goal of extracting maximum concessions from the United States whilst appearing to engage in good faith diplomacy on denuclearisation.
That North Korea was not serious about disarming in and of itself should not come as a revelation to anybody, indeed North Korea did not commit itself to complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement at Singapore nor prior to it, and nor should the expanded production part come as a revelation to anybody because that is precisely what Kim Jong-un on New Year’s day said he would do in 2018. The revelations are in the scale of North Korea’s weapons complex and in the intent to continue to engage in deception regarding the true nature of that scale even as diplomacy proceeds. Kim Jong-un wanted to take advantage of an epistemic gap opened up by the difference between what he knew of the scale of North Korea’s nuclear weapons complex and what we knew. That he would try take advantage of this epistemic gap by pocketing as many concessions as possible is little more than Realism 101. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt could even use it to illustrate Realist international relations theory in their courses. North Korea has an interest in appearing to engage in progress toward nuclear disarmament to provide political space for Seoul as South Korea pursues rapprochement on the Korean peninsula, it need also be said. Again, Realism 101.
Problem for Kim is he’s been caught out by what the logical positivists might have called the verification principle. That epistemic gap has been dramatically narrowed if not eliminated.
It is the deception part that is potentially explosive because it makes Trump look like a fool when he declares we can all sleep safely at night because of his superlative deal making skills whilst at the very same time it gives hawks pushing for “preventive” military strikes against North Korea political capital, both within and without the White House, when making their case for a more robust approach to policy.
One key problem here is the irrational commitment to denuclearisation. North Korea is not committed to nuclear disarmament because Pyongyang, reasonably, sees its strategic nuclear forces as under writing the security of the Kim regime. The denuclearisation horse has bolted, unfortunately, and not only can Pyongyang be blamed for this. An underlying commitment to denuclearisation can only lead in the direction the hawks want it to lead, that is militarised denuclearisation through counter-proliferation, because diplomacy will not see Pyongyang abandon its insurance policy. This is not a call for an end to diplomacy, but it is a call for changing the goal posts. Real diplomacy is the art of the possible. The objective now, as I have written in multiple posts both pre and post Singapore, should be mutual and balanced conventional force reductions on the Korean peninsula with a view to building a measure of strategic stability and an agreement that freezes North Korea’s production of fissile materials, caps the number of nuclear warheads and missiles that it may possess in addition to freezing both nuclear and missile testing. That could lead to a formal peace treaty, setting the stage for more progress on the nuclear front. Denuclearisation can only exist at the moment as an aspirational goal not a concrete reality.
A freeze agreement won’t be easy. A key hurdle would be verification, further underscored by the weekend’s explosive revelations. This week Science carried a report on the mitigation of a tuberculosis crisis in North Korea, note the references to multi drug resistant TB, and when you read the report you can see just how hard verification will be. This is TB we are speaking of, which tells you something about the nature of the Kim regime and its priorities (but also that of the Global Fund).
The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, for now, and the obsession with denuclearisation in western popular and analytical discourse is very much part of the problem. To quote the Athenian negotiators at Melos one must get what one can get. We, the strong, have been saying this to the weak since Vasco da Gama but nuclear weapons can even make of the weak the strong.
I rather suspect that a lot of the discussion on North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the west is so heated because the taste of our own fruit is so bitter.