Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Multipolar Nuke Nightmare

While Washington is insisting that Pyongyang unconditionally and completely halt its nuclear program before any new negotiations can begin, North and South Korea issued a joint statement that they will resolve all outstanding problems, including the nuclear one, through dialogue.

Japan is the only country in the world that has actually been hit by nuclear bombs (in 1945) and South Korea was ravished by invading North Korean armies in 1950. These countries are highly susceptible to nuclear blackmail, and Pyongyang clearly understands this.

In 1985, under strong pressure from Moscow, North Korea signed a treaty on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons in exchange for an extended nuclear cooperation program. The Soviet Union pledged to build a nuclear power station in North Korea, equipped with four light-water VVER-440 reactors.

But after signing the treaty, the North Koreans never allowed international inspectors to visit their nuclear research centers and in 1993 officially announced their intention to withdraw from the treaty. Moscow responded by stopping all nuclear cooperation, and the VVER-440 reactors never reached North Korea.

Today, Russia rightfully denies it is providing Pyongyang with nuclear or ballistic missile know-how. But it was the Soviet Union that in 1965 exported to North Korea a 2 megawatt IRT-2000 research reactor and trained nuclear specialists, thereby kick-starting Pyongyang's homemade nuclear program.

The North Koreans used the training to increase the capacity of the IRT-2000 reactor fourfold and to build a uranium reactor fuel enrichment facility. In 1986, they managed to put into operation their own 25 megawatt reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In 1994, an agreed framework was put together for a program under which the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union would provide fuel oil and also pay some $4.6 billion to build two 1,000 megawatt light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea. In return, North Korea promised to stop plutonium production. (Some American experts believe the North Koreans managed to extract some 15 kilograms of plutonium before 1994 and are hiding the material somewhere.)

Since 1994, North Korea has been receiving half a million tons of oil a year for free. But the construction of the nuclear power stations has not begun: Washington has demanded that Pyongyang first open the country to international arms and nuclear inspectors, that it stop proliferating missile technology to "rogue" states and so on. Apparently, North Korea deliberately disclosed its attempts to produce weapons-grade uranium in order to break the deadlock and force the donor nations to pay up more promptly.

The North Korean ballistic missile program was also kick-started by Moscow. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union provided North Koreans with R-11 Scud missiles. The Scud, with its 300-kilometer range, was developed in the early 1950s and was considered an obsolete weapon by then.

The North Koreans first managed to copy the Scud and then began to modify it to increase range. Using very limited resources and capabilities, specialists ingeniously managed to merge several Soviet-designed Scud engines to make a primitive missile with an almost intercontinental range.

The relative ease with which impoverished, isolated North Korea came close to having ICMB and nuclear capabilities is alarming. Even more alarming is the pattern of exchange of sensitive technologies between "states of concern." The Pentagon believes that Pyongyang may have obtained uranium purification technologies from Pakistan in exchange for missile know-how.

In the 1940s, the United States willingly transferred nuclear technologies to Britain and unwillingly to the Soviet Union (spies stole the secrets). France in the late 1950s gave nuclear technologies to Israel; the Soviet Union helped China and North Korea; and China in turn helped Pakistan. Now the process seems out of control with North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Libya and Iraq trading nuclear and ballistic know-how.

The United States seems ready to occupy Iraq to make sure it is not a threat to its neighbors any more. But occupying North Korea or, say, Israel is out of the question. The Cold War nonproliferation regime is virtually dead today. The new U.S. doctrine of preventive nonproliferation has yet to prove its effectiveness, while the nightmare of a multipolar nuclear world is materializing.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.