Jane VaynmanNorth Korea plutonium test confirmed

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a very short statement confirming that the North Korean test was nuclear. Thom Shanker and David Sanger’s article in the New York Times says that US intelligence has concluded that the test was a plutonium device, not uranium. Sig Hecker knows a thing or two about North Korea’s plutonium (see p.5 of that link, paragraph starting with “So they slid open the wooden box and inside were two glass jars – two marmalade jars actually – with screw on tops.”) He comments in the NYT:

“This is good news because we have a reasonably good idea of how much plutonium they have made,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, the former chief of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a visiting professor at Stanford University. Mr. Hecker, who has visited North Korea and is one of the few foreigners to have seen parts of its nuclear infrastructure, said that it was his guess that “they tried to test a reasonably sophisticated device, and they had trouble imploding it properly.”

The NYT article also has an interesting section on what this plutonium vs. uranium determination may mean politically. Uranium would mean Clinton messed up, plutonium suggests the error was on Bush’s watch:

Politically, the results of the test may revive last week’s finger-pointing about who is more responsible for the Korean test: Bill Clinton or President Bush.

As president, Mr. Clinton negotiated a deal that froze the production and weaponization of North Korea’s plutonium, but intelligence agencies later determined that North Korea began its secret uranium program under his watch. The plutonium that North Korea exploded was produced, according to intelligence estimates, either during the administration of the first President Bush or after 2003, when the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel the inspectors had kept under seal.

Unlike the Clinton administration in 1994, the current Bush administration chose not to threaten to destroy North Korea’s fuel and nuclear reprocessing facilities if they tried to make weapons.

In the last few days there was concern that China was holding back on enforcing sanctions on North Korea, both in searching trucks on its border with NK, and particularly in stopping ships at sea. The Security Council resolution passed on Oct. 14 requires member states to comply with the sanctions, but enforcement is more flexible for states to interpret. Now AP reports that searches of trucks are starting at the Chinese border, but ships will probably not be stopped.

Also in the news this morning (since I am in a time zone which is awake right now), noise about a possible second NK nuclear test.

Comments

  1. Bruce Klingner (History)

    Sanger article states: “The plutonium that North Korea exploded was produced, according to intelligence estimates, either during the administration of the first President Bush or after 2003, when the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel the inspectors had kept under seal.”

    What it doesn’t point out, and which Clinton officials neglect to say, is that US Intel Community unclassified estimate was that NK had shifted from ‘material for 1-2 weapons’ in mid-1990s, to ‘had developed 1-2 weapons’ by the end of the 1990s, i.e. on Clinton’s watch.

  2. Will (History)

    Regarding:

    As president, Mr. Clinton negotiated a deal that froze the production and weaponization of North Korea’s plutonium, but intelligence agencies later determined that North Korea began its secret uranium program under his watch.

    According to the unclassified November, 2002 CIA estimate here :

    We assess that North Korea embarked on the effort to develop a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program about two years ago.

    Which would mean that the effort to develop a uranium enrichment program did not even start until the end of 2000. The estimate goes on to say that a uranium processing plant would not be fully operational until the middle of the decade, at the earliest.

    All of which suggests that no enriched uranium was produced by North Korea during the Clinton administration, and that any uranium enrichment program that may have existed was in its infancy.

  3. SayWhatSayWhat (History)

    I find it humorous, all the fuss on this website about whether or not the DPRK successfully exploded a nuclear device. (Regardless, the deterrent value of DPRK’s nuclear activities is greater than zero. This is why some in Japan are freaking out a little.)

    The real issue is that Pyongyang—despite whatever promises it made to the IAEA, USG, etc.—clearly and repeatedly violated the rules (the Board found it in noncompliance), successfully acquired fissile material, and quit the treaty after it got what it wanted. There’s a strong argument that Iran’s doing something similar, by the way.

    The nonproliferation rules needs some teeth to them (or at least some gums), especially when there’s a noncompliant state, or else we’re past will be prologue to more and more North Koreas and Irans.

  4. Andy (History)

    Sorry, but I really get tired of people assigning responsibility for everything under the sun to American Presidents – everything from gas prices to foreign nuclear weapon programs.

    Instead of blaming this or that President for the decisions of other governments, why don’t we blame the true bad actor here – North Korea. Given the current strategic situation and the nature of the regime, we don’t exactly have good policy options for influencing the North Koreans to do what we want and it’s all to easy to Monday-morning quaterback.

  5. Georg Schoefbaenker (History)

    Beside the U.S. no other entity (state / IAEA / CTBTO) has confirmed any radionuclid data of the NORK test. Even US has not given any detail which radionuclids, which concentration. Most likely to detect are Xe Isotopes. How to conclude it was a PU test? They won’t have got PU isotpes flying around. I’d like to see more serious science discussion about this … even if its plausible to assume it was a nuclear test and that it was a PU device.

  6. megatonone (History)

    “Politically, the results of the test may revive last week’s finger-pointing about who is more responsible for the Korean test: Bill Clinton or President Bush.”

    …nonsense…the blame ultimately lies with the Norks & as for who had the best chance to prevent it (if anyone), how about China for starters.

  7. Robot Economist (History)

    I’m with Andy and megatonone on this. Pointing fingers in Washington won’t accomplish anything because the Norks are at fault here. They are the ones who broke their commitment to the NPT and Additional Protocol – even for before they pulled out of the treaty.

    I still don’t understand why the Chinese are still pussy-footing around after the first test. Stringing up a fence or inspecting trucks won’t exactly send a convincing message to Pyongyang. If I were the Chinese politburo, I would quietly set up a few refugee camps along the border. Symbolism like that would definitely give the Dear Leader and his clique something to think about.

  8. Dr. Pedant (History)

    “Sorry, but I really get tired of people assigning responsibility for everything under the sun to American Presidents”

    Ummm, Andy, insofar as the Nk nuclear program has consequences for the US, and the president is in some measure responsible for what happens to the US; what part of “Bush blew it” are you having trouble with?

  9. SQ

    Bruce Klingner is mistaken. The first NK plutonium was reprocessed in the late 1980s, on Bush 41’s watch, not on Clinton’s watch. The IC’s assessment of NK plutonium dates back to 1993.

    This background is spelled out here: http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/Review/2003/Summer/art1-su3.htm

  10. Andy (History)

    Dr. Pedant,

    ”…the president is in some measure responsible for what happens to the US;”

    Yes, that’s the point – a President is responsible for what happens to the US, but not North Korea. It’s been shown time and again that America has very little influence regarding North Korean strategic decisions beyond deterrence of an invasion of the South. I’m not sure what reasonable policy Bush could have pursued to keep the North from testing. Likewise, I doubt Clinton could have negotiated a stronger agreement with the North or done much better in Bush’s stead, simply because the policy options are so limited and unappealing.

    North Korea made the strategic decision to abrogate the agreements it promised to keep. North Korea built and tested a nuclear device – not GWB. What could he have done to cause the North’s leadership to make different choices? Short of war or acquiescence to North Korean threats there isn’t much. Keep in mind that one can make the best policy choices available in a tough situation yet still end up with an adverse result – who is to blame when all options will lead to some kind of failure?

  11. John Field (History)

    I, like Georg above, am confused about the Pu determination.

    It seems like we are to assume that some Pu or Am containing dust must have been vented perhaps isotopes of higher activity than Pu239 – e.g. Pu241?

    The neutron spectrum for U and Pu are almost identical, and the fission product spectrum is broad in atomic number, so it seems unlikely that you would be able to ratio tiny quantities of gases like Kr, Xe, methane, iodine, etc. Ratioing gases, especially non-noble ones seems like it would be very unpredictable.

    It is possible that the evolved neutron energy spectrum would be somewhat different in a sophisticated small weapon than in a crude inefficient one. At first blush, this seems like it would have a small effect on fission products. Other materials in a sophisticated weapon, like Be, might be important, but they also don’t seem to distinguish Pu from U.

  12. SQ

    The U.S. cannot control NK, but clearly has been able to influence NK behavior. The Yongbyon reactor was cold for years under the Agreed Framework. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that the U.S. discontinued its primary obligation under the Agreed Framework—supplying heavy fuel oil to NK—before NK discontinued its own primary obligation by restarting Yongbyon. Had the U.S. not done so, the NKs could have found some other excuse, but we gave it to them on a silver platter.

  13. Bruce Klingner (History)

    SQ,I don’t disagree that the plutonium was reprocessed in late 1980s/early 1990s. My point was that the IC estimates evolved from ‘material for 1-2 weapons’ to ‘likely developed 1-2 weapons’ by the end of the 1990s.

  14. SQ

    Bruce,

    Actually, there is no evidence that the IC settled on a consensus that NK probably had weapons until Dec. 2001. Only at this point did the 721 reports start to include back-dated claims about earlier IC conclusions.

    See the forth and fifth paragraphs here, which reconstruct the record of public IC assessments: http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/Review/2003/Summer/art1-su3.htm

    We may safely imagine that there were analyst-to-analyst and agency-to-agency differences of opinion concerning NK’s ability to weaponize its plutonium going back to 1993 and perhaps even earlier. But the real point is this: the U.S. has no insight or reach into the recesses of the NK weapons design and engineering processes. (Until the recent test, all IC conclusions on weaponization would appear to be inference from NK fissile material production history and public statements.) We have only been able to monitor and influence fissile material production at known sites, particularly Yongbyon. That’s where the U.S. was able to retard NK’s march towards the Bomb. There is no point in being evenhanded about it: the Clinton administration saw the opportunity and took advantage of it. The Bush administration had a different vision of NK strategy, with different results, measurable in estimated kg of plutonium.

    If we absolutely must be evenhanded, we can credit Bush for influencing KJI towards expending his plutonium stock…

  15. Bruce Klingner (History)

    SQ,I wrote many of the unclassified remarks and speeches. We can discuss off-line. klingner@eurasiagroup.net

  16. Steve

    And, for what it’s worth, the Reagan and Bush I administrations failed to pressure the DPRK to conclude or even submit a safeguards agreement to the IAEA for years, even though the DPRK signed the treaty in December 1985 and safeguards agreements are supposed to be concluded within 18 months following NPT signature.

  17. Grumpy Physicist (History)

    My guess is that one would look at isotopic ratios of unstable Xe isotopes.

    Yes, the fission mass distribution is broad, but there are differences from Pu fission and U fission; just check the data in the nuclide chart.

    Unstable Xe isotopes (at least metastable isomers) because that way you avoid the effect of environmental Xe, you can use gamma spectroscopy (or mass spec) to separate the isotopes, and you can detect single-atom quantities.

    Xe rather than Kr because there’s more isotopes to choose from, and looking at just Xe instead of comparing Xe vs. Kr because you don’t have to correct for differences in collection efficiency if you’re dealing with isotopes of just a single noble gas.

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