About That Enrichment Program


_[This post has been updated to add the mention of the LWR in the April 14 statement, which I somehow overlooked.]_

In the last two months, the North Korean Foreign Ministry has had some things to say about light-water reactors and uranium enrichment.

On “April 14”:http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2009/200904/news14/20090414-23ee.html, the Foreign Ministry stated that “there is no need any more to have the six-party talks,” and added in that connection that the DPRK

bq. will positively examine the construction of its light water reactor power plant in order to round off the structure of the Juche-based nuclear power industry.

p. On “April 29”:http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2009/200904/news29/20090429-14ee.html, it was further announced that, in response to the Security Council Presidential Statement of April 13,

bq. the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel as its first process without delay.

On “June 13”:http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2009/200906/news13/20090613-10ee.html, in response to UNSCR 1874, it was further announced that

bq.. The process of uranium enrichment will be commenced.

Pursuant to the decision to build its own light-water reactor, enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel to allow the experimental procedure.

p=. *Well, That Was Quick*

Actually, what’s surprising is that it took so long to hear these declarations. Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the history of “North Korea’s uranium enrichment-related acquisition activities”:http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/assessing-north-koreas-uranium-enrichment-capabilities and the dispute surrounding them, which served as the proximate cause of the “end of the Agreed Framework”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/file_download/23. In the face of American accusations that North Korea had started a HEU-based program for weapons-making, it would have been quite easy for the North Koreans to have said, “Sure, we’re interested in uranium enrichment. We want to make our own fuel for the two LWRs you’ve “agreed to build us”:http://www.kedo.org/pdfs/SupplyAgreement.pdf. Don’t get so excited.”

This is, after all, essentially what the Iranians have done when confronted with the evidence of their own enrichment activities.

Not that anyone would have believed the North Koreans then, or believes them now. Indeed, much of the news media simply read past the LWR cover story and reported (erroneously) that North Korea had openly threatened to “start enriching uranium to make more nuclear weapons”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/2038/mis-reporting-north-korea. This is an understandable mistake, as the LWR and enrichment statements were presented as gestures of defiance, offered alongside threats of an unambiguously military nuclear character.

p=. *R-E-S-P-E-C-T*

So now that the plutonium cat is out of the bag, and North Korea demands recognition as a nuclear power, why suddenly introduce the LWR fuel pretense, at long last? Why not say instead, “We’re going to make HEU for hydrogen bomb secondaries”?

As “Peter Hayes and colleagues”:http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/0578LWR.html view it, and as “Jeff Goldstein argues”:http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/2685mu7x212h5m0q/?p=659ea961a504440cb4bc4c11baa65f4f&pi=6 in the latest issue of the _Bulletin,_ the LWR supply demand — which dates back to the Agreed Framework — is a pride thing and an assurance of respect. If the U.S. and its allies insist that North Korea give up its existing plutonium production reactor, the reasoning goes, they must compensate it with a top-of-the-line power reactor — even if it can’t plausibly make use of it thanks to the decrepitude of the DPRK power grid. During the wrangling over the “Joint Declaration” of September 2005, the North Koreans “simply insisted on LWRs before disarmament”:http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/0578LWR.html:

bq. The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of the DPRK’s dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs, a physical guarantee for confidence-building.

So it follows that the upsurge in LWR rhetoric is an assertion of self-reliance. “We’re done waiting for you. We’ll build it for ourselves!”

LWR-speak is also a hint that North Korea probably has a long way to go before it can make HEU in respectable quantities, and perhaps no foreseeable prospects at all. They’re not over-promising. In fact, they’re not promising anything externally verifiable at all, insofar as they’re almost certainly never going to be able to complete a LWR by themselves. No LWR = no obvious lack of LWR fuel.

There are other possible explanations for LWR-speak. I’ll return to this topic again later.

3 thoughts on “About That Enrichment Program

  1. kme

    I didn’t think HEU was of particular use in Hydrogen bomb secondaries – isn’t even DU enough, given the massive neutron flux?

    I would have thought the real reason they’d be going down the HEU path is just because the rate at which they can create weapons-grade Pu is somewhat limited.

  2. Josh

    I plead ignorance on the precise composition of secondaries. It was an attempt at sardonic humor.

    Yes, presumably the point of enrichment would be HEU fission devices. I’ll circle back around to that angle when I pick up this topic again.


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