The argument advanced by Glenn Kessler in today’s Post and privately by a number of Korea experts is that the administration is treating it as a given that North Korea is already a nuclear power in part to reduce the urgency created by the NKs resumption of plutonium production.
Let’s unpack this argument.
There are two distinct nuclear weapons program the NKs have. One based on plutonium, another based on enriching uranium. The plutonium program has been on ice since 1994 — no one disputes this. The uranium program is up and running. But we don’t know quite how long it’s been going or how far along it is. The best information we have suggests that the NKs got the key uranium-enriching technology from the Pakistanis back around 1998. Precisely when they started or accelerated production is in dispute.
The key difference is that the NKs already have all the technical know-how and hardware they need to get weapons-grade plutonium. In fact, a lot of it has just been sitting there waiting to be processed. With plutonium they can be up and running in no time. With uranium, they’re years away from mastering the process of enriching it, though they’ve got the key hardware and have started working on setting it up to use. As one nuclear weapons expert familiar with the Korean situation told me today, it’s the difference between months (with plutonium) and years (with uranium).
This gets us back to the question of urgency and whether North Korea is already a nuclear power. What made the 1994 situation a crisis was that the NKs were about to proceed with serious production of plutonium. That was something we didn’t feel we could allow — for a variety of reasons. And that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Our standing position from then on was that resumption of plutonium production meant war.
Now we think — though even this is in dispute — that the NKs already had enough plutonium for perhaps two bombs back in 1994. We also think they probably knew how to make a bomb with plutonium. The question — in terms of its usefulness — was and is how big — in literal physical size — that bomb would be. If it’s too big it’s not effectively deliverable. And some of our best intelligence says that’s still the case — though we don’t really know.
The key is that if North Korea is already a nuclear power, if they’ve already crossed the nuclear line, then it doesn’t matter all the much whether they have two bombs or six or whether they fry up a few more. That’s essentially what Powell said over the weekend. Back in 1994 we thought it was critical to stop the plutonium production process immediately because we took the position that we didn’t know whether North Korea was yet a nuclear power. And we weren’t willing to let them go any further. By declaring that North Korea is already a nuclear power the administration is basically arguing away the very issue of urgency the 1994 agreement was meant to address.
They haven’t fixed anything. Nothing has changed. They’ve just moved the goal post.