The US has a new nuclear proliferation problem: South Korea

In January, Seoul officially put its nuclear option on the table, for the first time since 1991. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declared the country would consider building its own arsenal of nuclear weapons if the threat it faces from nuclear-armed North Korea continues to grow, which it will.

North Korea launched over 90 missiles in 2022. Those tests accompanied a major revision in North Korea’s nuclear strategy, which now allows the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a crisis. Experts expect North Korea’s ramped-up nuclear aggression will continue into the new year. Many even expect Pyongyang to conduct a new nuclear test, which would be the country’s first since 2017 and a watershed event against a backdrop of global turmoil.

South Korea faces strong strategic reasons to continue developing its own nuclear arsenal. While the United States has tried to keep a lid on South Korea’s nuclear ambitions, few traditional nonproliferation or counterproliferation policies are well-poised to reverse the current nuclearization of the North. It’s time for a new approach.

South Korea faces an increasingly capable nuclear adversary in its northern neighbor. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, first tested in 2006, has grown rapidly. The country now hosts dozens of nuclear weapons and continues to diversify its arsenal, building more sophisticated delivery capabilities, which include inter-continental missiles capable of reaching the United States. North Korea makes dozens of threats (usually against the United States) every month, many of them nuclear in nature. North Korea has been exceptionally belligerent lately, testing more nuclear-capable missiles in the past year than it did in the previous five years combined.

South Korea has a complicated relationship with its western neighbor, too. South Korea relies heavily on China for trade, but Seoul’s strong military alliance with the United States contributes to Chinese views of encirclement. So far, South Korea has walked a tightrope between its biggest military partner and biggest trade partner. But that won’t last. Most South Koreans consider that China will be their country’s biggest threat in the next 10 years.

South Korea has a troubled security environment, and the US security guarantee to South Korea is intended to make sure those threats don’t materialize. The guarantee offers reassurance that Seoul will be protected against any adversary. The guarantee is one of the United States’ strongest. The two countries boast significant military cooperation. The US military currently stations approximately 28,500 service members in South Korea, regularly participates in large-scale military exercises with South Korean forces, and, under current policy, would fight under joint command with South Korean forces if a war were to break out.

But even with all this, the security guarantee doesn’t seem to be enough to keep down the bubble of proliferation advocates. Policymakers in South Korea have long called for a return of US tactical nuclear weapons, and a handful of more conservative politicians have occasionally suggested that the state would be better off with its own nuclear arsenal. Increasingly, this conversation has gone mainstream. The debate was even a key talking point and part of the conservative party platform in the last South Korean presidential election.

For years now, most South Koreans have supported the idea of the country building its own nuclear weapons. By 2022, such support had grown to over 70 percent. Russia’s continued use of nuclear threats in the Ukraine war may bring that number even higher as nuclear anxiety grows. South Koreans are keenly aware that the United States and its allies have been effectively deterred by Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and they worry that a similar situation could repeat itself in Asia. Public support for South Korea building its own nuclear weapons has no doubt contributed to the policy’s rise out of the fringe and into the spotlight.

If South Korea is so concerned about nuclear threats from North Korea, a solution is to get reassurance that the United States will come to its aid in a fight against Pyongyang — or so the logic goes. But it isn’t that simple.

The United States and South Korea already have a tight-knit relationship, and faith in the US security guarantee is already high. At least 6 in 10 South Koreans are confident that the United States will fight with them against North Korea, if need be.

US politicians have regularly emphasized the criticality of the US-South Korean relationship, and the recent Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review made some usually heavy-handed promises in South Korea’s defense, even stating that “any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”

But perhaps, a very credible security guarantee is just not enough — or perhaps it is even part of the problem. Even when South Koreans have faith in the US alliance, many still don’t see it as a reliable solution to their perceived nuclear risks. In surveys, the more South Koreans believe the United States would use its nuclear weapons to defend them, the more they shy away from the US alliance and prefer that their own government build independent nuclear weapon capabilities.

Although counterintuitive at first sight, the rationale is simple: Why would South Koreans trust the United States to be adequately cautious with its nuclear weapons — refraining from using them unless absolutely necessary? After all, the previous US president promised to rain down “fire and fury” on the Peninsula.

South Koreans have significantly higher levels of trust in their own government’s ability to make responsible nuclear choices than they do in an ally. Moreover, most South Koreans believe that their continued alliance with the United States will end up dragging Seoul into a nuclear war it otherwise could have avoided. And understandably, South Koreans don’t want a nuclear war.

Any nuclear use on the Korean Peninsula — even if only North Korea were targeted — would likely have devastating environ-mental and health effects throughout the Peninsula. And Seoul is less than 124 miles from Pyongyang. Even in the event that North Korea invaded South Korea, most South Koreans still say in polls that they would prefer not to use nuclear weapons unless North Korea had already used them first.

Logically, South Koreans can’t take it for granted that this preference will be reflected in US policy. The US nuclear doctrine makes it clear that the United States carves out the right to “nuclear first use,” a tactic that involves launching nuclear weapons at an opponent before they have the chance to launch their own. Given that North Korea’s missiles can now reach the US homeland, any war fighting strategy for the United States is likely to prioritize destroying these assets — and a first strike would be the easiest way to accomplish that goal. For this reason, a credible US nuclear security guarantee alone won’t alleviate South Korea’s nuclear anxieties.

President Yoon was quick to note that, even now, South Korea has options other than building its own nuclear arsenal. One of these is to request that the United States re-deploy some of its tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. The United States withdrew its South Korea-based arsenal of approximately 100 nuclear weapons in 1991 to move past the Cold War. No US nuclear weapons have been stationed in the country since.

The redeployment of these weapons, however, would do little to resolve the core issues of the current crisis — and maybe quite the opposite. Deployed US nuclear weapons in South Korea would heighten North Korea’s fears that the United States is preparing for the decapitation strategy it so boldly announced in its recent National Defense Strategy. There is also a moral hazard. Having nearby US nuclear weapons may embolden some in South Korea to push back harder against North Korea’s threats, making tensions even worse.

Moreover, unless these weapons were operated under South Korean command — a contingency that is extremely unlikely — issues around transparency, cooperation and trust in US nuclear planning would still remain.

Redeploying nuclear weapons would certainly be a signal of US interest in defending South Korea, but what’s needed now is a combination of commitment and caution. Forthright communication about when and why nuclear weapons would be used, combined with clear indicators about how nuclear use will be avoided is more important for the United States than simply showing it has the muscles. Those have been on display for decades already.

Redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons would also leave South Korea vulnerable to many of the same risks as they would incur by building their own arsenal. In this sense, even opting for US redeployment over nuclear proliferation — although it may put less strain on the alliance in the short term — remains dangerous.

The redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons would not resolve the domestic political pressures at play in South Korea. Polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that two-thirds of South Koreans would prefer that their government build its own nuclear weapons than accept the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, while below 10 percent prefer US weapons over South Korean ones. Outright opposition to US tactical nuclear weapons is also strong — at 40 percent, compared to just 26 percent opposed to South Korea building its own nuclear weapons. These figures suggest that a different strategy is called for, one that recognizes the need for more South Korean agency in the nuclear planning process.

If neither cementing the guarantee nor redeploying tactical nuclear weapons is the answer, what can the United States do instead? One option can be to fight back against South Korea’s urge to build nuclear weapons with tried-and-tested nonproliferation policies. Nonproliferation leverages both carrots — security guarantees intended to protect a vulnerable country from nuclear threats — and sticks — sanctions and other punishments intended to dissuade this country from building nuclear weapons. Understandably, the US approach with its allies generally prioritizes carrots, but that may not continue to work with South Korea.

Could, therefore, counterproliferation strategies succeed?

Well, they did in the 1970s. When former South Korean President Park Chung-Hee embarked on a covert nuclear weapons acquisition program, the United States responded by threatening to scale back its support for South Korea and to reduce its military presence there. The pressure from Washington was a key component of Park’s decision to end the program — although domestic politics and concerns about the country’s international reputation also contributed to that decision.

But what worked in the past may not work today. In the 1970s, South Korea didn’t face nuclear threats as obvious as those it faces today. The withdrawal now of US forces would be much more likely to convince Seoul that the only way to stop North Korea is to deter Pyongyang on its own.

Other counterproliferation policies have had mixed results. Experts argue that the threat of sanctions can often dissuade countries not to pursue nuclear weapons. However, once sanctions are imposed, they do little to reverse existing programs. South Korea may already be past the point at which sanctions would be useful. Multiple studies have found that South Koreans who support nuclear proliferation are not deterred by the threat of sanctions. Instead, South Koreans already anticipate that proliferation would result in significant sanctions — yet they would support the policy anyway.

A South Korean nuclear weapons program would almost certainly violate the obligations to nuclear nonproliferation and the peaceful, civilian use of transferred nuclear technologies that Seoul agreed to when it signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. This agreement, which remains in force until 2040, currently bans uranium enrichment in South Korea, at least without prior approval, as well as some types of plutonium reprocessing. Those capabilities would be needed for a robust nuclear weapons program. Violating its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States could therefore trigger sanctions against Seoul. It would even legally enable the United States to demand that technology transferred under the agreement be returned. This is unlikely to be sufficient to stop a South Korean nuclear program if Seoul committed to one, but it does emphasize that the United States could levy very heavy costs.

The United States can also advance nonproliferation through leading by example. Making it clear to South Korea that the global nonproliferation regime is critical — and that a South Korean withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty would be unacceptable — could help dissuade Seoul. After all, the country is highly concerned with its hard-earned international reputation, and unilaterally leaving a major international treaty would be no small step.

The United States can also commit itself to policies that prioritize restraint and arms control. Demonstrating its ability to embrace a more cautious attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons may diminish some of the concerns about Washington’s willingness to escalate to nuclear use, and it would model valuable norms in the nuclear space — norms that could perhaps even help balance against the behavior of other nuclear countries.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 19, 2023<br>PeaceMeal, Winter 2023

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Why US policy on North Korea should prioritize nonproliferation, not denuclearization

While total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains a security objective of the United States, the idea of North Korea relinquishing its nuclear weapons looks increasingly unrealistic. North Korea’s refusal to cooperate diplomatically, increased missile launches near US-allied territory, aggressive rhetoric, and expected seventh nuclear test signify blatant hostility toward disarmament discussions, especially those that demand its complete denuclearization. Given this reality, the United States’ strategic emphasis must shift away from denuclearization.

Without regard for the humanitarian consequences of developing these weapons, North Korea has emerged in recent years as a prominent threat to the global nonproliferation regime. Despite widespread counterproliferation and disarmament efforts, North Korea has relentlessly pursued nuclearization to facilitate regime survival, legitimacy, and coercive diplomacy. Years of negotiation with the United States and regional parties proved futile when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

This landmark development shifted international attention toward preventing further development of strategic, high-yield thermonuclear weapons and accompanying delivery vehicles. Despite these efforts, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has since overseen the accelerated production of nuclear warheads, leading to the nation’s sixth and largest nuclear test in 2017, with estimates placing the yield over 100 kilotons.

North Korea has dedicated significant resources to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to effectively deliver these high-yield weapons globally. Some of these missiles, such as the recently tested Hwasong-17, will likely be capable of housing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which dramatically increases the destructive power of a North Korean nuclear attack and reduces the effectiveness of current missile defense systems.

In January 2021, Kim Jong-un declared his intent to develop tactical nuclear weapons. If North Korea can successfully develop, test and deploy a smaller nuclear warhead, this would present greater challenges to nuclear security, stability and non-proliferation than strategic weapons. Nuclear warheads designed for potential use in artillery or other short-range delivery vehicles significantly lower the threshold for escalation to nuclear first use.

To ensure the effective delivery of these weapons, Kim could delegate launch authority to battlefield commanders positioned to respond to rapidly evolving threat scenarios. While this delegation would be a significant departure from the traditionally centralized North Korean command and control structure, it would be an effective way for Kim to reinforce a credible deterrent and ensure the survival of North Korea’s nuclear system in case of decapitation or if communications were compromised during an attack.

Possible evidence of this strategy can be drawn from the presence of unit commanders at the April 16, 2022 testing of a short-range ballistic missile and the subsequent Korean Central News Agency statement that the missile boosts the country’s frontline long-range artillery units and increases “the operation of tactical nukes and diversification of their firepower missions.” Additionally, on September 8, 2022, Pyongyang codified a new nuclear doctrine and noted for the first time that “in case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately” in accordance with an “operation plan decided in advance.”

These operational and policy changes could indicate movement toward a first-use nuclear strategy and potentially the implementation of a delegation framework that could be executed in wartime or crisis. If launch authority were delegated, the number of individuals who could decide to deploy a nuclear weapon would multiply, leaving substantial room for miscalculation, misperception or misuse. This becomes of particular concern given North Korea’s lack of sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and subsequent lack of strategic situational awareness.

Kim may also believe that comparatively less-damaging tactical nuclear weapons could be deployed without fear of guaranteed retaliation by the United States, whose nuclear deterrent is extended to South Korea. Because North Korea possesses the theoretical capability to strike the continental United States with a strategic nuclear weapon, the risk would be far greater for the United States to intervene militarily after North Korean tactical nuclear use. If no major US population centers, troops or military facilities are targeted, the United States could be reluctant to enter a foreign conflict that puts its mainland at risk of a nuclear attack. Escalation from conventional conflict to nuclear first use through a preemptive or retaliatory strike on South Korean ports, missile launch facilities, command and control systems, or groups of naval vessels could be a viable strategic option for North Korea to gain an advantage in a limited conflict, especially considering South Korea’s and the United States’ vastly superior conventional capabilities.

While the main threat of tactical nuclear weapons revolves around their potential use in a conflict, they also bear significant proliferation risks. North Korea is a known proliferator of chemical, biological, missile and conventional weaponry to finance its own nuclear program. North Korea’s development of tactical nuclear capabilities would provide additional opportunities to export nuclear technology and information to nefarious actors, thereby generating increased revenue to expand its nuclear arsenal further. Designs and technologies for potentially more portable nuclear weapons with a smaller yield could entice malicious buyers as North Korea grapples with perpetual economic turmoil and a dearth of hard currency. Furthermore, in a major blow to North Korea’s foremost rival, tactical nuclear proliferation would directly threaten American promotion of non-proliferation, complicating key US national security objectives.

The more capabilities that North Korea develops, the higher the potential for these weapons to find their way to other dangerous actors around the world that engage in illicit arms trade with North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear program is a significant threat to regional and global security, but for reasons that are continuously evolving and often neglected by security experts and policymakers.

Considering North Korea’s latest developments, policymakers have an opportunity to relinquish an archaic and unrealistic focus on total denuclearization — at least for the time being. The United States should reinvigorate the focus on collaborating with regional allies to emphasize cooperative threat reduction measures include strengthening the relationship with South Korea’s newly elected government to prevent further miscommunication on policy objectives and present a more unified approach to the evolving situation.

North Korea’s threat perception is valid; the United States and South Korea must attenuate Kim’s incentive to use a nuclear weapon in the first place. If the United States can set aside the goal of denuclearization, at least for the immediate term, it could help foster stability on the Korean Peninsula as the risk continues to grow with North Korea’s expanding arsenal. To convince North Korea to constructively re-engage with the United States, denuclearization cannot be the basis or objective of the conversation.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 13, 2023

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Making sense of North Korea’s recent ICBM and possible nuclear tests

Seiyeon Ji & Victor Cha
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 27, 2022

In a reversal from its earlier position, North Korea test-launched on May 25 a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and two shorter-range weapons — only hours after U.S. president Joe Biden concluded his trip to Asia. In April 2018, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had declared a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests after three successful ICBM launches in 2017 demonstrated their potential range to reach the United States.

In contrast, in the first half of 2022 alone, North Korea has conducted more than 18 weapons tests — an alarming develop-ment given their frequency and variety. During this period, North Korea not only tested long-range missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, it also launched short-range and intermediate-range missiles, and tactical missiles — as well as submarine-launched, train-launched, hypersonic, and cruise missiles.

Each new North Korean missile test — regardless of its success or failure — brings Pyongyang closer to its goal of developing a credible, survivable nuclear weapons delivery system that can target the United States homeland.

Recent missile developments. During its military parade in October 2020, North Korea also revealed the development of a larger Hwasong-17 — the world’s largest liquid-propellant missile ever built deployed on a road-mobile launcher to date. A missile of this size suggests North Korea’s intends to arm the weapon with multiple warheads to overwhelm U.S. national missile defense systems. The military parade also showed that North Korea appears to be indigenously designing launch vehicles for large missiles, including the Hwasong-17. This is significant because the survivability of North Korea’s ICBM force will heavily depend on the number of launchers they are about to build.

These developments point to North Korea achieving major technical benchmarks to quantitatively and qualitatively expand its nuclear-capable delivery force.

But North Korea’s advances are not just in building better, more capable, and more precise missiles. Its credible missile capability is now being accompanied by a credible strategy. At the 8th Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021, Kim Jong-un laid out — in unusually specific details — his goals for North Korea’s weapons development. During his remarks, Kim outlined three major objectives for North Korea’s ICBM program that are likely to be the focus of future missile tests: multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) capable of hosting several warheads on a single missile, longer-range ICBMs with a 15,000-kilometer capability (about 9,300 miles), and solid-propellant ICBMs. Such new solid-fuel ICBMs take much less time to prepare for launch, making them quicker to turn around in a crisis — which consequently shortens the time the United States and South Korea might have to pre-empt these systems before they are launched.

The development of MIRVs by North Korea would be particularly negative for U.S. security interests. With a limited number of missile defense interceptors designed to cope with North Korean ICBMs, a multiple warhead delivery system would significantly increase the threat to the U.S. homeland. North Korea currently has at least 10 ICBM launchers, including six launchers that were converted from Chinese Wanshan logging trucks and four 11-axle Hwasong-17 launchers.

The United States currently has 44 ground-based interceptors that can handle limited ICBM threats from North Korea. As international security analyst Ankit Panda noted, “if you assume a worst-case scenario where [the U.S.] ends up using four interceptors per incoming reentry vehicle and you see single reentry vehicles, basically the North Koreans need to build one more launcher to saturate the existing capability.”

New nuclear activities. In addition to accelerating the development of survivable nuclear weapon delivery systems, there are now signs that North Korea may resume testing of its nuclear weapons. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are on alert for a possible nuclear test by North Korea. On May 25, South Korea’s deputy national security advisor Kim Tae-hyo commented in a press briefing that North Korea has been testing a nuclear- triggering device in preparation for what would be the country’s seventh nuclear test. If conducted, this test would mean that Pyongyang is also breaking its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapon testing.

The strategic analysis program “Beyond Parallel” of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) has used high, off-nadir satellite imagery to monitor activity in the village of Punggye-ri, where all of North Korea’s previous six nuclear tests have been conducted. Most recent imageries collected on May 17, 2022, indicated that there was continued expansion of the support infrastructure for the Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility — including changes in lumber piles, renovation of existing buildings, and construction of new buildings in the main administration and support area. Satellite images also revealed progress over the past three months in the refurbishing work and preparations at Tunnel Number 3. Such activity, if completed, will signal that North Korea has prepared for a possible nuclear test.

The war in Ukraine may also have affected the doctrine that informs North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. At one level, Russia’s military attack on Ukraine provides a confirmation to Kim Jong-un that his nuclear pursuits are the best way to deter any external threats. At another — more worrying — level, however, is the possibility of Kim seeing benefits in adopting a nuclear first-use strategy. Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use — or, at least, his unwillingness to rule out their use — in response to any NATO intervention in Ukraine may influence the way Kim thinks about his ability to deter the United States from intervening on the Korean peninsula. In recent statements, Kim already referred to the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent and a secondary use as an “unexpected second mission” if outside forces violate its “fundamental interests.”

Deterring North Korea. Additional testing — particularly of MIRV capabilities — will be one of the greatest security challenges to the United States and South Korea. While there are no easy options to prevent further advances in North Korea’s weapons program, several steps could help altering Kim Jong-un’s cost-benefit calculations for his missile development efforts.

First, the United States and South Korea should upgrade their defense and deterrence capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. In addition to reactivating the suspended Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group — as promised in the May Biden-Yoon summit — the allies should consider other measures to integrate early warning systems, strike capabilities, and the rotation of dual-capable assets to the peninsula.

Second, the two allies, along with Japan, should pursue a broad counter-missile strategy that involves detecting and defending against North Korean missiles and launchers, disrupting North Korea’s network of capabilities that allow them to fire missiles repeatedly, and destroying the launchers and missiles themselves. This would require the United States and South Korea to invest in capabilities like sensors, advanced command and control systems, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology.

Third, the United States can encourage Seoul to continue developing its indigenous capabilities to help protect South Korean critical infrastructure from North Korean missile barrages. South Korea’s version of the “Iron Dome” — an artillery interception system deployed by Israel — is an example of the types of capabilities it can develop.

The United States, Japan and South Korea should also increase trilateral coordination on missile defense. This would require South Korea to rethink its long-held position that it would not cooperate with Japan and the United States trilaterally on detection, warning, tracking and interception of ballistic missiles. For its part, the United States should consider shifting the focus of its diplomacy from completely shutting down North Korea’s nuclear program to slowing down or halting its missile testing. As North Korea comes closer to its capacity to overwhelm U.S. national missile defenses, such policy reorientation is becoming more urgent. For as long as North Korea refuses to return to the negotiating table, the United States could consider integrating ideas for possible “carrots” and “sticks” in the missile realm into existing potential roadmaps for nuclear diplomacy.

Seiyeon Ji is a research associate at the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC. Victor Cha is senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. His article was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June/July 2022

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S.-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger

Frank N. von Hippel & Jungmin Kang

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel. South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter attack by North Korea. The United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War but withdrew them in 1991.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. U.S. and South Korean policy is to seek the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and achieve a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula. That goal currently appears distant, but South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons could make it even more distant.

South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Two U.S. Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory (outside of Chicago) and the Idaho National Laboratory (which originated as Argonne’s reactor test site), have encouraged that interest because of their own interests in plutonium separation. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-U.S. report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. The report, produced in 2021 by the Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, addresses their 10 years of collaborative research and development (R&D) on plutonium separation, using a “pyroprocessing” technology developed by Argonne.

South Korea’s government has accepted the report as a justification for continued joint R&D on pyroprocessing and sodium-cooled reactors, and the Biden administration is not seeking an independent review. The leaked pages raise serious concerns, however, about the completeness and quality of the analysis. With regard to costs, the enthusiasts who authored the report ignored the lessons of decades of failed efforts to commercialize these dangerous technologies. Their strategy appears to keep their collaboration alive until new administrations come into power in South Korea and the United States, which they hope will allow the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute to actually build a prototype pyroprocessing plant and a plutonium-fueled reactor.

Plutonium was originally separated at Hanford during World War II to make nuclear weapons. The chain-reacting material in the Nagasaki bomb was plutonium, and virtually all the world’s 10,000 nuclear weapons today contain miniaturized versions of the Nagasaki bomb. After World War II, plutonium also was promoted as a nuclear fuel. Argonne National Lab was originally established to develop what were expected to be the reactors of the future — liquid-sodium-cooled, plutonium “breeder” reactors that would be fueled by plutonium while transmuting uranium into more plutonium than they consumed. The dream of a world fueled by plutonium became a nightmare in 1974, however, when India used some of the plutonium the U.S. Atoms for Peace program had helped India separate to test its first nuclear-weapon design and the U.S. discovered that four other countries, including South Korea, were going down the same track.

In reaction to India’s nuclear test, U.S. policy flipped under the Ford and Carter administrations to opposing plutonium separation for civilian purposes. In parallel, Congress, concerned that the Atomic Energy Commission was skewing national energy policy toward nuclear power and not taking nuclear power plant safety seriously enough, broke up the AEC into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and what became the Department of Energy. Then in 1977, the new Carter administration decided that the U.S. domestic plutonium program was neither necessary nor economic. Congress ended the program, but the Energy Department allowed the nuclear power divisions of Argonne and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to continue their research and development work in Idaho, using the Experimental Breeder Reactor II and an adjoining compact spent fuel “pyroprocessing” plant built to recycle its fuel.

Instead of dissolving the spent fuel in nitric acid as the nuclear weapon states have done to recover plutonium for their nuclear weapon programs, “pyroprocessing” dissolves spent fuel in molten salt and then a current is run through the salt to deposit the dissolved uranium and plutonium on electrodes.

In 1994, the Clinton administration finally shut down research and development on breeder reactors. It agreed, however, that INL could use its pyroprocessing facility to process the accumulated EBR II spent fuel into stable waste forms for disposal. When the Clinton administration was succeeded by the George W. Bush administration, however, Argonne resumed lobbying for pyroprocessing and, in 2001, persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea.

The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program launched by South Korea’s then-dictator, General Park Chung-hee. At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six U.S. national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing.

The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated and policies changed under successive South Korean presidents. Current President Moon Jae-in’s policy has been to phase out nuclear power in South Korea. The next presidential election will occur in March 2022, leaving the future of South Korea’s nuclear-energy policy uncertain.

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-U.S. Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the situation, told us that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Considering South Korea’s imminent presidential election and the overburdened policy agenda in Washington, this is understandable. But there is no justification for keeping secret the joint report on the findings of the 10-year joint “feasibility” study. Excerpts from the study have been leaked, however. They reveal that INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute have learned nothing from 50 years of failed efforts in the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and India to commercialize sodium-cooled reactors. They also have learned nothing from INL’s own 20 years of failure to complete the pyroprocessing of the irradiated fuel produced by its Experimental Breeder Reactor II.

With regard to the economics, the cost of pyroprocessing is given in the joint report as between $1,050 and $1,471 per kilogram of spent fuel. This is a tiny fraction of the cost of INL’s own pyroprocessing venture. During the most recent five years of its 20-year effort, INL has achieved a pyroprocessing rate of only about 90 kilograms of EBR II fuel per year at a cost of over $80,000 per kilogram.

With regard to nonproliferation, the joint study apparently focused exclusively on the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to safeguard the pyroprocessing process. Its report concluded: “Based on U.S. and ROK safeguards performance models and the performance of [destructive assay] measurements in the study, a 30 MT/yr [metric ton per year] facility may be able to meet IAEA detection goals for abrupt material loss of a significant quantity.” A “significant quantity” is the IAEA’s term for the 8 kilograms (18 pounds) of plutonium it assumes would be sufficient to build a Nagasaki-type bomb. It would take 14 plants with a 30 MT/yr throughput to keep up with the spent fuel discharged by South Korea’s 21 operating pressurized water power reactors. By the IAEA’s metric, each of those plants would separate enough plutonium for 30 to 40 nuclear warheads. The report was silent on the more difficult challenge of detecting the gradual withdrawal of a significant quantity of plutonium over perhaps a year.

The central proliferation issue remains, however: The large flow of separated plutonium produced by pyroprocessing would make South Korea a latent nuclear-weapon state — like Japan. That is a very relevant concern since, according to a recent poll, 71.3 percent of South Korea’s public thinks the country should have nuclear weapons. Based on the excerpts, if the feasibility study were released, it would not survive peer review. It is therefore most unfortunate that South Korea’s government has accepted the report uncritically as an endorsement of pyroprocessing, and the Biden administration has not released it for independent peer review.

Immediately after it received the INL-Argonne-Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute “feasibility” study, South Korea’s Science Ministry, which funds the institute, established a Feasibility Review Committee to consider the laboratories’ report. At the end of December 2021, that committee reportedly concluded: “[A sodium-cooled fast reactor] is a technology that reduces the volume and toxicity of spent nuclear fuel by separating transuranium elements from spent fuel and incinerating them. Through [pyroprocessing], the volume of spent nuclear fuel can theoretically be reduced to 1/20 and [the recovered plutonium can be] recycled as [sodium-cooled-fast-reactor fuel].”

Any type of reprocessing separates the residual uranium in the fuel that has not fissioned or been converted to plutonium. This would, as claimed, reduce the mass of the radioactive waste by about 95 percent. But that reduction would be approximately offset by the mass of glass that would be added to the fission products to immobilize them and by the creation of other radioactively contaminated waste streams by reprocessing and the fabrication of fuel containing plutonium.

The main argument made today by advocates of spent fuel reprocessing and of recovering and fissioning the long-lived “transuranic” (heavier than uranium) elements produced in the fuel is that doing so would dramatically shorten from millions to hundreds of years the hazard from deeply buried spent fuel. It has been known for a quarter of century, however, that separating out and fissioning the transuranic elements would not result in a significant reduction of the hazard from deeply buried spent fuel.

Three decades ago, the U.S. Energy Department asked the U.S. National Academies to study exactly this question. The resulting massive report, “Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separations and Transmutation,” found that, because of their low solubility in deep oxygen-free ground water, plutonium and other transuranic isotopes would not dominate the dose at the surface from a deep spent fuel repository. Instead, the dose would be dominated by soluble long-lived fission products: iodine 131 (16-million-year half-life), technicium 99 (200,000 years), and cesium 135 (2 million years) and by the activation product, carbon 14 (5,700 years). The committee therefore concluded, “Taken alone, none of these dose reductions [from the separation and fissioning of transuranic elements] seem large enough to warrant the expense and additional operational risk of transmutation.” The “operational risk” would include nuclear-weapon proliferation and the serious accident risks associated with reprocessing.

The final argument that has been made by Argonne and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute for reprocessing and transmutation of plutonium and the other transuranic elements is that the reduced long-term heat output from the radioactive waste would make possible a more compact repository because the temperature of the clay and rock must be kept below damage thresholds. The benefit of a smaller repository would be bought, however, at the cost of sodium-cooled reactors and reprocessing facilities that would costs tens of billions.

In any case, the problems with locating spent fuel repositories are not physical. They are political. Citizens may fear spent-fuel repositories, but they should fear more those who peddle the much more dangerous technologies of pyroprocessing and sodium- cooled reactors.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 13, 2022
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2022

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North Korea says it tested new railway-borne missile system to strike “threatening forces”

SEOUL –Missiles fired by North Korea on September 15 were a test of a new “railway-borne missile system” designed as a potential counter-strike to any forces that threaten the country, state news agency KCNA reported on September 16. The missiles flew 497 miles before striking a target in the sea off North Korea’s east coast.

The North Korean launches came the same day that South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system. The two Koreas have been in an increasingly heated arms race, with both sides unveiling more capable missiles and other weapons.

The tests by nuclear-armed North Korea drew international condemnation and concern, however, with the United States saying they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and posed a threat to Pyongyang’s neighbors.

North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems, raising the stakes for stalled talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief.

The North Korean test was conducted by a railway-borne missile regiment that had been organized earlier this year, the KCNA report said.

“The railway-borne missile system serves as an efficient counter-strike means capable of dealing a harsh multi-concurrent blow to the threat-posing forces,” said Pak Jong Chon, a North Korean marshal and member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, who oversaw the test.

“Rail mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and reliable option for countries seeking to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said on Twitter. “Russia did it. The U.S. considered it. It makes a ton of sense for North Korea.”

Mount and other analysts said the system is likely constrained by North Korea’s relatively limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, but that it could add another layer of complexity for a foreign military seeking to track and destroy the missiles before they are fired.

Marshal Pak said there are plans to expand the railway-borne missile regiment to a brigade-size force in the near future, and to conduct training to gain “operational experience for actual war.”

It is unusual to see the sheer variety in missile delivery systems and launch platforms that North Korea develops, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s not very cost effective (especially for a sharply resource-constrained state) and far more operationally complex than a leaner, vertically integrated force,” he said on Twitter.

– edited from Reuters, September 16, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

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How Kim Jong Un keeps advancing his nuclear weapons program

Despite an unprecedented series of meetings between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, negotiations over eliminating the latter’s nuclear arsenal have stalled. In the meantime, Kim has been busy making his nuclear arsenal bigger, deadlier and better able to strike South Korea, Japan, American forces stationed in Asia, and the United States mainland. At an October military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim unveiled a new array of weaponry that shows how far his arsenal has grown in the last two years, and included a recently developed missile designed to strike the U.S. The achievements undermine Trump’s assertion that his summits with Kim had ensured North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” And relations under U.S. President Joe Biden are off to a prickly start.

Kim appears to have acquired the capability to strike the United States after successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. But one test may not be enough to ensure the reliability of the ICBM known as the Hwasong-15. The new ICBM, displayed at the October military parade, is bigger and likely boasts more powerful engines, weapons experts said. They added that its likely purpose is to deliver a multiple nuclear warhead payload that could overwhelm U.S. defenses or a high-yield weapon.

North Korea can fit miniature warheads onto missiles and shoot them, a United Nations report said in 2020. It has also developed weapons that can be moved around more swiftly to evade detection. What’s less clear is whether Kim’s military could beat anti-missile systems and survive reentry, or if its weapons are accurate enough to strike their intended targets.

Of North Korea’s six nuclear weapon tests, Kim was responsible for four. They’ve come a long way since the first detonation in 2006. That one measured less than one kiloton (a force equal to 1,000 tons of TNT), leaving experts wondering whether it had been a partial failure. The most recent test in September 2017 was the most powerful. Its estimated yield of 120-250 kilotons dwarfed the 15-20 kiloton U.S. bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945

Kim has also rolled out new solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to move, hide and fire than many liquid-fuel versions. He has launched more than two dozen since May 2019, including nuclear-capable, hypersonic KN-23 missiles that can strike all of South Korea — including U.S. forces stationed south of Seoul — within two minutes. He has also launched KN-25 short-range missiles designed to be fired in rapid succession from a single launcher to overwhelm interceptors. The new ballistic Pukguksong-3 missile — the biggest of the bunch — is designed to be fired from a submarine and has an estimated range of 1,200 miles. At the October parade, it rolled out an even more advanced version, which likely has a greater range and payload capacity.

North Korea has been self-sufficient regarding fissile material for decades. Its program, which once turned out enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb a year, now relies largely on uranium enrichment and, according to weapons experts, produces enough fissile material annually for about six bombs. The Trump administration said North Korea enlarged its stockpile even after nuclear talks began.

What other surprises might be out there? North Korea may be working on ICBMs that carry multiple warheads and in-flight countermeasures to throw interceptors off their target. Kim has pushed to develop his fleet of submarines and is looking to deploy a new vessel soon that experts say could fire missiles. He may even try to revive the country’s satellite program, arguing that North Korea has the right as a sovereign state to develop a space program. Weapons experts say satellite launches could be used by North Korea to advance missile technology.

Despite being among the world’s poorest countries, North Korea has one of the largest militaries. Of its 25-million population, nearly 1.2-million people are in active service, according to a U.S. State Department report. In addition, more than 6-million North Koreans are considered reserve soldiers. The military has thousands of pieces of artillery trained on the Seoul area and hundreds of missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan.

The money needed to afford all this is not huge in global terms. North Korea spent nearly $4 billion on its military in 2016, according to the State Department report — roughly equivalent to two days’ U.S. military spending. As a share of its economy, though, the outlay ranks among the highest globally. Although international sanctions have hit its economy hard, North Korea is evading some through means such as clandestine, high-seas transfers of banned goods such as oil, and generating enough cash to keep its nuclear weapons program moving through methods that include ransomware attacks.

Trump’s talks with Kim turned the duo from insult-throwing enemies into dialog partners, and he claimed his diplomacy with Pyongyang prevented a war, but their three meetings didn’t produce a significant breakthrough, and North Korean missile testing and name-calling have resumed. North Korea has become what three decades of diplomacy had tried to prevent — a state capable of developing, projecting and detonating nuclear weapons. In response, the U.S. military is maintaining its customary “high levels of readiness” on the Korean Peninsula as a deterrent to any threat, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in December 2019.Six months later, North Korea cut off communication links set up in 2018 with South Korea and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office. And in March, North Korea fired off a pair of cruise missiles on the heels of an Asian trip by top Biden administration officials.

– edited from Bloomberg, March 24, 2021
PeaceMeal, March April 2021

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U.S. may have to rethink its approach to North Korea

Jonathan Cheng
The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2019

SEOUL—A year of intense diplomacy, including the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, has helped dial back tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A second summit is now being planned for late February between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But so far diplomacy has yielded little on one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign-policy priorities: Mr. Kim appears no more willing to give up his nuclear program than he was before engagement began more than a year ago.

On January 1, Mr. Kim said in a New Year’s address, without elaborating, that he isn’t producing nuclear weapons, but he offered no suggestion that he was willing to discuss his existing arsenal, and he repeated demands for sanctions relief from the United States.

In December, North Korea said it wouldn’t give up its nuclear arsenal unless the U.S. first removed nuclear threats in any “areas from where the Korean Peninsula is targeted.” The vast majority of U.S. nuclear warheads are stationed in the continental United States and are capable of targeting North Korea.

A few weeks earlier, North Korea had said it could resume open development of its nuclear program if U.S. economic sanctions against the country remained in place.

For an increasing number of policy makers and North Korea watchers in Washington, this all raises a thorny question: What can the U.S. do about a North Korean state that may never give up its nuclear weapons?

The official U.S. diplomatic stance leaves little room for talking about North Korea as an established nuclear-weapons -possessing state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent interviews has reaffirmed the U.S. policy goal as the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” a variant on the U.S.’s long-cherished goal of CVID—the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (or “denuclearization”) of North Korea.

But while U.S. government officials involved in the diplomatic efforts haven’t yet ruled out Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, some North Korea experts in Washington say it is time to face an unpleasant reality: that North Korea, having invested heavily in its nuclear program for decades, isn’t going to give up its arsenal now that it is at the finish line.

These experts recommend de-emphasizing, or even abandon-ing, the goal of dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, and instead of trying to manage a nuclear North Korea in hopes of pre-venting a miscalculation that could lead to an unwanted nuclear showdown.

“Nobody is happy about this outcome, but unfortunately it’s the world we live in,” says Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and part of a small but growing circle of mostly younger nuclear- and foreign-policy specialists calling for what they say is a more pragmatic assessment of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and intentions.

These experts consider the goal of denuclearizing North Korea to be unrealistic. Setting this goal aside, they argue, would open the door to long-overdue policy discussions, such as how to ensure that North Korea manages its nuclear arsenal in a responsible manner and doesn’t sell its components or expertise to other countries or nonstate actors.

“When a country becomes a nuclear-weapons state, you find a common ground in managing the relationship and transparency, like we learned to do with the Soviets and the Chinese,” says Mr. Mount. “Every week we spend on an unrealistic attempt to disarm North Korea is one where we’re not managing the threat from North Korea,” he says. “There is a range of practical and pressing threats that emanate from North Korea that…are being neglected while we chase this fantasy.”

James Clapper, a former U.S. director of national intelligence, has expressed similar views about how to approach the regime in Pyongyang. The North Koreans are “not going to give up their nuclear weapons,” he said in a speech at a 2017 forum in Seoul. Mr. Clapper urged U.S. policy makers to consider opening a de facto embassy in Pyongyang, perhaps in exchange for a more modest goal, such as a verifiable halt to nuclear and missile tests.

Other North Korea experts and U.S. policy makers counter that it’s premature and inappropriate to even be talking about North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. These experts believe that securing a freeze on all nuclear and missile development, even if unlikely, is attainable — and could pave the way for an eventual rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argues it is irresponsible to even publicly discuss the prospect of accepting North Korea as a nuclear- weapons-possessing state. It could open the door for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan to pursue nuclear weapons and spark an arms race in the region, she says.

“To suggest that we should think about living with a nuclear North Korea in aiding and abetting North Korea,” Ms. Kim says. “That’s exactly what they want to hear.”

Mr. Cheng is Seoul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. His op-ed was reprinted in Peacemeal, Jan/February 2019.

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