Is North Korea having nuke problems?


North Korea seems to be following the same playbook as their brethren in Iran.  That is, agree in principle to a deal that would allow development of a nuclear commercial power reactor in exchange for giving up on its weapons program, and then add a condition that effectively nullifies the agreement.  The tyrannical regime is undoubtedly toying with the US and the other participants in the Beijing talks; but is there another factor involved in their focus on acquiring a light water reactor?

This Washington Times article on this fiasco has an interesting bit of information:

U.S. intelligence agencies still know very little about North Korea's covert uranium—enrichment [emphasis added] program.  It was the disclosure of the uranium program in October 2002 that triggered the most recent crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Focusing on North Korea's ability to enrich uranium is puzzling, since, as I reported last year , North Korea had apparently decided to build the more difficult type of bomb, called the implosion type of weapon using Plutonium—239.  Their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, NK, which began operating in 1986, can produce about six kilograms of plutonium per year.  Various open sources estimate that NK has between two and eight plutonium implosion weapons.

However, plutonium cannot be used in the far more simple and reliable gun—type design; only highly enriched uranium (HEU) will work.  Any fledgling nuclear power that opted to immediately develop the more complex implosion—type of weapon may be biting off more than it can chew.  Perhaps our intelligence agencies have finally realized the technical simplicity of a gun—type and its requirement for HEU, and can now adjust their intelligence estimates accordingly.

We must also examine the possibility that NK's bluster and bravado about their nuclear weapons may be just that; a cover for a program that has encountered severe technical difficulties.  This would explain NK's shift away from plutonium to acquiring HEU.  We may be in a stronger position over NK than we first realized.

Doug Hanson  09—20—05