How North Korea Got The Bomb

Few North Koreans have suffered more directly for Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions than Kimchaek University's class of '62. Shortly before graduation day, the campus began buzzing with news that atomic scientists were needed for a new research lab being built for the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. "Our professors really pushed the need for nuclear development," recalls one class member who escaped the country two years ago and recently told NEWSWEEK his story. "The rumor circulating among students was that those of us sent there wouldn't have long to live."

The defector can't be sure how many of his friends died young. He was lucky enough to be assigned elsewhere after college. As years passed, though, he kept running into former classmates who were wasting away from radiation sickness. "It was exactly what we feared," the defector says. "Many of them lost their eyebrows. Some of them had constant nosebleeds. They looked so weak it was hard to even face them." He blames the government's disregard for human lives: "The thinking was, 'If one scientist falls, there will always be others to take his place'." That merciless logic ravaged not only a generation of North Korean physicists but the entire country, consuming billions of dollars that might otherwise have built a functioning economy capable of feeding its citizens. The program itself, however, succeeded: by most accounts, Kim's son and successor, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, is only a button's click away from detonating a nuclear weapon.

Kim's bomb is one of the most urgent problems facing the Bush administration--and Pyongyang clearly likes the notoriety. "There has been debate recently in the international community on whether [North Korea] has a nuclear deterrent," the regime warned last week, just before President George W. Bush set off on his six-day trip to Asia. "When the time comes, we will take action to physically display [our] nuclear deterrent. At that point, such a debate will no longer be necessary." But the threat goes far beyond North Korea's crude efforts to extort aid and concessions from its neighbors and the Americans. The success of Kim's nuclear program is proof that even the most abject poverty, backwardness and isolation cannot stop a truly determined regime from building a bomb. "If they squeeze their economy hard enough," says Daniel Pinkston, a proliferation specialist at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, "any country with a population of 20 to 25 million will have the core group of people who can do it."

How did Pyongyang get the bomb? In reply to that question, a senior South Korean military official pulls a cell phone from his shirt pocket. "This is a metaphor for North Korea's program," he says. "A few parts from here, a battery from there, and it could work even if the antenna malfunctions." Starting in the 1950s, the North's scientists are said to have gleaned vital components, raw material and information from more than a dozen countries on four continents. They even managed to swipe useful data from the files of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. And yet hardly anyone in the world was ever willing to trust the regime with nuclear weapons--not even the Great Leader's best friends in Moscow and Beijing.

All the same, Western intelligence experts are convinced that Pyongyang is not bluffing. On Oct. 3, the regime announced that it had finished turning its stock of 8,017 uranium fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium, enough to build as many as six bombs. There's no doubt that the North has been extracting bomb fuel. In June, strategically placed sensors began detecting traces of the telltale isotope krypton-85, a byproduct of the extraction process, in North Korea's air. The only question is whether the job is done: national-security experts in Seoul believe that Pyongyang has used special "carbon bed" filters to cut its krypton emissions--and hence keep the West guessing about how much fissile material it has.

All that's left to do is assemble the pieces. And perhaps to load them aboard a ballistic missile or a less conventional delivery system, like a shipping container or minisub. Maybe even sell one to terrorists, if the price is right. "North Korea has the capability of producing three to five basic-level nuclear bombs at this moment," says Kim Tae Hyo of the South Korean government's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "They already have a transportation mechanism to carry those bombs over to Honolulu and Alaska." That would be the Taepodong I missile, with a 2,500-kilometer range.

There are hints that the regime might actually be understating its capabilities. The North reportedly conducted high-intensity explosive tests in the late 1990s--the meticulously calibrated kind of detonations that are required to set off an atomic bomb. "These are the tests you would need to conduct to know that you had a working system," says one Western diplomat in Seoul. Even before the Northerners began reprocessing their spent fuel rods about six months ago, they were believed to have the makings of at least one bomb. "The considered judgment was that they certainly extracted enough material for one or two and probably three or four weapons," the diplomat says. "If you straight-line out the developments over a period of time, by now they should have been able to develop basic working nuclear devices." It sounds plausible when you consider the pace of other developing nations' nuclear programs--as in Pakistan, which appears to have shared nuclear expertise with North Korea.

The origins of Pyongyang's nuclear program are a study in unintended consequences. The first push came not from China or the Soviet Union but from the Japanese Empire. Back when the peninsula was a colonial possession, many of its brightest young scientists studied in Japan. They would become the core of North Korea's scientific elite in the 1950s, when basic nuclear research started. The late scientist and inventor Lee Sung Ki, called the "first father" of North Korea's nuclear program, earned a degree in chemical engineering at Kyoto Imperial University.

After World War II, Japan left behind uranium mining and milling operations in the mountains of northern Korea--the remains of its own secret nuclear program. The Koreans quickly put that equipment to use, exporting uranium to the Soviet Union. "In a way, it was the export of uranium that financed the military buildup that allowed the North to invade the South in 1950," says former Russian diplomat Alexandre Y. Mansourov, a North Korea specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. "That's how North Korea paid for the weapons and grain they got [leading up to the Korean War]."

America inadvertently gave Pyongyang the next boost. In Seoul, the fledgling government of Syngman Rhee undertook a U.S.-designed plan to reorganize the South's education system. Opponents denounced the move as a ploy to get rid of leftist professors, and they warned it would only weaken the country's already feeble science curriculum. Yet the plan went ahead, and Seoul National University alone lost 38 scientists and engineers--among them the eventual brains of North Korea's nuclear-power program.

The best jobs most of those professors could find were miserable instructorships at small vocational schools. Pyongyang sent recruiters to talk to them. The pitch wasn't at all ideological, says Kim Geun Bae, an intellectual historian at Chonbuk University in Chonju. Instead, the recruiters promised only that the North would fund the sciences. "By the time the Korean War ended," Kim says, "about 80 scientists, or roughly 40 percent of all science graduates in the South, had defected to the North."

As long as they avoided trouble with the North's totalitarian government, the professors had a world of new scientific opportunities. In 1956, Moscow invited them to the newly established United Institute of Nuclear Research in Dubna. In all, some 250 scientists from the North worked and studied there, according to former Izvestiya journalist Aleksandr Zhebin. Later, back in North Korea, a team of Soviet experts helped the cadre of Korean scientists build an experimental 2-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon that went online in 1965 and jump-started North Korea's nuclear research.

The Russians called it Object 9559 (the Soviets' code number on all technical-aid contracts with Pyongyang). The Koreans called it the Furniture Factory--and over time Yongbyon became the heart of a sprawling nuclear industry linking uranium mines with processing mills, fuel-fabrication facilities and a reprocessing plant capable of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods. Much of the machinery seems to have been re-engineered by Korean scientists working from Soviet prototypes. "It's very difficult to draw a dividing line between the peaceful and nonpeaceful use of atomic energy," Yuri Federov, deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute for Applied International Research told NEWSWEEK. "But basically the knowledge and expertise in the nuclear field was provided by the Soviets."

Moscow still refused to give Pyongyang a turnkey nuclear program--what's needed to design a plant from scratch--let alone the specific expertise needed to build a bomb. In fact, geopolitics began pushing the two communist countries apart in the 1970s. After India's undeclared nuclear test in 1974, the United States and Soviet Union co-sponsored a global nonproliferation treaty. Kim Il Sung's brutal purge of pro-Moscow factions from the Korean Workers' Party put a further strain on relations. North Korea stopped inviting Soviet scientists to participate in its nuclear projects, preferring to acquire expertise on its own through its philosophy of juche (self-reliance). The North twice expanded the capacity of the Yongbyon reactor in the 1970s. In the 1980s North Korea added a 5-megawatt graphite reactor--in effect, a bomb-fuel factory--based on an old British model. In 1987 Kim Il Sung called for the "fast pursuit of nuclear energy," describing the industry as "futuristic and communist."

The North's program owes much to the work of several North Korean diplomats, including Choi Hak Geun. Posted to IAEA's Vienna headquarters from 1974 to 1978, he scoured the agency's library and other open-source material for nuclear know-how. South Korea didn't discover his activities until the early 1980s. "I was shocked to see what the IAEA gave the North," a senior South Korean scientist told NEWSWEEK. "But then again, it was a time when the agency's primary goal was to spread nuclear technology and not to regulate it."

Pyongyang's most serious push for the bomb began roughly a decade ago--not long after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The aid shipments and the lavish trade subsidies from the Soviet Union and its satellites had stopped flowing. Old security guarantees were gone, too, so North Korea launched new initiatives to bolster its own capabilities. One of these focused on ballistic missiles--both for defense and export--while another radically expanded production of chemical and biological weapons.

Pyongyang had by then shifted its attention from building power plants to developing the bomb. Besides developing plutonium weapons that relied on nuclear power plants for fuel, Korean scientists also sought to build weapons using highly enriched uranium. The latter required reprocessing technologies that breached the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the North had signed in 1985. As the regime's intentions became increasingly hard to ignore, Russia and China distanced themselves even further from their former comrades in Pyongyang.

Instead, the North found a new partner--Pakistan. Indian intelligence sources say contacts between the two countries began after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister in 1988. None other than the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, reached out to Pyongyang in 1993, according to a Western diplomatic source in Islamabad. The Pakistani physicist needed a delivery system for the arsenal he was creating, and the North Koreans had just what he was looking for. Kim Jong Il, who took command of the North after his father's death, agreed to sell Khan the plans and parts to build a Pakistani version of the Taepodong nuclear-capable ballistic missile. In return, says the diplomat, North Korea asked for Pakistan's centrifuge technology for enriching uranium.

Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has vehemently denied any such deals. "I guarantee 400 percent that nothing has taken place between us and North Korea," he said in January. "No transfer of nuclear technology has taken place in the past and [it] will not happen in the future."

Khan refuses to talk about any aspect of Pakistan's nuclear program, but he has reportedly made 13 trips to North Korea since his first visit. In addition to supplying plans for Pakistani-style centrifuges (hundreds of which are needed to extract enough fissile material for a single nuclear device), he is said to have provided the North Koreans with invaluable information on how to buy parts for specialized nuclear equipment. "You can search the world, spending lots of money, and still be unsuccessful," says Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. "So someone who has been actively engaged in buying the necessary electronics, hardware, computer codes, switches and magnets is worth his weight in gold."

The alleged exchanges continued in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework signed by Pyongyang and the Clinton administration. That accord stipulated that in exchange for the North's promise to end its nuclear-weapons program, the Americans would help Pyongyang build two 1,000-megawatt reactors and provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually until 2003, when the reactors were supposed to be finished. The pact crumbled in late 2002 after U.S. intelligence discovered the North's secret enrichment program. Bush administration officials say Pyongyang got caught buying centrifuge secrets from Pakistan and spun-aluminum tubes from Russia. Confronted with the charge, Pyongyang expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, withdrew from the NPT and announced plans to begin turning fuel rods into bombs.

North Korea probably began cheating on the 1994 deal before the ink was dry. Scores of high-explosive tests done in the late 1990s suggest ongoing work to perfect a nuclear detonator. A female scientist who claims to have been in Yongbyon in the 1990s describes schemes concocted to hide covert weapons research. In a transcript allegedly made after she fled into China last year (and obtained by NEWSWEEK through a humanitarian group that arranged her exile in South Korea), she describes deception at the No. 304 Research Institute where she worked, a facility "involved with making both nuclear and chemical weapons." To dodge IAEA inspections, she says, "we moved all materials and equipment into underground caves." Eventually, a new plant called the August Facility was constructed. "The place is hidden inside a forest and connected with a new railroad from other facilities," she added. "It processed uranium for use in other institutes."

Despite the mounting evidence of bomb-making capabilities, the West keeps hoping Pyongyang will change its ways. Diplomatic observers predict that the North will agree to a new round of talks with Russia, China, Japan, the United States and South Korea, perhaps as early as next month. Pyongyang's nuclear threats can only go so far. The Dear Leader may test his "deterrent," but if he were ever foolish enough to actually use it, he'd lose everything--his power, his perks, his country, his life. Surely he doesn't want to end up like Kimchaek University's class of '62.

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