What Does North Korea Really Want?

Stanford professors report on their visit.

March/April 2011

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What Does North Korea Really Want?

A Stanford trio of Siegfried S. Hecker, John W. Lewis and visiting scholar Robert Carlin riveted the world's attention in November when they described what they saw on their visit to a North Korean complex: a uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges and the construction of a light-water nuclear reactor to generate electricity.

Hecker, professor of management science and engineering and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Lewis, an emeritus professor at CISAC who founded the Center for East Asian Studies, talked with Stanford about their observations from this return visit.

Lewis, who directs the CISAC Project on Peace and Cooperation in the Asian-Pacific Region, has made 20 trips to North Korea since 1986, along with numerous visits to Japan, the People's Republic of China, the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, made his first visit to North Korea on a trip with Lewis in 2004 and has returned three times.

How would you summarize the significance of what you observed?
Hecker: The real surprise was the sophistication and the number of uranium centrifuges. Very few people believed they would have an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. The second implication is that since they've [built] this essentially in a year's time, our analysis says there's no way they could have done that without having a uranium pilot enrichment centrifuge facility someplace else and having done it before. And my assessment is, done it for a long time.

They can now do enrichment for this light-water reactor that they're building—a small, experimental reactor—but it immediately also opens up the potential that they have another facility someplace, which instead of being run to make reactor fuel could be run to make bomb fuel.

Lewis: It was not only surprising in terms of the centrifuges, but the sophistication of the control rooms, the control panels, the whole facility that they had at the back end for the recovery room, for the enriched uranium fuel.

The other thing is that we talked to both the foreign ministry and to the military. And the foreign ministry people, particularly the vice minister we spoke to at the end of the trip, gave us a context in which to understand this. Part of it was hard-line: We don't care what you think, we're going to move forward, and we know we're going to get criticized. But there is an avenue for engagement; he didn't rule out the possibilities for monitors to come in. They knew they were doing something that was going to be viewed with great skepticism by the world, that this was simply a peaceful facility. But they also hoped there would be an engagement that would follow.

Their contention is that the reactor is for energy, not for military purposes?
Hecker: The reactors they've had, which first went operational in 1986, are called gas-graphite reactors. Those reactors are very good for making bomb fuel but poor for making electricity. And in 24 years they've barely made any electricity. But they've made enough bomb fuel for four to eight bombs. This reactor that they're now building, which is clearly just a stepping-stone to larger reactors, is good for making electricity but bad for making bomb fuel. Going for the light-water reactor is an indication that they want to make electricity.

What was their political purpose in revealing this news to you?
Lewis: They first of all wanted to tell the world that what was said previously—that we will do this—by God, a year later, we're showing you that we're serious and we're doing it.

Hecker: They want nuclear electricity, both for practical reasons and for symbolic reasons. Second, they want to show the world that they can do this. And third, in my opinion, is they needed a cover for the enrichment program. Since we both believe they've been doing enrichment for years, it turns out for the reactor technology that they had before, you don't need enrichment. It was specifically designed to use natural uranium and there's no reason why you should have any enrichment activities going on. But they had enrichment activities going on. Now, if they say they're going to build a light-water reactor, it gives them a perfect justification as to why they have to have enrichment, and also why they're not going to give it up.

Lewis: It's changed the definition, which all these agreements of the past have talked about, of denuclearization. Denuclearization meant getting rid of all your nuclear programs. Now they can proclaim, of course we have uranium enrichment; we have to have it for this purpose.

What do you think should happen next?
Lewis: Talk to the North Koreans, simply put. There are things that we can do on what's called track two, as scholars: follow up on the monitors; follow up on what we saw [at the complex] in Yongbyon and get more clarity about it. But eventually it has to be done by government officials. Eventually I'm hoping we can be constructive in making that happen. But we can also find out things going forward.

Hecker: I've sort of coined a catchy phrase: What we'd like is three no's from the North Koreans. In return for them, you've got to give them one yes. So, no more bombs—don't make any more plutonium and don't make highly enriched uranium, and then have some way of verifying that. Second, no better bombs. To make better bombs, they have to test, so no more nuclear tests. The third and the most important is, no export. No export to Iran, to Burma or to other countries that we're worried about. That's much more difficult to verify. We can't go for the really big no, which is no bombs at all, because they're not going to give those up right now. In return, you seriously have to give them this one yes: You have to address their concerns about their security.

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