Yongbyon restart: North Korea’s new threat

Siegfried Hecker examining lathes from Yongbyon machine shop Phot W Keith Luse via Stanford University

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Among Pyongyang’s recent inflated threats, the announced intention to ‘readjust and restart’ its nuclear facilities is the most worrisome.

If implemented, North Korea will be producing both kinds of fissile material that can create nuclear explosions: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

The handful of nuclear weapons – from four to 10 – that North Korea presumably already possesses are based on plutonium that was produced at the small 5MW reactor at Yongbyon prior to mid-2007.

Whether it also has uranium weapons is unknown.

Why North Korea abandoned the plutonium programme and instead prioritised uranium enrichment has been a mystery.

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Uncertain chemical-weapons claims in Syria

The Syrian city of Aleppo. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/watchsmart

The Syrian city of Aleppo

Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.

Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.

What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.

If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.

Read the full article at The Diplomat


The debate about Trident

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

It was, several older colleagues told me, one of the most thought-provoking discussions they had heard at the institute. With Britain’s ageing Trident nuclear deterrent in the news again – as defence cuts bite and a divided coalition government reviews the options for a replacement system – four of the United Kingdom’s most respected former civil servants came to Arundel House last week and delivered a one-and-half-hour masterclass in nuclear policy.

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Nuclear escalation in South Asia

India-Pakistan border from space. Photo NASA

India’s presumed ‘Cold Start’ doctrine posits limited incursions over the border into Pakistan

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

During visits to New Delhi and Islamabad last week, I was disheartened by some of the discussions I had on nuclear doctrine. In both capitals, a dominant theme was the perceived need to restore credible deterrence, with seemingly little consideration for the implications of sparking a nuclear war.

In New Delhi, leading members of the strategic community insisted that the restraint India had shown after terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2008 linked to Pakistani officialdom only encouraged further attacks. They argued that when Pakistan-based terrorists struck again – and without doubt the question was when, not if – India would have to respond forcefully ‘to teach them a lesson’.

In Islamabad, ‘plugging the deterrence gap’ was the reason given for Pakistan’s recent pursuit of battlefield nuclear weapons. India’s presumed ‘Cold Start’ doctrine (or ‘proactive strategy’ as it is now called) posits rapid mobilisation and limited incursions across the border into Pakistan. In Islamabad this was considered to be a fully resourced plan and a cunning way to attempt aggression without triggering a strategic nuclear response.

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Can China end the DPRK’s nuclear blackmail?

Then Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie addresses the 2011 Shangri-La Dialogue

By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Members of the United Nations Security Council, including China, have strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test last week, and that rare unanimity could be useful for regional security. If China were to put pressure on North Korea (an historic development that looks possible) while the United Nations Security Council tightened the vice of sanctions, perhaps Pyongyang could be pressured to at least suspend further tests?

This, however, is probably not to be. North Korea has maintained its missile and nuclear programmes as a going concern for years, despite a growing raft of sanctions. In addition, sanctions have done little to change the decision-making of other worrisome countries such as Iran.

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US must overhaul North Korea policy: expert

06 02 13-005 (3)

By Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Research Assistant for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The United States needs to push North Korea straight to the top of its policy agenda, says academic Joel Wit (above), saying that Pyongyang might already possess 25 nuclear weapons and may have deployed a prototype road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Speaking at the IISS several days before Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test on 12 February, the former State Department official and Visiting Scholar at the US–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) said he thought the passive policy of ‘strategic patience’ during the Obama administration’s first four years had failed.

As the administration entered its second term, he suggested, the White House should take a more proactive approach to North Korea – especially given President Barack Obama’s recommitment to Asia and his outspoken advocacy on nuclear issues.

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North Korea’s third nuclear test shows military still first

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a  Secretaries Of Cells meeting

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

North Korea has again shown with today’s nuclear test that it marches to its own drum – and a decidedly militaristic drumbeat it is. The sole country to have pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and indeed, probably the only one to have signed the treaty with the clear intention of violating it, North Korea has been alone in the past 15 years in defying the international norm against nuclear testing.

Defiance might be called the national trait, and North Koreans may be proud to be described that way. In conducting its third nuclear test, Pyongyang not only defied warnings from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, but also the cautions of its friends in Beijing and Moscow. In recent weeks, selective Chinese state media had been unusually blunt in threatening consequences if North Korea went ahead with its planned test. Now it is likely that China will allow additional Security Council sanctions. It may even apply selective sanctions of its own, as it reportedly did in 2003 in disrupting the flow of oil during the first North Korean nuclear crisis.

The test shows yet again North Korea’s priority for guns over butter, and that its policy of ‘Songun’ (‘military first’) is much more than a mere slogan. In addition to risking a cut-off of Chinese aid and oil, Pyongyang has also made it difficult for South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye to follow through on her election promise to resume humanitarian aid to the North.

Likewise, the new team that US President Barack Obama is assembling for his second term will be disinclined to pursue any new engagement policies with North Korea. Instead, new sanctions will be applied, especially to try to prevent North Korea from helping nuclear-weapons aspirations elsewhere.

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