Catalytic Diplomacy
Deterring Sale of Fissionable Material
Kim Il-Sung on building, 1991
Kim Il-Sung on building, 1991 [See larger]
I early decided to try to prevent the DPRK from selling fissionable material abroad.

There was serious concern in U.S. official circles about the possibility that the North Koreans would sell fissionable material to terrorists and that the North Korean nuclear program might, accordingly, lead to the eventual destruction of a major U.S. city.

Indeed, at one point, Bob McNamara called me to say that Donald Rumsfeld told him that the most dangerous things involved with North Korea are sales of fissionable material, and, indeed, this is what Rumsfeld later told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 13, 2003. He thought a lot of countries would want to buy the material.

It seemed to me that the best way to deter North Korea from selling fissionable material was to advise them that the West could determine from intercepted fissionable material from whence the material had come. Indeed, it would be good also if one could identify the source of the fissionable material from the debris of an exploded bomb.

Steve Fetter
Steve Fetter [See larger]
Accordingly, in December 2002 I called one of the most brilliant physicists in the country, Dr. Steve Fetter, at the University of Maryland, to ask whether physicists could, indeed, identify the country of origin of intercepted plutonium or uranium.

In an e-mail of December 19, Steve provided an explanation. He concluded that uranium or plutonium from North Korea could be identified as long as the fissionable material had not been detonated. He doubted strongly, however, that the source of the uranium or plutonium could be identified from the fission products from a detonated bomb.

Asking China to Caution Its Neighbor

On January 15, 2003 in Beijing, I met with the Deputy Director of the Asia Department and left him with seven suggestions including: a) advising Pyongyang that the China-DPRK Treaty of Friendship would be rewritten or abandoned if the DPRK detonated a nuclear weapon; b) urging the North to adopt agricultural reforms; and c) offering asylum to the Kim Jong-Il family if the regime began to collapse to get them out of Pyongyang in an orderly way.

On January 16, 2003, in Beijing, I met with the director-general of the Arms Control and Disarmament Department, Liu Jieyi, who has always shown me respect. I gave him a letter urging China to study the question of whether fissile material—uranium or plutonium—that had been seized by the United States somewhere could be identified as having come from the North. (Appendix)

And the letter suggested that China advise the North that it could not maintain permanent secrecy over any such sales of fissionable material. This was step one in discouraging the North from selling fissionable material. China was obviously the best channel to send this message to the DPRK.

The View from Russia

Step two was to reinforce this message from Russia—the other large neighbor of North Korea. And at the same time, it seemed important to learn from Russian experts. They, unlike the United States, had graduates of an embassy in Pyongyang, and they had been close politically to the North.

Accordingly, two months after the visit to China, from March 9 to 15, 2003, I visited Russia. The visit went very well, with eighteen useful meetings in the four business days that the week of March 9-15 contained.

Two deputy foreign ministers wanted to meet with me but were out of town. I met instead, in the Foreign Ministry, with the official in charge of China, Yevgeny V. Afanasiev, the official in charge of all of Korea, Valery E. Sukhinin, and the official in charge of North Korea, Georgi D. Toloraya. (Note)

I met with representatives of ten organizations: IMEMO, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Oriental Institute, Diplomatic Academy, Moscow University, Moscow Institute of International Relations, Institute of U.S.A. and Canada, Russia’s GAO, Minatom, and the Institute of Human Rights.

On the way to Moscow, I began reading a book written by Russian experts, The North Korean Nuclear Program: Security Strategy and New Perspectives from Russia (Routledge 2000), edited by James Clay Moltz and Alexandre Y. Mansourov. The book warns that “Pyongyang may take drastic action to return itself to the focus of world attention for the purposes of bargaining.”

One author, Vladimir Andrianov, thought one probable motive of the nuclear program was the North’s “intention to exchange its nuclear program for significant political and economic concessions” from the United States, Japan, and South Korea. He thought the North “presumed that the farther its nuclear weapons efforts had advanced, the higher the price these countries would have to pay for the DPRK’s abandonment of it.”

And the editor Mansourov said that “whenever Kim Jong-Il decided on a key issue related to the implementation of the Agreed Framework, he consistently opted for the more pragmatic and future-oriented stance advocated by the economic officials and diplomatic personnel, rather than the Korean People’s Army’s more orthodox and conservative positions.”

Family in North Korean home in 1991
Family in North Korean home in 1991 [See larger]
Alexander Platkovskiy thought that nuclear blackmail became the means of conducting Pyongyang’s affairs in the face of its loss of support by former allies and third world nations and the risks of collapse from the inside.

The book argues that the leadership was bound together by fears of revenge if the regime fell. They decided to use the inability of the United States to obtain verifiable information about secret military installations as a strategic advantage, for example, to sell access and, also, to scare the White House with DPRK unpredictability and readiness to undertake decisions that seemed irrational and even suicidal. (Note)

Arrival in Moscow

I arrived in Moscow on Sunday, March 9. Monday was “Women’s Day” in Russia—much like "Mother’s Day" here—and a Russian holiday with the government closed. The former Russian Ambassador to North Korea, Valery I. Denisov, could not make a scheduled lunch because he had the flu. So I went to a central mall for lunch and, in the late afternoon, to another mall. It looked like a piece of Stockholm. Small stores are popping up in villages, I am told, often run by people from the Caucasus who know trading. The villages at least have their own food supply. But the small towns are sometimes in really bad shape, and they are often astonished to see a small car drive through.

Wednesday: The Foreign Ministry Says “No” but an Institute Says “Yes”

At 11 a.m. I went to the Foreign Ministry and met with Yevgeny V. Afanasiev, in charge of Taiwan, China, and the DPRK, and with the head of his department on South and North Korea, Valery E. Sukhinin. Afanasiev remembered me cordially. (While working in Washington, he had delivered a letter to me from President Mikhail Gorbachev on Cambodia in response to a letter from me to Gorbachev about Gorbachev’s impending meeting with Deng Xiaoping.) He said the Russian position was (1) nuclear-free Korea; (2)peaceful means through negotiation; and (3)direct talks.

It was up to America to deal with the DPRK because it involved the Agreed Framework, which was between the two sides (the United States and the DPRK) and because it involved political relations between the two sides. Russia was against an internationalization of the problem because the DPRK was against it and would not agree to it.

On the suggestion to warn the North not to sell fissionable material, he considered my ideas unrealistic and thought that the issue should come up, if at all, only later.

I had urged four points. The first suggested the Foreign Ministry alert the North to the fingerprinting issue. The second suggested it alert the North that this issue was the most likely issue over which the United States might attack the North. The third was to elicit a voluntary statement of compliance from the DPRK. And the fourth was to have the Foreign Ministry elicit from the DPRK under what conditions it would forswear the sale of fissionable material. (Appendix)

A Russian Specialist Who Can Carry the Message

At 2 p.m., I met with an important official of a major research institute with direct experience in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang. He thought that Kim Jong-Il did not want to risk the reforms and openness the United States would want. And he thought that the North learned from Assistant Secretary of State Kelly that the United States was not frightened enough and so moved on to scarier tactics.

He thought that the DPRK was unprepared for war because its army had no practice and, in war, would collapse in a few days. The soldiers, by the way, are trained in so-called self-liquidation in the event that things do not turn out according to plan; they are taught to consider this logical and normal.

He said that in the DPRK negotiations, Russia succeeded only when it did not bluster or beg but was just very calm and said: “Okay, if you honor the agreement only partway then we will too.” The DPRK thinks that “words are for the weak.”

He agreed on the importance of discouraging the North from selling fissionable material by warning them that it could be fingerprinted. He saw North Korean representatives at meetings, and it was clear he would advise them of this.

In general, Russian experts on North Korea indicated that Russia was trapped, on the one hand, between a traditional nonproliferation policy (backing America) and, on the other hand, wanting more influence in the region—which meant relations with the DPRK.

The Dean of Korean Studies: Leave It to the Koreans

At 10 a.m., I went to Moscow University to meet with eighty-year-old Mikhail N. Pak, director of the International Center for Korean Studies. He is the most senior of the Russian experts on Korean studies and the teacher of all the experts I had been visiting.

Street scene in Pyongyang, 1991
Street scene in Pyongyang, 1991 [See larger]
Pak said the problems in Korea must be settled by the Koreans themselves. The North could remain as it was, but it cannot reform itself or it will explode. Collapse would occur only under certain conditions created by South Koreans or foreign countries. But intervention would be accepted very reluctantly. Pak remembered Hwang Jang Yop, my host in North Korea, when he was a colleague studying at Moscow University.

Later, a well-informed scholar advised me that the first KGB report in 1990 to the Russian government saying that the North had a nuclear bomb was disinformation based on a thought-to-be-reliable source. But the second set of Russian opinions, which said they did not “quite” have a nuclear bomb, was based on stolen documents. It seems the North has a nuclear “device” but not the electronics to set it off from a distance. They were buying lasers for some purpose, which might well be for developing these aspects of the bomb. But now they would be able to set the bomb off only manually. China has been telling them that “the bomb is not the thing you are needing now.”

Georgi D. Toloraya: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Later I met with Dr. Georgi D. Toloraya, deputy director-general of the Asia Department. He was the Foreign Ministry’s highest official in charge of North Korea. He had recently spent several days with Kim Jong-Il on the train from North Korea to Moscow to escort Kim Jong-Il to Russia and has probably logged more hours with him than anyone else.

He said, flatly, the issue was war or direct talks. He said that the DPRK provocations were coming fast and sometimes every day or week. Everyone in the Russian government was now keenly interested in North Korea policy, including President Vladimir Putin. He gave me his e-mail address and took my suggestions. I told him that the large number of Russian experts were a special weapon not yet sufficiently exploited.

The Economy and War

Hwang says he talked to Kim Jong-Il’s closest associates. [en-69]
Friday: Minatom Agrees to Study Fingerprinting Fissile Material

On Friday morning, I went to Minatom, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, and spoke to Vladimir Kuchinov, head of the Department of International and Economic Cooperation. He said my ideas on fingerprinting the North Korean fissile material were “quite interesting” and “needed further study.” He seemed open to exchanging ideas about this with the U.S. scientific community. And it was obvious that he was planning to work on this.

In other exchanges at Minatom, I learned that there were wide differences within the scientific community and between the U.S. and Russian scientific communities on the existence of a Korean bomb. I gave my interpretation as a working assumption: The North had no bomb but only a “nuclear device” that they could fire only “manually” but not electronically.

This was considered a good working assumption, if only because the Los Alamos group had also manually detonated its first device on the top of a tower in the Trinity test. Minatom thought the North Korean scientists were “not bad,” based on what they had done. But there had been no contacts in the last several years from Minatom with the DPRK. They could speak, however, for the Dubna scientific laboratory, which is an international consortium.

State Department Is Interested

On March 17, after my return, I wrote a long letter to Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley urging talks with the North Koreans and, in particular, including a paragraph on fingerprinting: “Scientists can determine whether fissionable material—whether uranium- or plutonium-derived—came from the DPRK, if they locate it and, conceivably, even if it were detonated. To organize deterrence of such sales, the North can be warned of this. A new defensible red line could thus be created with ready support from relevant banks and regional allies helping DPRK. Minatom agreed to study this and here you could talk to Steve Fetter at Univ. of Maryland.”

On March 26, I continued to try to stir the bureaucratic pot on this issue. I met with Kathryn Schultz and two of her colleagues in the State Department in the nonproliferation section then headed by Assistant Secretary John Wolf. They liked the fingerprinting idea and said they would report it to Wolf. Their boss, Mark Fitzpatrick, e-mailed me that evening of his interest.

On March 27, at 11:30 a.m., I lunched with Selig Harrison, who was going to Pyongyang, and briefed him on two of my ideas, of which one was the fingerprinting of fissionable material. Certainly, Selig would warn them of the West’s ability to determine that they were the source. So this represented yet another credible channel of warning, caution, and deterrence. (Selig later confirmed that he relayed the message.)

U.S. Department of Energy Very Interested

On Monday, March 31, I met with considerable success on this subject with the policy planning staff of DOE under John Harvey; they said they would recommend a meeting for me with their superior, Linton Brooks, whom I knew slightly, and who was then director of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration. And they also put me in touch with a relevant expert at Livermore, Sid Niemeyer.

I wrote Niemeyer, and he wrote back on March 31 complaining that his laboratory had been working on “attribution of nuclear materials” for a number of years but funded at a very low level—typically $200,000–300,000 total for several DOE laboratories. International work was also badly funded, although the International Atomic Energy Agency had held the International Conference on Nuclear Forensics in October 2002. He seemed pleased at my encouragement.

Harvey was delighted with my success with Minatom because he had evidently been looking for something they could work together on with Minatom, and he said: “You have obviously thought a lot about this, and you have said things we have not heard.”

Interest in the U.S. National Security Council

And on Wednesday, April 2, I went to the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, and spoke to Dr. Michael Green, head of the Asian Division of the National Security Council, who was very interested in my idea about attribution of fissile material. I sent him a long letter describing what I had done and wanted done on April 3, but the letter is not reproduced here because of the technical information it contains.

I later got the impression that the NSC nonproliferation group thought that they could resolve the fissile material identification (prebomb explosion problem) but not the fission product situation (postbomb explosion problem). I agreed to resend my letter to Green to them the next day.

Meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Kelly

On April 15, I met with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly for a very stimulating thirty minutes. He accepted my view that the DPRK probably had a nuclear “device” but not a bomb and that both the United States and Russia were right in their own way, that is, the Russians said “no bomb, but only a device” and the Americans said “they have a bomb or device.”

He also agreed that the DPRK was unpredictable and that a “Pearl Harbor” attack by them on the South Koreans was not impossible—he said that a consensus existed in the administration that we really did not know how the DPRK would react. On the other hand, it did not seem that the conclusion from this observation was that we should treat them gingerly. On the contrary, he said: “We will be putting them to a very hard choice, and it is not clear that they can make that choice.” So it smelled like war might result.

Scientific Exchange with North Korea?

After this meeting, I met with Dr. Norman P. Neureiter, science and technology adviser to the secretary, who wanted advice on how to start scientific exchange with the North Koreans. I said this was not very feasible and that philosophy and agriculture would be the best thing to try. I mentioned his getting a meeting with Hwang Jong Yap, head of the DPRK scientific community. And I suggested he try multilateral meetings hosted in Beijing.

Later, I learned that the United States was trying to get a look at some radioactive “coal” in a Beijing museum that might be a sample of North Korean uranium.

And on January 27, 2003, I met with an official at the Chinese embassy in Washington. He thought Kim Jong-Il had a lot of money stashed away, perhaps in Eastern Europe, where the family often stays. I presented two ideas. One, of course, was to repeat what I had advised his Foreign Ministry: to instruct DPRK that the United States could identify as North Korean any fissionable material it found, whether plutonium or uranium.

On July 22, 2003, I sent the National Security Council ten axioms of North Korean behavior that I thought might be helpful. In sum, they said that North Korea “cannot be cornered,” had “escalation dominance,” and that its agreements had to be considered “tentative.” I said that with the DPRK “surprises are the norm,” coup d’états in Pyongyang were “virtually impossible,” popular resistance was “quite impossible,” and with Pyongyang “beware of getting what one wishes for.” I warned of the possibility of a Pearl Harbor–type attack and of the danger posed by the bad blood between the North and the George W. Bush administration. And I suggested that there would be no solution without some “major third force.” (Appendix)

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