Monitoring the Nuclear Weapons Situation on the Korean Peninsula

Mar 14 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring

David Keir with Andreas Persbo, London

Shortly before Christmas 2012, I was present at a luncheon hosted by the London embassy of the Republic of Korea. A few hours earlier that day the DPRK had launched, and publicised the launch of, a space rocket apparently capable of delivering a nuclear warhead which, as far as the diners knew at the time, North Korea still did not possess in a developed form. Despite bellicose comments from some around the table, the arguments around the lunch table were evenly divided between ‘this changes nothing’ and ‘we are witnessing the birth of a new nuclear weapon-owning state.’

Some three months, and an apparently successful DPRK underground nuclear test later, the arguments have shifted towards the latter position. Although we have yet to see any results of radionuclide detection, the conclusion that the 12 February 2013 event was indeed a nuclear shot seems universal among pundits and politicians alike. Statements from the North about this test claim the device was smaller and lighter than previous ones. This implies that they can build a device small and light enough to be mated to their recently launched rocket. Or put more precisely, the DPRK may now be only a short step away from an inter-continental ballistic missile-deliverable nuclear warhead. There has been no independent verification of these claims. Outside of North Korea itself no-one knows whether this was a plutonium-fuelled device, using the plutonium which has been in the North’s possession for some years, or a new, uranium-based nuclear yield device.

No significant verification developments
Reuters, on 20 February reported that ‘U.S. and allied spy agencies have found no traces of tell-tale nuclear-related particles from North Korea's February 12 nuclear bomb test, leaving unresolved basic questions about the device's design, according to officials in the United States, Europe and South Korea.’ The report continues, ‘After the test, the U.S. Air Force Technical Applications Center in Florida dispatched WC-135 "sniffer" airplanes to look for traces of gas residue that could offer clues to the device's design, but those efforts apparently turned up empty.’

More recently the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which has a global network of monitoring stations designed to pick up radioactive traces emitted from tests, said it had yet to find any such signs. The CTBTO spokesperson, Ms Annika Thunborg, was quoted by Reuters on 12 March 2013 saying that ‘it is very unlikely that we will register anything at this point ... at this late stage.’

Ms Thunborg did not give details, but the failure to detect radioactive traces, even though it can take weeks to pick up radioactive noble gases such as xenon, emerging from an underground test, would indicate that North Korean site managers managed to prevent or mitigate any such release from the recent underground test.

Based on the seismic and infrasound signals detected by the CTBTO International Monitoring System (IMS) and other independent systems, the estimated size of the device seems to be around five kilotonnes TNT-equivalent—several times larger than the signals received from the North Korean claimed nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009. Assessments vary, however, as very little is known about the geology of the site itself, and the emplacement of the device. A previous VERTIC assessment, based on the parameters of the Semipalatinsk test site, estimated the yield to be approximately seven kilotonnes.

Emerging deterrence discussions in the ROK
While the US might not feel that they are yet in reach of such a DPRK weapon, the focus has shifted to South Korea as a possible target. Among the political and military posturing of the North reported in recent weeks have been threats to visit ‘pre-emptive nuclear strikes’ and ‘final destruction’ on Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea. These statements have apparently shocked the South Korean public, who had assumed the main aim of DPRK’s large investment in nuclear weapons development was to shift the nature of their relationship with the United States. An Asan Institute opinion poll now show a clear and unchanged majority (66.5 per cent of the surveyed) in favour of developing a domestic nuclear weapon.

Obviously, taking such action would require the country to withdraw from a number of key international instruments, or engage in a strategy of deliberate non-compliance. South Korea was one of the original signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force for Seoul in April 1975. This treaty prohibits the country from developing their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

South Korea was stopped from developing its own nuclear weapon in the 1970s by strong pressure from the US, along with firm assurances that the ROK could rely upon the US for its defence against threats from the North. US nuclear tactical weapons were stationed in South Korea until 1991. In recent months the population of ROK at least seems to be losing its confidence in those assurances.

So why, with its own modern army, supported by more than 28,00 US troops stationed in South Korea, do the ROK want a nuclear weapon of their own?

A South Korean exit-strategy which despite public opinion appears extremely unlikely, would not be driven by the fact that the five nuclear-weapon state parties to the NPT has not disarmed, this much is clear. However, it is equally clear that the sentiment is driven by the fact that a state on its border is getting nuclear armed, or expressed differently, has failed to disarm itself. The North has a vastly larger, although technologically inferior, conventional army. The conventional threat appears to be managed by South Korea. The primary driver would be that the DPRK looks set to operationalise its nuclear deterrence.

The desire to rely on nuclear weapon to enhance one’s security run counter to some of the arguments advanced in the past year or so, that nuclear weapons are obsolete and do not increase military security. As of late, the primary advocate for this position is Mr Ward Wilson, which recently published ‘Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons’. I had the pleasure of hearing him present this book last week in Oslo.

Instead, the ROK poll appears to reflect well-established cold war philosophy, still adhered to by most of the current nuclear weapons-owning states. It was put very simply by Josef Stalin in the autumn of 1945, in a request to Kurchatov and Yannikov to provide Russia with a nuclear weapon as soon as possible. On the basis that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shaken the whole world, the Soviet leader believed that a balance needed to be re-established so as to remove a great immediate danger to the USSR.

For South Korea, it must appear that there is no absolute guarantee that the US will protect them under all circumstances. In other words, South Korea would feel ‘the need for a minimum effective nuclear deterrent as the ultimate means to deter the most extreme threats’ (to borrow language from the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review).

Finishing thoughts
The understandable belief of nuclear abolitionists that the value of nuclear weapons is artificially high due to misconceptions appears to go for nought when, as in the case of the fears of the South Korean population: people believe that they could become the victims of a limited, regional nuclear attack. Whether or not, despite their beliefs, nuclear weapons will actually bring them the security they desire is, however, highly uncertain.

The future is of course unclear, and several other factors is likely to come into play to materially reduce the current tension, long before serious decisions are made about nuclear weapons in the ROK.

Last changed: Mar 14 2013 at 2:32 PM