April 08, 2013

The North Korean Nuclear Test of February 2013

Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Angelo State University and the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies. His latest book, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington DC: Potomac Books) is scheduled for publication in April 2013.

The following is an excerpt from the author' upcoming book, entitled,
The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (Washington DC: Potomac Books). Scheduled for publication April, 2013.

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test during February of 2013.  Most estimates placed the explosive power of the test as being significantly higher than either of the first two tests.  In fact, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense placed that the estimated yield of the device tested was six to nine kilotons.  Intelligence agencies from the United States, South Korea, and Japan had numerous sophisticated collection means deployed during the test, but were unable to definitively determine if it was a Plutonium or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) device.  While there was no proof that the test was either Plutonium or HEU, there were many factors that suggested it was an HEU test (as I will address next) - though the North Koreans took measures to ensure that it was contained (likely so intelligence agencies could not collect data).1

Of interest, and directly related to whether or not North Korea's third nuclear test was Plutonium or HEU, Iranians were present at the test.  Iran is not known to have a Plutonium weaponization program, and thus would likely have no reason to attend the test unless it was to help with their HEU weaponization program.  The Iranians reportedly asked Pyongyang if they could send observers to monitor the test in November of 2012.  The Iranians also reportedly paid the North Koreans tens of millions of dollars to observe the test.  The request came from the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and was approved by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The payment is said to have been made through the Bank of Kunlun in Beijing.  Of note, among the Iranians said to have been in attendance at the nuclear test was the man known as the "father of the Iranian nuclear program," Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi - who is said to be the head of Iran's collaboration effort with North Korea to develop a nuclear warhead for a missile.  Some analysts believe the weapon tested during February of 2013 was a miniaturized warhead for a missile.2

More evidence pointing to the February 2013 test being an HEU device comes from the North Koreans.  They claimed in public statements that the test was to develop a "smaller and light" warhead.  In fact, North Korea's news service announced that they had used a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously."3   The importance of a miniaturized warhead cannot be overstated.  The ability to mount an HEU warhead (if in fact that is what was tested in February of 2013) on a missile is a true "game changer."  North Korea has around 100 (or more) transporter-erector-launcher mobile ballistic missile platforms.  According to an unnamed official in the South Korean government, there are 27-40 Scud missile launchers, 27-40 No Dong missile launchers, and 14 launchers for the Musudan missile.4   Of course, other launchers also likely exist for developing systems.  While sanctions were called for by the UN, there is no doubt that North Korea - a nation-state that has sophisticated tactics and techniques for getting around sanctions - will continue to proliferate their nuclear technology to nations like Iran, as the profits from this endeavor put cash in the pockets of the elite and help to support the military.5  Based on reports that Iranian experts observed the nuclear test, that the North Koreans announced it was a test of a miniaturized device, and the great care that the North Koreans took not to let particles escape from the test, my assessment is that this test was of an HEU weapon - most likely a warhead that could be mounted on a missile.  But as this was never definitively proven, the status of North Korea's HEU nuclear weaponization program remains mired in ambiguity.

1. For analysis on North Korea's third nuclear test, and the data that is known, See: Song Sang-ho, "North Korea Conducts 3rd Nuclear Test," Korea Herald, February 12, 2013, http://nwww.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20130212000883 Choi He-suk, "Estimates Differ on Size of N.K. Blast," Korea Herald, February 14, 2013, http://my.news.yahoo.com/estimates-differ-size-n-k-blast-041003243.html For information regarding the collection of intelligence and other data during and after the nuclear test, See: Mark Hosenball, "Spy Agencies Scrounge for Details on North Korean Nuclear Test," Reuters, February 20, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/20/us-korea-north-nuclear-usa-idUSBRE91J1CY20130220 For analysis about North Korean efforts to contain the blast so that foreign intelligence agencies could not determine the type of weapon, See: Jung-ha Won, "Lack of Data Shrouds Nature of N. Korea Nuclear Test," AFP, February 14, 2013, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gj_QgeYYUBzIqCWhzpOHLJ7ESrLQ?docId=CNG.464e2be3b8023ccfe02bede099a1bdce.351
2. For information on Iranians present at the nuclear test, the payments made to North Korea for the right to attend the test, and analysis suggesting that the test was of a miniaturized warhead, See: "Report, Iranians at N. Korea Nuclear Test," UPI, February 15, 2013, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/02/15/Report-Iranians-at-N-Korea-nuclear-test/UPI-22931360904909/ "Fears Rise About Iran-North Korea Nuclear Connection," NKNews, February 18, 2013, http://www.nknews.org/2013/02/fears-rise-about-iran-north-korea-nuclear-connection/ "Iran paid Millions for Ringside Seat at N. Korean Nuke Test," Chosun Ilbo, February 18, 2013, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2013/02/18/2013021801176.html "Iranian Nuclear Chief Observed Korean Nuke Test," Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2013, http://www.jpost.com/IranianThreat/News/Article.aspx?id=303499 Lee Sang-yong, "Evidence of Iranian Test Involvement Mounts," Daily NK, February 19, 2013, http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=10327 "NK Nuke was Bought and Paid for by a Key End-User: Iran," Korea Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2013/02/511_130797.html Vincent Pry, "Understanding North Korea and Iran," Missile Threat.com, February 26, 2013, http://missilethreat.com/understanding-north-korea-and-iran/
3. See: Mary Beth Nikitin, "North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues," Congressional Research Service, February 12, 2013, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34256.pdf David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-hun, "Defying U.N., North Korea Confirms Third Nuclear Test," New York Times, February 12, 2013, http://news.asiantown.net/r/28361/defying-un--north-korea-confirms-third-nuclear-test-prompting-emergency-un-meeting
4."N. Korea 'Has 100 Mobile Missile Launch Platforms,'" Chosun Ilbo, February 14, 2013, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2013/02/14/2013021401237.html
5.For analysis on the tactics and techniques North Korea uses to launder money and proliferate materials with a great deal of success, See: Jack Kim and Louis Charbonneau, "North Korea Uses Cash Couriers, False Names to Outwit Sanctions," Reuters, February 15, 2013, http://news.yahoo.com/north-korea-uses-cash-couriers-false-names-outwit-013200620.html