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Deconstructing North Korea's rocket and nuclear diplomacy

By Marko Beljac - posted Monday, 20 April 2009

On April 5 North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into orbit from the Unha-2 rocket. In response to a United Nations Security resolution condemning the launch North Korea has stated that it will restart the Yongbyon nuclear complex, consider building a light-water reactor and walk from the six-party denuclearisation talks.

The Yongbyon nuclear complex had two key functioning facilities, those being a small (5MWe or 20-30MWt) nuclear reactor and a chemical reprocessing plant. These facilities have been concerned with producing plutonium, not enriching uranium as was erroneously stated by Nick Bisley. The radiochemistry analysis by the US intelligence community of the vented fission products following the North's 2006 nuclear weapon test conclusively demonstrated that the test device was fuelled by plutonium.

Uranium enrichment has played an important role in the diplomatic impasse.


Hardliners in the Bush administration had used allegations on the existence of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant to undermine the Clinton administration's promising policy of bilateral diplomatic engagement. It is highly likely, through its contacts with the notorious A.Q. Khan network, that North Korea dabbled in enrichment experiments. However, dabbling in experiments does not equate to a fully fledged enrichment plant.

By and large the allegations of a secret enrichment plant have been based on fallacious extrapolation of aluminium tube orders, as with Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion.

Hawks during the Bush era used the uranium enrichment allegations to call for unfettered open access to North Korea by international inspectors in order to verify North Korea's enrichment non-admission. Demanding unrealistic verification protocols is a time honoured tactic used by hawks to undermine arms control processes that they do not like.

Obama’s intelligence Czar, Admiral Dennis Blair, in recent congressional testimony, repeated the uranium enrichment allegation. This undoubtedly gave the North a strong feeling of deja vu, which might well have tipped the balance in favour of some form of action to reignite stalled diplomacy.

Much of the media has construed North Korea's rocket launch to be a covert "missile test". This is simply assumed without argument. Under the principle of charity the North's rationale stands unless it can be demonstrated that the rationale does not hold water. For instance when the US shot down a wayward satellite it would be fair to construe this as a type of weapons test because the official rationale cannot survive rational scrutiny.

What did North Korea do and what are some security implications of the North's actions?


The Unha-2 rocket is taken to be derived from the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.

A key differential between a covert missile test and an overt space launch revolves around the question of the trajectory of the launcher. If the launch was conducted on an elevated trajectory then this would be more consistent with a true space launch, for the purpose of a space launch is to project a payload into as high an orbit as possible. A covert missile test, however, would have used a more depressed trajectory to simulate combat use of a missile against terrestrial targets.

North Korea's missile design heritage is based on Scud technology. The best analysis of North Korea's missile design heritage available in the public domain is due to David Wright and Timur Kadyshev. David Wright has provided two models of the Unha-2 that provides a metric by which we can asses the North’s capability.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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