Obsession With Nuclear Family

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

On Aug. 24, 1962, the Soviet Ambassador to Pyongyang, Vasilii Moskovski, met the North Korean foreign minister, Pak Song-chol. The issue to be discussed was nuclear non-proliferation, one closely related to the nuclear test ban treaty, then in preparation. Moscow was an enthusiastic backer of the treaty, and wanted support from its allies. Relations with North Korea were deteriorating fast, but still some supportive gesture from the North was hoped for.

However, Comrade Pak was straightforward: a non-proliferation treaty was a bad idea. He explained the reasons for his skepticism. He asked a Soviet diplomat: “Who can impose such a treaty on countries that do not have nuclear weapons, but are perhaps successfully working in that direction?” Having said that, the North Korean foreign minister continued, “The Americans hold on to Taiwan, to South Korea, and South Vietnam, they blackmail the people with their nuclear weapons, and so rule over those lands and do not intend to leave. Their possession of nuclear weapons, and the lack thereof in our hands, objectively helps them, therefore, to eternalize their rule.”

Indeed, soon Ambassador Moskovski learned that the North Koreans were trying to acquire nuclear technology. As a matter of fact, recently de-classified Soviet papers confirm that in late 1963 Moskovski heard something to this effect more or less every month.

In August 1963 the East German ambassador informed Moskovski that “the [North] Koreans … are asking whether they could obtain any kind of information about nuclear weapons and the atomic industry from German universities and research institutes.”

In September 1963 Soviet geologists, then employed as technical consultants to the North Korean uranium mine, told Ambassador Moskovski that “the Korean side incessantly tries to obtain information about the deposits and quality of the uranium ore mined in the Soviet Union.” They also noticed that the amount of the uranium ore extracted in the North far exceeded the modest demands of its small-scale research program.

In October 1963, another Soviet scientist told the ambassador about a recent conversation on the same subject with a Korean engineer. The engineer asked whether Koreans were able to create an atomic bomb. The Soviet scientist said that the economy of the DPRK could not cope with such a task. But, according to an Embassy document, “the Korean said that it would cost much less in the DPRK than in other countries. If we tell our workers, he declared, that we are taking up such a task, they will agree to work free of charge for several years.”

This new evidence, recently obtained and published by Balazs Szalontaj and Sergei Radchenko, finally confirms what has been long suspected by many (and known to the few) _ from its inception, the North Korean nuclear program was military in its nature.

Actually, North Korea was to some extent involved in nuclear politics as early as the 1940s. It has large deposits of a particular monazite, a mineral that was seen as potentially useful for the Soviet nuclear program. The Soviets demanded payments in monazite for their sales to the North. Eventually, the engineers were disappointed with the properties of the mineral, and abandoned their plans to use it as a source of nuclear material. Russia still does not know what to do with the large stockpiles of monazite it still has from the 1940s.

The North Koreans were mining for uranium as well. There were two major quarries operated with Soviet technical support. The quality of the uranium remained low, but its production was still seen as necessary for the sake of the future.

In 1959 the DPRK signed an agreement on nuclear research with the USSR (soon afterwards, a very similar agreement was signed with China as well). The Soviet Union was becoming very strict about non-proliferation, and the agreement was probably seen as a potential safeguard, to make sure that North Korean ambitions would not result in a military nuclear program.

Needless to say, such a program was indeed what they wanted, and the North Koreans had many ways to outsmart the Soviet supervisors _ not least, by skillfully exploiting the deepening rivalry between Moscow and Beijing, and so it was that Soviet assistance helped Pyongyang launch its first research reactor in 1965.

It seems that the nuclear weapons were not much feared _ generally, in line with Mao’s mad dictum about the `paper tiger.’ In 1962, for example, the East German ambassador had a remarkable talk with Yi Chu-yon, then a Politburo member and one of North Korea’s top leaders.

Yi Chu-yon suggested that it was a good time to start a Third World War. He said that “now, when the USSR has such powerful means of waging war, with missiles that can strike all ranges, perhaps it would be better not to wait, but to strike the imperialists.” Yi Chu-yon received some support, since, according to the East German diplomat, “other Korean comrades who accompanied us also insistently advocated a military resolution of all contradictions between capitalism and socialism.”

Hence, North Korean nuclear ambitions have remained a constant for nearly half a century. However, it took a couple of decades to get things moving. The North was, indeed, too poor for such an undertaking, and no amount of drum-beating nationalism could compensate for lack of resources and technology. At the same time, none of the great power allies was enthusiastic about helping Pyongyang arm itself with nukes.

Nonetheless, work continued, and by the early 1980s the first rumors of the North Korean nuclear weapons project began to spread along the people in the know.


Comments are closed.