Archive for the ‘North Korean technology’ category

How we got to a nuclear North Korea

October 16, 2017

How we got to a nuclear North Korea, Washington Times, William C. Triplett II, October 15, 2017

Illustration on the history leading up the North Korean nuclear crisis by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times


President Trump and his Cabinet have said repeatedly that the present state of affairs with North Korea represents 25 years of American foreign policy failure going back over at least three presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Reviewing this disaster, there are at least three major mileposts.

The first of these would be the Dec. 1, 1994 hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” with North Korea. The regime had agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program and in return, the United States pledged hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to substitute forms of energy for Pyongyang. Late in the hearing, Sen. Larry Pressler, South Dakota Republican, was pressing the Clinton administration’s spokesman, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, over whether the agreement permitted a “go anywhere in North Korea, anytime” inspection regime. It didn’t, as he was forced to admit.

At that moment, Sen. Pressler asked me to flip open a prepared chart standing on an easel. There was an audible gasp in the room because written on the chart was this: “Based on North Korean actions to date, DIA assesses that North Korea will continue its nuclear weapons program despite any agreement to the contrary.” The statement was made by Lt. Gen. James Clapper, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. At the time, Gen. Clapper had the reputation as a straight shooter and everyone in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing room knew that the emperor had no clothes: The Agreed Framework was not going to work, ever, because the Kim regime would cheat on it from the get-go.

The Clinton administration then had a choice: It could go with the judgment of Gen. Clapper and mount a worldwide diplomatic effort to shut down the North Korean nuclear program through trade sanctions and other harsh measures, or it could heed the advice of Mr. Gallucci, State Department Counselor Wendy Sherman, U.N. Ambassador and later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and pretend that the Agreed Framework was fully clothed. Gen. Clapper lost.

The second milepost came in early October 2002. The incoming Bush ‘43 administration had learned disturbing information about North Korea, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001 had distracted top policymakers. They were just then sending out Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific James Kelly to Pyongyang. Mr. Kelly confronted North Korean diplomat Kang Sok-ju about accusations that North Korea was secretly building nuclear weapons. Kang was equally direct: “Not only yes, but hell yes, and you tell that to your president!”

At this point, the Bush ‘43 story gets murky. We know that strong, decisive action was not taken but not why it was not taken. We know that the North Koreans set off their first weapon in 2006 on George W. Bush’s watch. We know that the Bush administration launched new negotiations with the North Koreans under Ambassador Christopher Hill, National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s old colleague from the George H.W. Bush administration. Those negotiations failed spectacularly.

Conversation among former Bush ‘43 veterans suggests that in addition to Mr. Kelly, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Security Adviser Scooter Libby also favored a get-tough policy toward North Korea before the Kim regime passed the nuclear threshold, but Mr. Bush sided with Secretary Rice and Ambassador Hill. We will have to await the opening of the Bush ‘43 files to determine what really happened, but certainly we can say that the pressure of the Iraq War sucked the air out of Bush administration policymakers on North Korea and other pressing matters.

In the case of the third milepost, the warning came from outside the U.S. government. In the early Obama administration, Stanford University professor Siegfried S. Hecker, a proponent of negotiations with North Korea, was permitted to see the inside of the North Korean nuclear weapons production facilities and he was “stunned,” he said, by what he saw. North Korea had graduated from essentially an experimental set-up to a full-scale industrial program, and they did it with outside help. As late as 2012, Mr. Hecker was ringing the alarm: “It is important, therefore, to stop Pyongyang from importing large quantities of key centrifuge materials and components to prevent it from building large additional centrifuge facilities now that it has apparently mastered the art of manufacture and operations.”

For whatever reason, neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman heeded his call. Nor was the State Department alert under Mrs. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, when the North Koreans managed to obtain a supply of Soviet-era rocket engines that make a North Korean nuclear weapon deliverable to the United States.

At the end of the day, Harry Truman was right: The buck stops at the Oval Office, but in the case of the North Korean disaster, it has had a number of stops along the way.

• William C. Triplett II is the author of Rogue State (Regnery, 2004).

Remote Textile Plant May Secretly Fuel North Korea’s Weapons

September 27, 2017

Remote Textile Plant May Secretly Fuel North Korea’s Weapons, New York Times, September 27, 2017

A suspected production site for an advanced rocket fuel known as UDMH in Hamhung, North Korea. The kidney-shaped ponds near the bottom of the image appear designed to hold large amounts of wastewater, consistent with UDMH production.

Asked how North Korea could have so extensively developed this fuel without apparent outside notice, Mr. Lewis said outside analysts too often saw the country as primitive and backward.

“If you watch them in satellite photos and read their technical publications, it looks like a totally different country,” he said.

He added, sighing, “We’re in full-scale denial about North Korea’s capabilities.”


In the remote North Korean city of Hamhung, separated from the capital by vast, jagged mountains, an inconspicuous chemical plant may be secretly fueling the growing missile array that threatens the United States.

Researchers think that the plant is producing a specialized rocket fuel known as UDMH, which is used in the long-range missile launches that have escalated tensions between North Korea and the United States.

This would settle an esoteric but crucial debate among North Korea watchers, and not to Washington’s favor.

Some have argued that North Korea cannot produce the fuel, implying that the country imported it from Russia or China. Those countries could then be pressured to cut off exports, grounding North Korea’s missiles without firing a shot.

But the new finding, produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury University, suggests that North Korea has mastered UDMH production, closing off one of the last avenues for outside curbs on the country’s increasingly sophisticated weapons programs.

Though North Korea may have previously relied on foreign assistance in obtaining or making the fuel, as some analysts believe, it no longer appears to need the help.

A photo from North Korea’s state news agency in 2010 purporting to show Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader at the time, at the February 8 Vinalon Plant in Hamhung. The plant is suspected of making missile fuel. Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters

Short of war or the country’s collapse, he added, “There’s nothing to stop this program from becoming a monster.”

The finding is based on satellite imagery, a technical analysis of UDMH production methods, information from a North Korean official who defected, and a set of obscure North Korean technical documents.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the Middlebury center’s East Asia program, had been hunting for weeks for hints of UDMH production.

“There are no real, obvious signatures for it,” he said, because it can be made with common chemicals like chlorine and ammonia using a variation of a process developed in 1906. India, while quietly developing its missile program in the 1970s, had produced UDMH in an old sugar factory.

The breakthrough came when his team found and translated a set of highly technical articles in an official North Korean science journal, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, that referred to the fuel.

The articles, which ran between 2013 and 2016, discussed mundane matters like managing highly toxic wastewater, a notorious problem in UDMH production. But they betrayed suspiciously sophisticated knowledge. One explored methods for improving purity, crucial in advanced missiles.

“They don’t read like this is a speculative or nascent endeavor,” Mr. Lewis said. “They read like this is a problem they’ve been working on for a while,” describing problems a country would encounter only after producing large quantities of the fuel.

Another state news agency photo was said to show the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in July. The fuel UDMH makes such long-range weapons possible. Credit Korean Central News Agency, via Associated Press

It was an odd location for a highly trained rocket fuel specialist to work. The plant normally produces vinalon, a cheap synthetic material sometimes called “juche” fiber — a reference to North Korea’s tenet of juche, or self-reliance — that is often used in North Korean textiles and uniforms.

But it had long been, Mr. Lewis said, “our No. 1 candidate for UDMH production.”

His team had initially flagged the plant after scrutinizing, in painstaking detail, satellite images of Hamhung for clues.

The remote city is not an obvious home for sensitive military sites. Sitting on the country’s eastern coast, it is exposed to airstrikes, like the American bombing missions that devastated it in the Korean War.

But Ko Chong-song, a North Korea official who defected in the early 1990s, indicated in a 2001 book that it was the center of secret military chemical work. The Central Intelligence Agency had suspected as much since at least 1969, when it published a secret assessment of chemical production in Hamhung.

Now, Mr. Lewis’s team, looking again at the plant, noticed two unusually large wastewater pools, which aligned with standard UDMH production methods — and with the paper describing wastewater challenges. And Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, they found, had made a series of trips to the plant, underscoring its importance.

“That’s about as clear-cut as it gets,” Mr. Lewis said.

While the finding reveals important information about the extent of North Korea’s progress, it may come too late for the United States to act.

The country has most likely already stockpiled enough fuel to fight an extended war, Mr. Lewis said. And the fuel is designed to remain potent for years. Soviet UDMH lasted so long that, after the country collapsed, the United States had to help de-fuel its ICBMs.

Asked how North Korea could have so extensively developed this fuel without apparent outside notice, Mr. Lewis said outside analysts too often saw the country as primitive and backward.

“If you watch them in satellite photos and read their technical publications, it looks like a totally different country,” he said.

He added, sighing, “We’re in full-scale denial about North Korea’s capabilities.”