North Korea's nuclear arsenal and Australia's Lucas Heights reactor

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Kim Jong-un (screen shot via YouTube).

North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which now threatens the world, began with a "safe" reactor just like Australia's Lucas Heights, writes Dr Norm Sanders.

SINCE 1958, anti-nuclear activists and local residents have campaigned against the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney's south.

Successive Federal and State governments have claimed the reactor is perfectly safe and, besides, it provides valuable medical isotopes.

Lucas Heights hasn't melted down yet, but it yields more than medical isotopes. The plant produces plutonium.

Plutonium was discovered by McMillan, Kennedy and Wahl at the University of California. The scientists named their discovery after Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. Maybe they had a premonition about the existential threat they were unleashing on the Earth.

Plutonium is what gives atomic bombs their punch. The weapon dropped on Nagasaki in World War II was a plutonium bomb. It is also what Kim Jong-un is using to hold the world to ransom.

Plutonium is very rare in nature, with only trace amounts occurring in uranium ores. The plutonium now threatening life on this planet comes from reprocessing spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors.

Fuel rods from Lucas Heights are sent to France where the plutonium is separated. The fuel rods are then sent back to Australia for storage. Australian plutonium is supposed to be used only for “peaceful” purposes. Once it is processed, the quantity is duly recorded as “Australian”. Of course, there is no way of marking it and it just joins a large international pool of plutonium that can find its way into nuclear weapons through international "flag swapping", where obligations no longer indicate the country of origin.

There are no public accusations that North Korea has obtained plutonium by this means, but the nation has been active in the nuclear black market involving the purchase of centrifuge equipment.

North Korea's nuclear weapons development program began in 1964 when the USSR provided a small reactor to ostensibly produce radioactive isotopes like at Lucas Heights. North Korean scientists had been training in the nuclear field for years in Russia and Canada — they were now called home. In the 1970s and '80s, North Korea set about collecting nuclear technologies from Europe, taking advantage of the loose nuclear information safeguards at that time. They obtained the design for a plutonium separation plant which eventually was built and used.

But what North Korea also needed was "enrichment facilities" for its deposits of uranium. The regime worked out a deal with Pakistan involving swapping North Korean ballistic missiles and technology for uranium centrifuges, enrichment machinery and technical information. Dr A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb program, was at the centre of the negotiations during the reign of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Khan ran a global nuclear proliferation ring, with Iran and Libya among his other clients. Khan always maintained he was merely acting on behalf of the Pakistani leadership.

North Korea avoids sanctions on the purchase of nuclear equipment by setting up front companies in China, who then import goods from the West. Even the Chinese banks may be unaware there is a North Korean beneficiary of the account.

The scientists were recalled from overseas once there was a supply of equipment. The centrifuges started enriching uranium and North Korea was well on the way to developing its nuclear arsenal. North Korea's nuclear reactors are based at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which is about 90 km north of Pyongyang and where there is a fuel reprocessing facility to remove plutonium from spent fuel rods. North Korea is estimated to have obtained enough plutonium for 60 nuclear weapons, not all of which are operational yet.

The North Korean Government has developed its weapons delivery systems simultaneously with the bomb program. In the late 1970s, work began on a version of the Russian Scud-B missile, which had a range of 300 km and was test fired in 1984. Between 1987 and 1992, development was undertaken of the Scud-C with a range of 500 km, the Rodong-1 (1,300 km), the Taepodong-1 (2,500 km), the Musudan-1 (3,000 km) and the Taepodong-2 (6,700 km).

By 1998, North Korea had test-fired the Taepodong-1 over Japan. In 1999, North Korea declared a moratorium on long-range missile tests during a thaw in relations with the U.S. The moratorium ended in March 2005, however, due to the Bush Administration's “hostile policy”. Test launches now occur regularly. The most recent happened on 15 September 2017, when a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile flew 3,700 km after crossing over Japan.

North Korea funds its missile and nuclear programs in large part through overseas sales of arms in an ever-expanding loop of development, production and export. North Korean missiles are held in high regard on the international market. Many countries have bought their missiles or received assistance to establish local missile production. They are Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Yemen.

In addition to exporting missiles and missile technology, North Korea sells other military hardware. Egypt intercepted a North Korean freighter in 2016, which was carrying 30,000 PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. North Korea also uses its construction companies in Africa to build arms factories and military facilities.

North Korean arms sales are one reason trade sanctions simply won't work in pressuring Kim Jong-un. Another is that although three-quarters of North Korea's trade is with China, that country is unwilling to take any action that would destabilise the area and is wary of a flood of refugees crossing from an economically weak North Korea.  

Another source of income immune from economic sanctions is the supply of forced North Korean labourers to China and Russia in return for cash.

And then there are drug sales. North Korea has a large illicit drug industry, selling items ranging from authentic-looking fake Viagra to hard drugs. Australia was a target of the North Korean drug salesmen in 2003, when the Pong Su, a 106-metre-long freighter, was involved in smuggling 125kg of heroin onto a beach near Geelong, Victoria. The street value of the haul was estimated to be $160 million.

The ship itself was linked to Kim Jong-il's Government and Australia's foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, called in the North Korean ambassador to lodge a protest. The freighter was specially modified to carry enough fuel and provisions to circle the globe without replenishing supplies, suggesting a sophisticated smuggling operation. The Pong Su was confiscated and was later sunk off Sydney after being used as a target for laser-guided bombs dropped from F-111 aircraft.

Cybercrime is yet another source of income for North Korea. North Korean hackers are considered some of the best in the world. Witness what they did to Sony over a film considered disrespectful to Kim Jong-un. North Korea was reportedly behind $81 million theft of funds from Bangladesh's account at the New York Federal Reserve in 2016.

We in the West see North Korea as a backward rogue state run by a murderous little guy with a funny haircut, but North Koreans are no fools. North Korea modelled itself on its great ally, the USSR, after the war. This was the Russia of Stalinist xenophobia and oppression.

Little has changed in North Korea since, with successive governments using police state methods and fear of the U.S. as tools to keep the populace in line. The way North Korea has elevated itself to a nuclear power is as impressive as it is frightening. It is a tragedy that they have concentrated on bombs and missiles rather than mobile phones and cars like their relations to the south.

Ultimately, the West is going to have to invite North Korea to the negotiating table — after all, they did agree to a missile launch moratorium in the past.

The alternative is unthinkable.

As for the Lucas Heights reactor, the North Korean nuclear arsenal is more proof that there is no such thing as a “peaceful atom.”

Dr Norm Sanders is a former academic, TV journalist, Tasmanian MP and Australian Federal Senator.

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