Do North Korean and Pakistan Nuclear ActivitiesThreaten Asian Security?
17 Jun, 2009 10:40 pm
The concerns about North Korea?s nuclear and missile tests come at the same time as concerns about the security of Pakistan?s nuclear weapons.
These North Korean nuclear and missile activities, which raised tensions worldwide, provoked the U.N. Security Council to consider new sanctions against North Korea. Both U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak stated that the world would not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. China, North Korea’s closest ally, also expressed its “resolute opposition” to the North Korean nuclear test, in a rare public criticism of its neighbour (2).
Seismologists in Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.A., reported that the second North Korean nuclear test triggered an earth tremor with a magnitude on the Richter Scale of between 4.5 and 5.3. This indicates that the nuclear explosion had a yield of about 20 kilotons, the same as that of the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagaski on August 1945. The yield of the first test was apparently less than one kiloton.
North Korea probably has not miniaturized its nuclear weapons sufficiently to put them on missiles. But it will eventually be able to do so. North Korea will need to conduct more nuclear tests as it does so (3).
The concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests come at the same time as concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Baghdad on April 25: “One of our concerns...is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban...were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.... We can't even contemplate that” (4).
Pakistan believes that it needs nuclear weapons because India, its neighbour, has them. India also has superiority in conventional weapons. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani says that: “Nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of Pakistan’s deterrence strategy, and enjoy complete national consensus and support. We are determined to retain nuclear deterrence at all costs, and no compromise will be made on our core security interest.” He also insists that there is no problem with the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and maintains that there is no danger of its weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban (5).
Pakistan first announced that it had nuclear weapons on 28 May 1998 when it reported that it had conducted five nuclear tests at its Chagai Hills test site. These tests were held in response to a series of five nuclear explosions India conducted earlier in the month. Estimates of the size of Pakistan’s current nuclear arsenal vary considerable. Perhaps the best estimate is the one in the 2008 Yearbook published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (6).
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons mainly use highly-enriched uranium (HEU) as the fissile material. The HEU is produced by a uranium-enrichment facility at the Kahuta Research Laboratories. But it seems that Pakistan intends to also use plutonium in its nuclear weapons. The Khushab–I heavy-water reactor, completed in 1998, is capable of producing about 10 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium annually. A second heavy-water reactor is being built at the Khushab nuclear centre, Punjab. Pakistan may be building a third reactor, identical to the second, at Khushab. These reactors will considerably increase Pakistan’s plutonium production capability.
The size of Pakistani’s nuclear arsenal will probably increase significantly, particularly if India acquires missile defences and/or increases the size of its nuclear arsenal. Under these circumstances, Pakistan may perceive the need, in the words of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, “to take measures to ensure the credibility of our deterrence”. (7)
Nuclear weapons using plutonium as the fissile material are, for a given explosive yield, normally lighter and smaller than those using HEU. They could, therefore, be fitted onto smaller missiles. The amount of plutonium needed for a nuclear weapon is typically much less than the amount of HEU needed for a weapon of the same yield. Pakistan opted for HEU at the start of its nuclear-weapon programme presumably because A.Q.Khan, who master-minded it, had learnt how to produce HEU using gas centrifuges when he worked for URENCO, the European company that specializes in it.
SIPRI’s estimate of the amount of HEU and plutonium produced by January 2008 suggests that Pakistan probably possesses about 60 nuclear weapons. There is some uncertainty about the amount of fissile material available for Pakistani nuclear weapons. In particular, there is doubt about how much capacity there is to reprocess fuel elements removed from Pakistan’s reactor to remove the plutonium from them.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be delivered by its strike aircraft (the F-16A/B), ballistic missiles (like the Haft-3, -4 and -5), or cruise missiles. These delivery systems could deliver nuclear weapons on to targets up to a range of about 1,600 kilometres.
There has been concern about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for some time. Since the end of 2001, America has provided assistance to help Pakistan to guard its nuclear weapons. This included the safeguarding of Pakistan's nuclear material, its warheads, and its laboratories. At a cost of nearly $100 million, the programme has provided helicopters, night-vision goggles and equipment to detect nuclear material.
But Pakistan refused the offer of Permissive Action Links (PALs), security devices for nuclear weapons that prevent unauthorized arming or detonation of the weapons, because, it said, it feared that ‘dead switches’ would be inserted.
According to AFP (Hong Kong), General James Jones, the US national security adviser, told the BBC that he had been assured by Pakistan's army that the country's nuclear stockpile was safe and out of reach of Taliban militants. But Washington needed further guarantees, the General said. "The world would like to know”, he went on, “that on this question, that there's absolute security and transparency." The notion that the country's nuclear weapons could fall into Taliban hands was "the very, very worst case scenario," said Jones.(9)
It has been reported that the cores of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (called ‘pits’) that contain the fissile material are stored separately from the rest of the weapons and kept under strong security. Let us hope that this is true because the prospect that extremists could acquire operational nuclear weapons is an awesome one.
1. John M. Glionna, North Korea puts long-range missile on launch pad, report says, Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2009. www.latimes.com/
2. Richard Lloyd Parry, Barack Obama seeks to forge united front against rogue nuclear North Korea, The Times, 27 May 2009.
3. Julian Borger and Justin McCurry, North Korea escalates nuclear tensions in Yellow Sea, The Guardian 28 May 2009, page 18.
4. Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, The New York Review of Book, May 2009. www.nybooks.com/articles/22730
5. Zulfiqar Ghuman, Nuclear weapons cornerstone of deterrence strategy: PM, Daily Times, 30 May 2009. www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2009%5C05%5C30%5Cstory_30-5-2009_pg1_4
6. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, SIPRI Yearbook 2008, p.392, Oxford University Press, 2008.
7. Press Trust India, Pak apprehensive about Indo-US nuclear deal: Aziz, Economic Times (Mumbai), 31 January 2007.
8. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, US Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms, The New York Times, 18 November 2007.
9. AFP (Hong Kong), Pakistan’s nuclear security still concern for US, 4 May 2009. www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hlAQoBRPXjUeqlnJ-cfDE7V2wFXw