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North Korea: oil aid stopped

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 22, 2002) U.S. oil aid to North Korea has been stopped after North Korea admitted it had an illicit uranium-based nuclear weapons program. This throws into doubt the related Kumho nuclear power plant project, and highlights the spectacular failure of the bizarre "replace-nuclear-with-nuclear" strategy for stopping nuclear proliferation.

(577.5460) WISE Amsterdam - The November oil shipment, currently underway, will continue, but it will be the last. That was the message given on 15 November at a conference of diplomats from South Korea, the US, the European Union and Japan. A senior South Korean government official commented, "I hope this message will be heard by North Korea".

It may seem surprising that this "message" was not sent earlier. After all, when U.S. President Bush, in his State of the Union address of 29 January 2002, claimed that North Korea, Iran and Iraq constitute an "axis of evil", it looked like U.S. aid to North Korea was over. Yet, on 1 April 2002, Bush signed a memorandum authorizing US$95 million in oil for the "axis of evil" country, determining that it was "vital to the national security interests of the United States" that the money was released (1).



North Korea, Iran and Iraq have little in common politically, so it seemed strange that President Bush described them as an "axis of evil". One thing they do have in common, however, is the attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, often under the guise of a nuclear power program.

The U.S. and Russia continue to disagree over Russia's help in the construction of a nuclear power station at Bushehr in Iran. U.S. officials now claim that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of "nuclear fuel cycle facilities". John Wolf, assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, has accused Iran of purchasing "esoteric technologies which only really make sense as part of a weapons development program".

In the case of Iraq, the UN weapons inspection team is led by nuclear experts. Dr. Hans Blix, who heads the inspection team, campaigned in 1980 to retain Sweden's nuclear energy program. Despite Blix's campaign, Sweden decided to phase out nuclear energy. Nevertheless, he was rewarded for his efforts, being made Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1981, a post he retained until 1997. During his directorship, Iraq managed to hide its nuclear weapons program from the IAEA. Dr. Blix admitted that "the IAEA was fooled by the Iraqis" but claimed that "the lesson was learned".

He is joined on the latest mission to Iraq by Mohammed El-Baradei, current IAEA Director-General. The presence of the two men serves to highlight the IAEA's sometimes contradictory roles: on the one hand, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while on the other hand promoting the "peaceful" use of nuclear technology.

Besides nuclear weapons, the weapons inspection team is also looking for biological or chemical weapons., 20 November 2002; BBC, 19 September and 18 November 2002

The oil was, however, only part of the aid program administered by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). KEDO's main aim is to build two new nuclear power reactors in Kumho, North Korea, in exchange for North Korea agreeing to abandon its weapons program. The oil was intended as a stopgap to enable North Korea to generate electricity until the nuclear power station is complete (2).

This bizarre "replace-nuclear-with-nuclear" program turned out to be a spectacular failure when North Korea admitted continuing a nuclear weapons program based on high-enriched uranium despite agreeing to stop developing nuclear weapons (3).

The international response to North Korea's revelations about its weapons program has focused on the oil shipments, since "key nuclear components" of the Kumho reactors were not planned to be delivered until 2005.

Yet, at the same time, the question arises of how North Korea has obtained uranium enrichment technology. While it seems clear that Pakistan provided the technology, controversy arose over the Bush administration's claim that Pakistan assisted North Korea only three months ago (4). This would imply that Pakistan had aided North Korea after Bush gave his "axis of evil" speech - an allegation which Pakistan has vigorously denied (5).

The situation was compounded by a recent confusion when a North Korean radio statement on 17 November appeared to admit that the country possesses nuclear weapons. The following day (18 November), the statement was repeated but with one extra syllable, changing it to a statement that the country "is entitled to have" nuclear weapons (6).

Non-Proliferation Treaty
North Korea's admission also has far-reaching implications for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Unlike its promise to KEDO, which is not legally binding, North Korea has clearly broken international law by violating the NPT. If North Korea were allowed to get away with this, the whole future of the NPT would be thrown into doubt (7).

In retrospect, it seems crazy that anyone could think that providing civil nuclear technology was the best way of stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Yet a similar idea is embodied in the two functions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): to prevent nuclear proliferation while promoting the "peaceful" use of nuclear technology. The North Korea affair highlights once again that "Atoms for Peace" doesn't work, and that in the nuclear age, security means ending the nuclear age (8).


  1. White House press release, 2 April 2002
  2. WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 566.5390, "U.S. approves $95 million aid for 'axis of evil' country"
  3. WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 575, "In Brief"
  4. The Washington Post, 13 November 2002
  5. Reuters, 14 November 2002
  6. BBC, 18 November 2002
  7. Far Eastern Economic Review, 21 November 2002
  8. NIRS Nuclear Monitor, December 2001

Contact: NIRS or WISE Amsterdam