Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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November 19, 2002

DPRK Acknowledges Possession of Nuclear Weapons, Confirming Consistent GIS/DFA Reporting. Possibility of Link to Saddam’s “Surprise Weapon”

Analysis. By GIS Staff. State-run radio in the DRPK (North Korea) on November 17, 2002, confirmed that the DPRK Armed Forces had nuclear weapons. Significantly, this confirms consistent intelligence from highly-reliable sources published regularly by the Defense & Foreign Affairs group — which includes this Service, the Global Information System (GIS) — since 1984. Significantly, both the Republic of Korea (ROK: South Korea) Government and the previous US Administration of then-Pres. William Clinton sought to deny the validity of the intelligence because recognition of it would have required a compensatory action on the part of the US and ROK governments.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky provided the bulk of the reports, working with intelligence provided by North Korean defectors and other sources. Several key reports, dating from May 1994, follow this report, to give a measure of the timeline involved in the reporting on the DPRK nuclear program. Even by early 1994, it was known that the DPRK had 10 nuclear warheads of 50kt yield deployed on ballistic missiles, plus two additional 50kt devices suitable for vehicle or aircraft delivery. GIS sources believe that the number of warheads available to the DPRK would now be substantially higher, given the fact that it has had an additional eight years to work on the program.

As well, GIS sources believe that it is possible that the “surprise weapon” referred-to by Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein in his message to Arab leaders could well be a DPRK-supplied nuclear weapon.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 8, 2002: Iraqi War Planning and Strategy Show Detailed Preparations for a Geographically Wide and Multi-Layered Conflict. Saddam Delivers Ultimatum to Gulf Leaders; Hints at “Surprise Weapon”.]

In one of his 1994 reports for this Service, Yossef Bodansky noted: “In 1984, the DPRK began the construction of a major new military nuclear complex in the Yongbyon area built around a new reactor estimated at the 50-200mw range, and dedicated for weapons production. Construction was near completion in 1989 and the reactor was tentatively activated in 1992. The construction of auxiliary installations for this reactor was expected to be completed in 1994, in the aftermath of a crash program begun in 1993. Within two years after its full activation, now expected to take place in 1995 at the latest, this reactor alone will be producing enough plutonium for 10-12 weapons a year.”

There has been ongoing and overwhelming evidence from a number of quarters to verify DPRK possession of nuclear weapons. As Bodansky noted in the July 1994 report:

“In order to confirm the status of the North Korean military nuclear capabilities, a high level delegation of West European diplomats and experts based in Beijing visited the DPRK in the early winter of 1993. Returning from Pyongyang in mid-December 1993, the delegation reported that the DPRK had “several atomic bombs and the vehicles to launch them”. The delegation confirmed much of the data provided by defectors, including that North Korea “has built several kilo[ton]-size bombs”. On the basis of the DPRK’s verified plutonium production at Yongbyon alone, the delegation concluded that the DPRK already had “at least half a dozen bombs” to be delivered by a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles.”

Once again, on November 18, 2002, Associated Press (AP) reports indicated that “South Korean officials expressed doubt about the credibility of the report”. Indeed, it would have been surprising if the ROK officials had not attempted to blunt the impact of the news, given the heightened threat status which DPRK possession of fielded nuclear weapons implied for South Korea.

The timing of the DPRK release of the information was significant, and GIS analysts believe that it was designed to support Pyongyang’s key client states, Iraq and Iran, and, de facto, Libya. The announcement was intended to give validity to Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein’s claim that only Iraq was being singled-out for attack by the US for the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because it was a Muslim state. Such a move was intended to polarize US relations with the entire Muslim world and thereby deny the US and its Coalition partners access to support from Arab/Muslim states in the anticipated war against Iraq.

However, the principal reason for the US reluctance to act against the DPRK and its nuclear weapons has been the fact that Pyongyang has consistently threatened Japan with attack by nuclear weapons — delivered by DPRK NoDong or TaepoDong ballistic missiles — if it allowed the US access to Japanese basing in any attack against the DPRK. Given the lack of sufficient US basing in the Western Pacific, the US has had to take into account Japanese sensibilities and has attempted to find other ways of dealing with the DPRK Government.

Two explosions were reported late on November 18, 2002, 800 feet from Camp Zama, the headquarters for the US Army Japan and the 9th Theater Support Command near Tokyo, and a projectile launcher was found near the site. It is possible that this incident — initially attributed by Japanese police to “leftists” — could be linked to the ongoing DPRK “warnings” to Japan to avoid linkage with the US in the “war on terror” and Washington’s campaign against the so-called “axis of evil”, which included the DPRK, Iraq and Iran. 

The Pyongyang Government of Kim Jong-il also waited before releasing the confirmation of its military nuclear capability until it was clear that the US and other Western states would no longer supply oil to the DPRK, under the earlier arrangements which had been intended to wean the DPRK off its dependence on nuclear energy.

On November 17, 2002, Pyongyang Radio reported that North Korea “has come to have nuclear and other strong military weapons due to nuclear threats by US imperialists”. Until now, the DPRK had restricted its claims to the fact that it was “entitled to have nuclear weapons and more powerful weapons than that to protect its sovereignty from US threats”.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 18, 2002, expressed serious concern over what it called “contradictory” statements from Pyongyang, noting: “Russia expects the friendly Korean leadership to strictly observe all North Korea’s regulations and obligations on the cornerstone Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is a guarantee not only of global strategic stability but of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula..” 

North Korean officials admitted to visiting US officials in Pyongyang in October 2002 that the DPRK had a covert program to make nuclear weapons with enriched uranium. As a penalty, a US-led international consortium, called the Korean Energy Development Organization, in early November 2002 decided to cut off fuel oil shipments to North Korea beginning in December 2002.

There should have been no surprises on the DPRK nuclear weapons program. As noted in the GIS History section for the DPRK, and in the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook:

“On July 8, 1994, the DPRK announced the death of Pres. Kim Il-song due to a ‘sudden attack of illness’. For Pyongyang, this long-awaited event was the most important milestone in North Korean history since the foundation of the state. It seems that Kim Il-song died as a result of an accident, reportedly in the Integrated Command Post for Nuclear Warfare being completed at Mt. Chidang in Changsan-Dong, Sosong district, Pyongyang. Several officers and officials, including Vice Marshal Chu To-il, then the Commander of the Pyongyang troops, are believed to have been killed or injured in the accident. The death of Chu To-il, also attributed to a long illness, was announced on July 2, 1994. Several other funerals were reported in the Pyongyang area at the time.”

Defense & Foreign Affairs sources had reported nuclear weapons development work being undertaken as early as 1992.

This Service has always also noted the link the DPRK delivery systems. The Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of October 26, 1999, in a report entitled ROK Denies Report of DPRK NoDong-1 Deployment, noted:

The Republic of Korea's (ROK)  Defense Ministry denied on October 25, 1999, reports that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea DPRK) had deployed four medium-range missile units which could strikes targets in Japan and the ROK.

ROK Defense Ministry spokesman said that he did not believe the report was accurate because of the reported position of the system. One system was reported to have been deployed at Tugol, which is about 60km from the ROK border. The Ministry spokesperson said that it would make little sense to deploy a missile system with a 1,300km range so close to the border with the ROK. Military doctrine is for weapons to be deployed as far from hostile forces as possible, while keeping the weapon within range to strike enemy targets, in order to reduce the chances of the system being destroyed.

The ROK Defense Ministry comments were in response to an October 25, 1999,  report in the Chosun Ilbo, an ROK newspaper. The report indicated that the DPRK had recently deployed NoDong-1 missiles in two strategic locations in four battalion groups. Quoting an unidentified ROK Government official, the newspaper said the DPRK positioned one battalion at Sinori, north of its capital Pyongyang and three other battalions at Tugol near the western border with the ROK. "One battalion was said to have nine launchers for NoDong-1 missiles," Chosun Ilbo quoted the official as saying.

The strategic, as well as the physical and commercial, linkages between the DPRK, Iraq and Iran — as well as Libya — on nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems has now become clear and of sufficient consistency as to imply a degree of coordinated political activity.