'Let them eat ordnance'

The topic of countless bad science fiction movies, rogue nations getting and using nuclear weapons moves from an ongoing nightmare of US and allied national security advisers closer to reality. Two nations are now under increased scrutiny for their alleged attempts to get atomic bombs.

In a grotesque juxtaposition that would seem impossible nearly anywhere else, the Moon Bats With Bad Haircuts who are running North Korea, within a span of several days, announced that they are again cutting food rations; hinted that Pyongyang has purchased at least one nuclear weapon to reverse engineer for its own bombs; and said The Starving Hermit Nation is rejoining multilateral talks aimed at preventing itself from acquiring nuclear weapons.

On January 14, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan told a visiting US congressional delegation that it is ready to return to six-party nuclear talks and said it was ready to become a friend of the US if Washington stops reporting the apparent psychotic behavior of Pyongyang’s ruthless and unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Il. Kim Kye-gwan also reportedly told Weldon that the North's nuclear arsenal was only defensive in nature and Pyongyang intended to possess it only until no longer threatened by the West in general and the US in particular.

South Korean, for its part, expressed skepticism about the North’s latest proclamation.

The six-way talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program have yet to make any headway, with a fourth round delayed since September, 2004. Nonetheless, the unexpected offer was branded “an overwhelming success” by Congressman Curt Weldon (R – PA), vice chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, who led the group. He then announced that Seoul and Pyongyang would be ready to negotiate in a matter of weeks. The six parties involved would be the US, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Within days of this announcement by Weldon, Seoul reported that North Korea had purchased at least one fission bomb from either Pakistan or a country once part of the USSR (most likely Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Belarus). The purchase is most likely a way to have a nuclear bomb without having to test one first, although North Korea is believed to have assembled as many as eight from reprocessed nuclear power plant fuel.

Pyongyang had already announced that its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon – in 1994 -- had been restarted. North Korea is believed to be running parallel programs employing both spent plutonium and uranium enrichment with which to make fission bombs, the latter believed to be assisted by Pakistani scientists. The former type was the basis for the US’ “fat man” implosion-detonation bomb and the latter the basis for the “little boy” piston-type-detonation bomb, both of which were dropped on Japan in 1945, ending World War II. Each delivered a blast of between 15 and 20 kilotons.

Ten days after Weldon’s press release, Pyongyang announced a further cut in food rations to its citizens. In a country where civilians have for years been eating tree bark and grass and where active duty soldiers live on two bowls of rice per day (and whose starving members have been raiding across the border into China to find something to eat), this comes as another cruel surprise. Pyongyang blamed “runaway” private market prices in its cutting of rations to just half the amount recommended by the UN’s World Food Program. The ration for 16 million North Koreans has been cut from 10.5 oz of cereal a day to 8.75 oz – about two bowls-full of American breakfast cereal. The rest of a North Korean’s daily diet consists of whatever vegetables they can buy or can grow in the North’s devastated countryside, which from altitude, looks like the surface of the Moon. Worst affected are the cities.

North Korea’s continued spiral down to almost certain economic collapse continues to be a wild card for the rest of the world in a time of growing international terrorism and increasingly belligerent governments in China and Russia.

While North Korea’s use of atomic weapons against its neighbors remains problematic, there is little doubt that Iran’s virulently anti-Semitic leaders would use such weapons against Israel, igniting the entire Middle East and perhaps plunging the whole world into war. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that President Bush’s second term will pass without nuclear weapons in the hands of – or even used by -- North Korean and Iran generating a crisis.

In Paris earlier this month, an Iranian exile group -- the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- accused Tehran of using smuggled materials to conduct a secret program to develop a neutron initiator “nuclear trigger” using smuggled materials. Such a trigger would be used to detonate a fission bomb.

One analyst -- a retired USAF officer – explained that most modern weapons use a neutron pulse tube which accelerates tiny amounts of Tritium or Deuterium into each other, producing a reaction which then yields neutrons. The electronic pulse can be exactly controlled to nansecond or smaller accuracy to initiate the chain reaction. Polonium-Beryllium initiators were used in early weapons, and a third world bomb built from scratch is likely to use the same technology if such a country can manufacture it. In such a bomb, the limiting factor is the half-life of Polonium-210, which is about 140 days, meaning that the shelf life of such a bomb is about two years. A fission bomb can be detonated without such a trigger if enough of the nuclear material is quickly put close enough together. However, for such a bomb to work without a nuclear trigger, extremely precise manufacturing and precise control of the high explosive used to compress the fissile material together is required. Such manufacturing finesse is said to be beyond the capability of most third world countries. Thus, countries with less sophisticated capabilities who want nuclear weapons must obtain suitable triggers.

The Iranian allegations made by the National Council of Resistance of Iran were met with some doubt since the group has a checkered record of reporting accurately some of the goings-on within Iran. However, Iran’s repeated refusal to seriously negotiate with the West regarding abandoning a nuclear weapons program gives added credence to the group’s claims and the International Atomic Energy Agency responded cautiously, noting that the Tehran Research Reactor may be in use through a dummy company to combine polonium-210 and beryllium to create a nuclear trigger.

North Korea is most likely engaged in building plutonium fission bombs like the US’ “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

The Nav Log