North Korea's Nukes: Of Nukes and Ammonium Nitrate
Byron King discusses North Korea’s Nukes — their claims to having nuclear weapons now, and the past history of weaponsmaking on the peninsula, both their own, and that of their occupiers Japan and the Soviet Union.
Not to quibble with the front page of The New York Times, but the exact words from the foreign ministry in Pyongyang were, “We … have manufactured nukes.” In the arcane world of deciphering diplomatic language, particularly when it comes from the North Koreans, having “manufactured nukes” may or may not be the same thing as “possessing nuclear weapons.” Still, the North Korean government has made an important public announcement about an important strategic development, and serious people must take it seriously.
The same New York Times article noted that “Officials said American intelligence agencies had for years worked on the assumption that the North probably possessed nuclear weapons…[U.S. officials believe] that North Korea’s arsenal had probably enlarged, and [there is] evidence that the country had probably sold partly processed nuclear fuel on the black market. In Washington, intelligence officials were scanning satellite imagery for any evidence that North Korea might be preparing a nuclear test, but so far have seen none.” So far, that is. But the North Koreans are masters of camouflage, deception and masking their capabilities and intentions. What they lack in skills or the ability to dig tunnels and hide things is probably not worth knowing.
Whether the North Koreans have had “nukes” in their arsenal for some time or whether they have not had them until just recently, the announcement is significant. North Korea has decided to join an elite club, the Atom Bomb Club, the ticket for .admission being, well…an atom bomb. But it is not just possessing an atomic explosive device in and of itself that makes a nation a nuclear power and member of the club.
For a nation to be a member in good standing in the Atom Bomb Club requires an extensive industrial infrastructure, from uranium mines to metallurgical mills to production factories, all supported by a sophisticated research capability, if not an even more sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus. The nuclear infrastructure requires an immense logistical system for identifying necessary raw materials and manufactured inputs and for assembly and maintenance requirements. Achieving membership in the Atom Bomb Club requires an educational system that can identify very smart people at an early age and train them to do everything that has to be done to accomplish an exceedingly difficult series of tasks. This includes creating a cadre of talented people at every step, from the mine face to the blast-test chamber and every hurdle of chemistry and physics in between. Finally, a nuclear nation must have a top-notch military organization as its end-user, with highly trained personnel and a tightly managed command and control system. Neither failure nor mistake is an acceptable option in the world of “nukes.” For a nation to possess a nuclear weapons program may well require more manpower, resources, and societal sophistication than any other single human activity (except perhaps for Egyptians of the Bronze Age to construct pyramids).
North Korea’s Nukes: Is It a Bluff?
No official spokesperson from any government agency in the world has yet announced that it has detected a test blast in North Korea (well, not “so far,” in the words of The New York Times), so there is no way to know if the North Koreans really have a “nuke” or are just trying to bluff their way past the rope line into the Atom Bomb Club. The government of the DPRK has a history of making large claims, rattling its saber, and generally making problems for other nations and peoples. The DPRK government does this not by chance or accident, and not even for lack of understanding of the world at large. The North Koreans do this in the expectation that nervous nations, near and far, will make diplomatic and economic concessions to de-escalate whatever perceived political-military problems the DPRK has created. The polite term for this is “diplomacy by extortion.”
Nothing happens in a vacuum. No great event occurs without other great events serving as precedent. Neither does any great event define the end of history. As the American historian Francis Parkman noted of another time, “It is the nature of great events to obscure the great events that came before them.” And so it is with North Korea and its “nukes.” Does the industrial process, no matter how sophisticated, of a nation that can have “manufactured nukes” in and of itself ensure regime survival? This form of advanced military-industrial capability did not do much good for the ex-Soviet Union, which possessed more than 50,000 nuclear weapons at the time it imploded politically, in 1991. But this gets ahead of the story. North Korea’s recent nuclear announcement was short and focused. But it was also the end product of well over a century of history, of many great events from long ago that have finally played themselves out to bring us to a particular state of affairs. Looking back, we would not be where we are today absent the tensions of the past decade on the Korean peninsula, the preceding 45 years of Cold War, and the Second World War before it. And we must not forget the many decades of Japanese colonialism that shaped Korea in the early decades of the 20th century. It is not overstating the case to focus the lens of history on a single man, Jun Noguchi (b. 1873, d. 1949?), and his enterprise called the Japan Nitrogen Fertilizer Company. But this, too, gets ahead of the story.
In the broad scheme of history, Korea today, and North Korea in particular, is a product of its colonial past. Until the mid-19th century, the people and government on the Korean peninsula constituted, more or less, a self-isolated but independent political entity. Then, however, Western powers began to engage in “gunboat diplomacy” toward both China and Korea, to establish colonial outposts and to gain access to resources and markets. The events in China during the 19th century, between Western colonial powers and the Chinese, prompted Korea’s rulers to adopt a closed-door foreign policy that was in keeping with its long reputation as the “Hermit Kingdom.”
As the 19th century progressed, Japan was also developing economically, and reaching out from its insular status to pursue overseas resources and markets as that nation industrialized during its remarkable Meiji period. Ominously, however, during its rise to power, Japan, through its leadership, viewed Korea and Chinese Manchuria as natural territorial extensions for the expansionist ambitions of the people and the national interests of the Land of the Rising Sun.
By the end of the 19th century, China, Japan’s historic rival, sought to block growing Japanese influence in Manchuria and on the Korean peninsula, as well as Russian pressure for commercial gains in those places. This competition between expanding powers led to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which the Japanese won handily against a corrupt and dying Chinese regency. This war led to the occupation of large parts of Manchuria by Japanese troops.
Continuing competition with Russia for influence and control in the region led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, from which Japan emerged victorious. Remarkably, in the course of that war, Japan inflicted on Russia the first significant military defeat by an Asian nation upon a European nation since medieval times. Of note, the Russian loss to the Japanese, and particularly the destruction of the entire Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, had much to do with the weakening of Romanov authority and was a critical step on the pathway to the Bolshevik Revolution 12 years later.
In 1910, with no competitive military power in the region, Japan formally annexed Korea as part of the growing Japanese Empire. “Japan has been vitally concerned in Korea since time immemorial,” wrote Seiji Hishida in 1940 in his then-definitive diplomatic history of Japan, entitled Japan Among the Great Powers. “Political or economic disturbances in that peninsula are bound seriously to menace Japanese national security.” Having waged two expensive wars near the turn of the century, one with China and the other with Russia, Hishida described Japanese policy in the first decade of the 1900s as being that the “Korean problem” was not settled. Hence, according to Hishida, “Establishment of a protectorate and eventual annexation were the only satisfactory solution.” Hishida wrote that from the Japanese perspective, Korea was “far more important to the national security of Japan” than were the Central American states, including Panama and its canal, to the United States.
Japanese interest in colonizing Korea was rooted in a very practical appreciation for basic geography. Korea is a mountainous peninsula extending south-southeast from the northeastern part of mainland China. The general northwest-to-southeast trend of the peninsula forms the Taebaeksan mountain range, which is relatively close to the eastern coast. Some areas within the mountains are heavily mineralized with iron ore, graphite, magnesium, copper, lead, zinc, gold, and many other valuable industrial commodities. The mountains rarely exceed about 4,000 feet (1,200 meters or so) in elevation, but they are extensive and dominate the landscape. The eastern mountains of northern Korea are characterized by rugged and steep terrain that drops in short order from the mountainous elevations to the eastern coastline along the Sea of Japan (Koreans prefer to call it the East Sea). The eastern coast of Korea shows on the map as a relatively straight shoreline, with few offshore islands. The eastern mountains also possess significant water resources, whose natural flow is northwest and westward toward the Yalu River and eventually the Yellow Sea. The western coast of Korea displays the features of a gently submerging shoreline, with many islands indicative of ancient river valleys drowned by a postglacial rise in sea level. Only along the west and southwest coastlines of the peninsula are there subdued rolling hills and extensive flat alluvial plains.
During the First World War, commodity and industrial prices were relatively high on a worldwide basis due to demand from requirements to prosecute the fighting in Europe and elsewhere. But when the fighting ended, the wartime economic bubble began rapidly to deflate. International markets for Asian exports, and the world trade that carried Asian products to distant shores, underwent a rapid contraction. Japanese businesses found profits squeezed by declining prices for goods sold and high costs associated with production in Japan. With little prompting by the colonial administrators in Tokyo, Japanese industrialists looked for investment opportunities elsewhere, where raw materials, energy, and labor were abundant and cheap. Thus, the end of the First World War unleashed a flood of Japanese colonial investment in Korea.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Japanese business and colonial development offices concentrated their efforts on the comparatively underpopulated but resource-rich northern portion of Korea. This resulted in a considerable movement of Koreans to the north, from the agrarian southern provinces of the Korean peninsula. But this internal migration was not exactly a product of natural economic forces.
The Japanese colonial administration granted significant powers of eminent domain to Japanese capitalists. Land holdings titled in the name of Koreans were bought at nominal prices, or virtually expropriated at prices as low as 1% of the then current value. This was to facilitate the construction of industrial facilities by Japanese companies. The migration of workers from farm to factory was, in effect, the result of massive Japanese demand for industrial sites (sort of a Korean extension of the Meiji period of breakneck development) that forced native landowners and tenant farmers to abandon farmland.
During the Japanese colonial period, one of the key industrial conglomerates to exploit the resources of Korea was an entity called the Japan Nitrogen Fertilizer Company (JNFC, also called by its Japanese name, Nitchitsu). This company, founded in 1908 by a Japanese engineer named Jun Noguchi, manufactured, as the name implies, nitrogen fertilizer using an advanced electrochemical nitrogen reduction process. Nitrogen fertilizer was then, and still is, used extensively in agriculture and was a critical item in ensuring Japan’s relative self-sufficiency in basic food production. But nitrogen fertilizer has uses other than growing crops. Ammonium nitrate, the basis for nitrogen fertilizer, is a key component of explosives and propellants. Hence JNFC-Nitchitsu was a critical link in themilitary-industrial complex of the Empire of Japan.
In 1923, Noguchi and his company decided to develop resources in and around a sleepy fishing village on the east coast of Korea named Konan. By the mid-1920s, JNFC-Nitchitsu was busily engaged in constructing dams high in the mountains, on the watershed of the northwest-flowing Chosin and Fusen rivers in northern Korea. These dams created the Chosin Reservoir (later to become famous as the site of an epic battle between Chinese troops and U.S. Marines during the Korean War. But this also gets ahead of the story).
As to the dams on the Chosin and Fusen rivers, these fulfilled Noguchi’s vision. The dams halted the natural flow of the river waters northwestward, out of the rugged mountains and toward the Yalu River. By driving tunnels eastward, opposite the natural slope of drainage, down through the mountains and toward the Sea of Japan, Noguchi and his JNFC-Nitchitsu reversed the flow of the water to suit their own industrial purpose. The work of digging these tunnels was hard and dangerous, and many thousands of Koreans were reportedly killed or maimed during the construction process.
There is a level drop of several thousand feet from the Chosin Reservoir to the Sea of Japan, which is exceptional in the world of generating hydropower. The fall of water through three sets of massive turbines was sufficient to generate immense amounts of electricity, which was a critical energy source that JNFC-Nitchitsu used to make ammonium nitrate feedstock for its fertilizer. At its height of production, the Noguchi Chosin power grid generated close to one-third of all the electricity produced in the entire Japanese Empire.
The Konan region rapidly boomed with additional industrial development, much of it the result of Noguchi’s decisions to invest additional funds in creating his own industrial empire through JNFC-Nitchitsu in Korea. The vast electricity resources from the Chosin dams supported the production of nitrates and innumerable other products. Korean raw materials and electricity were processed into magnesium, aluminum, copper, lead, zinc, graphite, and many other basic industrial commodities. Plants sited adjacent to Konan, owned by JNFC-Nitchitsu and other Japanese companies, used the vast Korean labor force and turned the basic resources from the mountains and mines into finished and semifinished products, as well as a wide variety of munitions products for the Japanese military. Konan’s fine deep-water harbor serviced transport ships, which carried the products to the far reaches of the Japanese Empire and beyond.
The Konan industrial district grew to encompass an area that covered hundreds of square miles. But all of this was occurring in secret because Japanese military authorities imposed strict controls on access to the region and reporting of information. Konan became, in essence, a restricted military city as it developed into one of the key industrial zones in support of Japanese national military power. Konan’s importance as a war production zone multiplied manifold after the events of Dec. 7, 1941. Its industrial capabilities were a well-guarded secret, and its remote location placed it out of reach of U.S. bombers, even the mighty, long-range B-29 Superfortress aircraft, until very near the end of the war. Thus, in addition to its production of many critical industrial products and its crucial role as a manufacturing center that supported the general Japanese war effort, Konan became a Japanese production center for nuclear materials.
North Korea’s Nukes: Japan’s Nuclear Weapons Program
It is well known that during World War II all of the major belligerent nations had a nuclear weapons program. The United States and Britain had nuclear weapons programs, of which we know quite a bit, thanks to 50 years of postwar declassification [see Now It Can Be Told, by Gen. Leslie Groves and The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, among many fine histories.] The Germans also had a nuclear weapons program, of which we know some things [for example, see the book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, by Robert Jungk, which chronicles the European-North American nuclear developments from the 1920s to about 1950.] The Soviets had a nuclear weapons program, as well, of which we know less than we might wish.
Although it is no longer classified, most people do not know that the Japanese had a significant nuclear weapons program during World War II. Some elements of the program were destroyed during the war. Other elements, captured by the victorious U.S. and Soviet forces at the end of the conflict, were immediately classified as nuclear secrets, and, not surprisingly, lost to public history. And the Japanese government, for reasons that are not hard to discern, has never had much of an interest in highlighting its own nuclear weapons research during the war.
This Japanese nuclear weapons program followed a more “German” approach to research and development, which one might characterize as a “Heisenberg” approach, as opposed to the U.S. “Oppenheimer” approach. (No, we are not going to teach you how to build an atom bomb in this article.) Suffice it to say that, ultimately, the Japanese program did not evolve sufficiently to produce a working nuclear weapon, let alone to influence the outcome of the Second World War. However, that is not to say that the Japanese program has not cast its shadow onto the Cold War, the Korean War, and the present nuclear situation in Korea.
As the Japanese war effort unfolded during World War II, the Japanese high command made the decision to devote significant resources to nuclear weapons research. The lead scientist in the nuclear program sponsored by the Japanese army was a physicist named Yoshio Nishina, an avid admirer and friend of the Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr. The lead scientist of a parallel program sponsored by the Japanese navy was a former student of Albert Einstein named Bunsaku Arakatsu. Based on their respective mandates from the high command, to develop a weapon based on nuclear forces, Nishina and Arakatsu received their pick of the finest students and scientists, many of whom were only too happy to work on the project and avoid wartime conscription. Nishina coordinated a well-funded effort in Japan proper, near Tokyo, to design and manufacture equipment and components for a workable nuclear device. Arakatsu’s program was located near Kyoto. Both men delegated to others in Korea the task of producing the necessary raw materials.
North Korea’s Nukes: Finding the Radioactive Ores
It fell to industrialist Noguchi and his JNFC-Nitchitsu to support an aggressive program to locate and recover nuclear materials for experimentation and processing. At the level of basic industrial production, this involved enlisting people from all over the Japanese Empire, both Japanese and nationals in every territory. This work force, of both the willing and unwilling, was tasked to look for minerals that had nuclear elements within, such as uranium and thorium (the latter was then thought to be a potentially useful material for bomb purposes). The mountainous provinces of Korea offered some of the key mineral districts in the Japanese Empire for locating and producing radionuclide ores (and they still do, but not for the Japanese).
There are reports of Japanese authorities lining up thousands of Korean workers to walk, side by side, over the hills of Korea in search of outcroppings of mineral ores that might bear radioactive elements. Even the smallest deposits were dug out, by hand if necessary, and the products carted to JNFC-Nitchitsu. Postwar U.S. surveys identified at least 10 large sites where significant amounts of uranium-bearing ore was mined, producing quantities of ore in excess of 500,000 tons. These volumes of radionuclide ores were shipped to Wonsan, Korea, part of the Konan complex. The ores were reduced and processed in a facility at a place called Hungnam, still a North Korean nuclear site. The then-Japanese industrial facilities received their electric power from JNFC-Nitchitsu and the Chosin electric grid.
This Japanese effort to obtain and reduce radioactive ores was an immense industrial project, similar to what the United States was accomplishing in its projects at Oak Ridge, Tenn., or Hanford, Wash. In general, refining ores to obtain uranium and thorium requires huge amounts of electric power. The U.S Manhattan Project chose to site its uranium-production facility at Oak Ridge, near the power sources of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The plutonium production facility was sited at Hanford, near the power sources of the Columbia River dams run by the Bonneville Power Authority. What TVA or Bonneville were to the U.S. effort, Chosin, Konan, and Hungnam were to the Japanese effort.
For all of their efforts in the field of nuclear research during the war, the Japanese did not accomplish their goal of producing a useful weapon. Nishina’s research laboratory, which focused on developing a thermal diffusion process to enrich uranium-235, was destroyed in April 1945 by an air raid by American B-29 bombers. As fate would have it, Nishina’s laboratory was not the intended target of the raid, but some errant bombs found their way to the mark. Arakatsu’s laboratory in Kyoto, which focused on developing gas centrifuge technology, was not bombed directly, but was handicapped by a lack of electric power due to U.S. bombing of generating capacity in Japan. Thus was the Japanese nuclear program hampered, if not derailed, toward the end of the war. The JNFC-Nitchitsu facilities in and around Konan remained essentially intact, as did the facilities in nearby areas used for refining and processing nuclear materials.
As the Second World War was drawing to a close, and in fact after a second U.S. atom bomb had destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki, the Soviets formally entered the war against Japan. Joseph Stalin unleashed the Red Army, which dashed through Manchuria (or Japanese Manchukuo,) toward the Korean peninsula. By late August 1945, the Red Army had invaded northern Korea and closed in on the almost undamaged industrial prize of the Konan district. The Russians captured intact the nuclear facilities at Hungnam, along with significant stockpiles of nuclear materials.
Not long afterward, the Red Army halted its advance southward through Korea around the current 38th parallel, in the face of no significant Japanese military resistance. The official story is that an American colonel and a Russian colonel simply met at a farmhouse and agreed that the Red Army should stop at the 38th parallel, in conformity with an agreement that had been made at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. But this type of outcome of a major military advance makes more sense when one understands that the Soviets had overrun, occupied, and recovered their prime military objective. That is, the Red Army had seized all of the Japanese industrial facilities at Konan, including the JNFC-Nithcitsu nuclear facilities, and captured significant quantities of nuclear materials.
North Korea’s Nukes: Crucial to the USSR
Informed rumor in the world of nuclear weapons has it that these captured Japanese nuclear materials were critical in the USSR in developing its first nuclear weapon. Thus, Joseph Stalin’s first atomic bomb may have been a product of a stolen U.S. design, courtesy of the Rosenberg spy ring and captured nuclear materials, seized from the captured Japanese facilities in Korea, including those of Nouguchi’s Japan Nitrogen Fertilizer Company. The USSR detonated its first nuclear device on Aug. 29, 1949, an explosion that Western analysts call Joe-1, or “First Lightning“.
The nuclear facilities around Konan suffered significant damage during the fighting of the Korean War (1950-1953) and were captured for a short time by U.S. forces in December 1950. But within weeks, the U.S. forces retreated, as the Konan industrial district was retaken by Chinese troops. The North Koreans began to rebuild the damaged facilities almost immediately after the fighting stopped. By the early 1960s, the government of the DPRK announced a policy of creating what is best translated as an “all-fortress nation,” which was the beginning of the top-to-bottom militarization of North Korea that exists today. In the decades between the 1960s and early 1990s, the North Koreans received significant nuclear aid from the Soviet Union, as well as from China, and trained a large cadre of personnel in areas of nuclear research and production and maintenance of nuclear-related equipment.
By the 1990s, with personnel and infrastructure in place, the North Koreans were poised to make a final push to weaponize their ambitions. The adoption of a national military-economic policy in 1994 called “Army First” was most likely the mask for North Korea’s own version of a Manhattan Project to develop a working nuclear weapon. Now the DPRK has announced that it has “manufactured nukes,” and the world is left to wonder what comes next.
The Korean people have an ancient national history that informs their culture. The leaders of North Korea, in particular, have their own agenda, and they seldom share their decision-making processes with outsiders. But it is not hard to believe that there are leadership elements within North Korean society and government that believe that their nation has a long nuclear pedigree, dating back to the dawn of the nuclear age in World War II. The price of this pedigree was paid in the currency of Korean blood. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Koreans died at the hands of the Japanese, as slave labor building the Chosin dams, the hydrotunnels, the electric grid, digging fissile ores out of the earth, and working to the end of their lives in the factories of the Konan district.
The Japanese nuclear facilities were extensively exploited by the Soviets during the immediate postwar era. These facilities were destroyed by the United States during the Korean War, and rebuilt at great expense afterward. And now, the North Korean leadership probably considers it a national birthright, but certainly a supreme element of their goal of regime survival, that they have a nuclear weapons program. And to their way of thinking, and to ensure the survival of the current regime in North Korea, they want the rest of the world to know it as well.
Prophetically, and particularly for such a rigidly communist state as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it was no less a historian than Karl Marx who said, “Men make their own history. But they do not make it just as they please. They do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
It was an accident of geography that placed the Korean peninsula at the focal point of adjacent competing geopolitical forces, China, Japan, and Russia. It was Japan and its interests in Korea that prevailed over the others at the end of the 19th century. Related to this, however, the defeats in war by both China and Russia at the hands of Japan led to revolutions in both of these nations. Afterward, it was Japan’s expansionist ambitions in East Asia during the first half of the 20th century, fueled in great measure by the industrial capabilities Japan controlled in Korea, that brought a cataclysmic war, as well as U.S. power, into that region. Out of the Second World War, U.S. power dominated in the region for the second half of the 20th century. Thus, it is the history and legacy of this great power friction, “transmitted from the past” in the words of Karl Marx, that has in its own, perhaps indirect, way created the world’s latest member of the Atom Bomb Club.
History will not stop here. It never does. Other men will make more history, as other men always do. And more than a small measure of the history yet to be made will be made by men in North Korea.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
February 22, 2005
Note – There is much additional background to this article in a 1995 book entitled Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb by Robert K. Wilcox.
Wilcox cites specific records that he located at the U.S. National Archives, captured from the Japanese at the end of World War II. These records show a deliberate pattern of frantic wartime expenditures on fissionable materials by the Japanese high command, attempts to build uranium separators, and plans by the Japanese navy and army to use atomic weapons if their scientists could only finish them in time. According to Wilcox, there is informed speculation that the Japanese tested their own very primitive bomb in July 1945, at a site in present-day North Korea. If true, this places North Korea in the nuclear club with a pedigree similar to that of the Trinity Test in New Mexico at about the same time. As with many things involving nuclear weapons, we may never know.