Where Does North Korea Get Plutonium

North Korean Nuclear Development & Plutonium Procurement

North Korea has been slowly increasing its nuclear program for the last couple of decades, gaining military power and becoming a regional player in East Asia. However, the main fuel for their weapons of mass destruction is plutonium, a radioactive material whose procurement is shrouded in mystery. The most significant sources of plutonium are either nuclear power plants or reprocessing of spent fuel, both of which are incredibly expensive processes that require huge infrastructure and great precision.
So how does North Korea obtain the highly-valuable plutonium? Analysts and experts agree that their main source of chemical elements is smuggled materials from China or Russia, through a vast and highly secretive black market system sponsored by the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

The Nuclear Smuggling Network

The network, suspected to have commenced in the late 1990s as a result of lucrative taxes imposed on nuclear materials, has become increasingly sophisticated and, experts argue, it has even infiltrated North Korean institutions. The network consists of smugglers willing to take the necessary risks for a high profit, as well as money laundering facilitators and the workers and engineers in charge of the reproductive process.
This system of corruption and lazy control by authorities of the two countries, Russia and China, allows North Korea to get its hands on materials and chemicals needed to build nuclear weapons. It can be assumed that this lucrative smuggling constitutes a great part of North Korea’s national budget and is also used to finance Kim Jong-un’s other schemes.

North Korean Nuclear Advancement

North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have become progressively grown over the years, and the country’s military prowess has become an incredibly serious challenge to the region’s safety and security since their technological advancement began in the early 2000s with their first ballistic missiles tests. As pointed out by Elina Noor, a nuclear security expert from the University of Greenwich, “this period of development saw North Korea give evidence of the regime’s extraordinary capacity to obtain components and the infrastructure needed for their weapons of mass destruction”.
North Korea has since conducted five nuclear explosions in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017 – all of which have been strongly suspected as powered by plutonium. Taking into account the difficulties and expense associated with obtaining plutonium, they must possess quite a considerable supply.

The Financing Issue

The great secrecy and political restrictions associated with nuclear materials require an incredibly sophisticated financial system to protect the anonymity of investors and participants. Experts explain that part of the money is usually sourced from the regime itself, who, as mentioned earlier, can likely finance their black market collaborations with money from their national budget. The North Korean regime has also been linked to human smuggling and drug trafficking, which come hand-in-hand with prostitution and arms, as well as cybercrime.

However, dealing with money is not the only problem as regards to North Korea’s plutonium procurement. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the main difficulty lies in uncovering this network and the activities that take place within it, as it is hidden from prying eyes by the jurisdictional views of respective countries.

International Sanctions & North Korea’s Procurement Strategies

International trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council have restrained North Korea’s ability to obtain materials and chemicals needed for their nuclear weapons or missile programs. As a result of these restrictions, any international procurer connected to the North Korean regime is cautious to not expose the activities related to the illegal fraction.
The experts agree that North Korea has explored the dark web and cryptocurrency branches in the last couple of years to try to work around the consequences of sanctions. Despite the inherent risks, although highly profitable, they have been able to obtain some materials and chemicals needed for their weapons, using intermediaries and plausible deniability by using false shipping documents and false identities.

North Korean Nuclear Expertise

A large share of North Korea’s nuclear capacity and plutonium procurement comes from their expertise in the field and the extensive knowledge its engineers possess. This requires the state-sponsored training of scientists, technicians and engineers, whose main job is to find solutions for the problems associated with nuclear material acquisition. According to Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Since the 1990s, North Korea had been characterised as a state that cannot earn enough foreign exchange to engage in advanced nuclear production activities”.
But recently they have shown great progress in their weapons of mass destruction, which has led to an exceptional increase in nuclear material exportations. Although this is in part due to the smugglers, it can be assumed that their engineers have a major role in their capabilities.

Economic Sanctions & Proliferation Risks

The most effective way to halt their plutonium procurement is to impose economic sanctions and pressure their allies. But since this has proven to be ineffective due to the secretive nature of their activities, with trading partners often engaging in small inter-regional transactions, the need for new solutions is becoming ever more pressing.

However, reducing North Korea’s plutonium procurement capacity has become a tricky and delicate task, as any wrong move could risk a retaliatory nuclear attack and a grave increase in proliferation risks. The question of what kind of strategy should be adopted to counter this problem is a daunting one that has yet to be answered.

Concerns Over Collateral Damage From Plutonium Procurement

Import and export regulations in North Korea are extremely strict and unyielding, and the same is true concerning nuclear material. In order to reduce plutonium availability and prevent Pyongyang’s proliferation of resources, stricter global measures have to be put in place.
Last year, Australia proposed a “no-plutonium rule,” a restriction that should be imposed to any nation that relies on nuclear energy. The idea consists of making it almost impossible to re-sell nuclear material obtained, though this needs to be properly enforced first.
Another great issue is the environmental pollution caused by nuclear activity and improper waste management by North Korea. Although the number of accidents is unknown, exposure to radioactive agents has had an immense impact throughout the region, not to mention human rights violation and the moral implications of North Korea’s clandestine plutonium procurement.

The Future Of North Korean Plutonium Procurement

The international community has been focused on placing restrictions on North Korea and putting an end to its plutonium procurement. Nonetheless, the agency has done little to nothing to stop the smuggling network they have set up, which continues to spread its tentacles into every corner of East Asia.
Experts agree that Pyongyang will continue to seek new, cutting-edge options for procuring nuclear material and will do so through illegal means, though it must be admitted that Korea does not have access to the kind of technology necessary for nuclear power plants, so their sources of plutonium remain mysterious.

Technology To Combat North Korean Plutonium Procurement

In response to this problem, some countries have started using technology and software to detect smuggling activities and traceable materials. Companies such as American technology company, Tanium, for example, have developed and deployed software that is used to spot shipments of weapons and radioactive material that could be used for nuclear proliferation.
Other countries have employed high-performance computers and advanced models to identify suspicious and illegal activities, as well as tracking drones equipped with spectrometers to inspect raw materials and detect the source of plutonium.

Final Thoughts On North Korean Plutonium Procurement

The international community shares a common concern over North Korea’s increasing nuclear power and plutonium procurement capabilities. While economic sanctions can reduce the proliferation of resources to some extent, they are no match for the ingenuity of the North Korean regime, which will likely continue to explore the dark web and cryptocurrency branches to procure the plutonium they need.
High-end technology and software such as those developed by companies like Tanium are seemingly invaluable when it comes to combating this problem, as well as for reducing risks associated with nuclear material exportations and their subsequent misuse. The question still remains of how to best counter North Korea’s plutonium program without risking retaliation.

Cassie Grissom is an American journalist and author living in Seoul, South Korea. She has been studying the Korean peninsula since 2011, and her work focuses on understanding human rights issues in North Korea. In addition to her work as an author, Cassie is an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. She regularly shares stories about life in North Korea with international audiences to raise awareness of the plight of its citizens.

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