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Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
North Korea Quits NPT, Says It Will Restart Nuclear Facilities
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Paul Kerr

In a provocative decision, North Korea announced December 12 that it was restarting nuclear facilities that had been frozen since 1994, and it ordered international monitors to leave the country. As international concern grew that Pyongyang was resuming its nuclear weapons program, North Korea announced January 10 that it was immediately withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In response to North Korea’s actions, the Bush administration’s policy has been shifting. After initially refusing to meet officially with North Korea, Washington is now saying that it is open to talks but not formal negotiations.

North Korea’s nuclear facilities—a small, plutonium-producing reactor, a fuel-rod fabrication plant, a reprocessing plant, and two partially completed larger reactors—had been frozen by the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States. That agreement was concluded after a tense standoff following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) discovery that Pyongyang had been diverting spent fuel from the reactor for a nuclear weapons program.

Under the Agreed Framework, the United States agreed to provide two proliferation-resistant reactors and to supply 500,000 metric tons of heating oil each year to North Korea while the reactors were under construction. The IAEA was charged with monitoring the freeze on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

The United States and the IAEA have expressed concern about the consequences of North Korea reviving its nuclear facilities. A November 27 Congressional Research Service report states that the reactor could produce a sufficient amount of plutonium for one bomb annually, and the CIA states in a 2002 report to Congress that the spent fuel rods “contain enough plutonium for several more weapons.”

Whether North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons is unclear. A State Department official interviewed January 3 said that the U.S. intelligence community believes North Korea has already produced one or two nuclear weapons from plutonium produced before the Agreed Framework. But publicly the CIA says only that Pyongyang “has produced enough plutonium” for one or two weapons.

The Freeze Ends

The crisis started in October when, after being confronted by a U.S. delegation, North Korea allegedly admitted that it had a uranium-enrichment program in violation of several agreements meant to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. However, North Korea has denied it said this. A November 27 Korean Central Broadcasting Station broadcast cited by Agence France-Presse termed the U.S. charge a “fabrication,” adding that it actually told the U.S. delegation that it is “entitled to possess nuclear weapons if the United States violates their nuclear agreement.”

In response, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the U.S.-led consortium responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework, announced November 14 that it would suspend fuel oil deliveries to North Korea.

The situation escalated when Pyongyang sent a December 12 letter to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, stating that North Korea had decided to resume operations of the facilities governed by the Agreed Framework. The letter requested that the agency remove seals and monitoring equipment, which are used to ensure compliance with the agreement, from all the facilities.

Through the country’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a North Korean spokesman said December 12 that it was restarting the reactor in order to generate electricity and indicated that the United States had violated the Agreed Framework. It cited the KEDO decision and the fact that President George W. Bush had called North Korea part of an “axis of evil.” The spokesman also accused Washington of targeting North Korea for a “preemptive nuclear attack.”

In September, the Bush administration released a report which emphasizes pre-emptively attacking countries developing weapons of mass destruction. It explicitly mentions North Korea. In addition, a leaked version of the Bush administration’s January 2002 classified Nuclear Posture Review lists North Korea as a country against which the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, but it does not mention pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The Agreed Framework requires the United States to “provide formal assurances to [North Korea] against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”

In a December 12 letter, ElBaradei asked Pyongyang not to remove the agency’s equipment, but December 14 North Korea replied that the freeze was a matter between the United States and North Korea and “not pursuant to any agreement” with the IAEA. The letter stated that North Korea would take unilateral action to remove seals and monitoring cameras if the IAEA did not act.

North Korea proceeded to make good on its threat. Between December 22 and 24, it cut all seals and disrupted surveillance equipment on the reactor, its spent fuel pond, the fuel reprocessing plant, and the “nuclear scrap” and equipment at the fuel fabrication plant, according to a December 30 IAEA report. IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said in a December 26 Agence France-Presse article that North Korea has begun moving fresh fuel rods into the reactor. According to the IAEA report, North Korea has said it will restart its reactor in one to two months.

Then, on December 27, Pyongyang ordered the IAEA inspectors out of the country. When ElBaradei protested in a letter that day, North Korea simply reiterated its demand. The IAEA inspectors left the country December 31, according to the IAEA Web site.

On January 10, North Korea increased tensions by announcing its withdrawal from the NPT. Its statement, however, says that Pyongyang has “no intention to produce nuclear weapons…at this stage.” Although the NPT requires a three month’s notice if a party is to withdraw, North Korea says its withdrawal is immediate. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 1993 but suspended its withdrawal just before it was to take effect after reaching an agreement with the United States.

U.S. Reaction

In its December 12 statement, North Korea said that any decision to “refreeze” the facilities depends “entirely…on the attitude” of the United States, but Washington’s response has been in flux and remains unclear.

Initially, the United States maintained it would not engage in formal talks or negotiate with North Korea until it agreed to give up its prohibited nuclear programs. But a meeting of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG)—a consultative body consisting of the United States, Japan, and South Korea—produced a statement January 7 saying the United States is now “willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community.” The statement emphasizes, however, that Washington “will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations.”

Pyongyang has not responded to the U.S. offer for talks, a State Department official said in a January 9 interview.

The TCOG statement also repeated that Washington “has no intention of invading” North Korea. U.S. officials have reiterated several times Bush’s 2002 statement in Seoul saying that Washington has no intention of attacking North Korea. Its inclusion in a written statement, however, is widely viewed as a more formal commitment.

North Korea has continued to call on the United States to sign a “non-aggression treaty” with Pyongyang in order to resolve the current situation. North Korea’s statement announcing its withdrawal from the NPT, however, suggested a softening in this position. It indicated that it might halt its nuclear activities if the United States “drops its hostile policy to stifle” North Korea—language suggesting that North Korea might want KEDO to resume fuel oil shipments.

The State Department official would not clarify what the United States would ask of North Korea or what form any talks would take. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in a January 8 statement that the renewal of fuel oil shipments or a nonaggression pact would not be part of discussions.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a January 7 press briefing that Washington expects Pyongyang to dismantle its uranium-enrichment program. However, the State Department official would not discuss the U.S. position on North Korea’s decision to restart its frozen reactor, except to say that North Korea should not be producing nuclear weapons.

It is unclear under what conditions Washington would agree to negotiate with Pyongyang. Boucher stated January 3 that North Korea must “verifiably and visibly dismantle” its nuclear programs before Washington will enter into negotiations, but a White House official interviewed January 6 would not say what the United States would do if North Korea complies with its demands. State Department and White House officials’ statements after the TCOG meeting did not clarify the issue.

Since June 2001, the Bush administration has linked meetings with Pyongyang to discuss missiles and nuclear weapons with other issues, including conventional forces and the country’s human rights record. Boucher said in his January 7 statement that these issues are still “on the table and…need to be addressed in the context of any improvement in relations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, suggested in a January 9 Washington Post interview that there might be room for negotiation with North Korea, saying, “that’s what diplomacy is about” when asked about prospects for meeting North Korea’s request for a nonaggression pact.

Boucher said in a December 13 statement that Washington was talking with “other governments” about ways to “bring diplomatic pressure” on North Korea. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said December 30 that the United States would not necessarily apply sanctions. The “pressure” comes from Pyongyang being forced to forego the benefits of future diplomatic and economic engagement with the international community, according to a State Department official in a January 3 interview.

International Reaction

Meanwhile, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution January 6 condemning North Korea’s decision to restart its nuclear reactor and related facilities in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. The resolution “deplores” North Korea’s action “in the strongest terms” and calls on Pyongyang to meet “immediately, as a first step” with IAEA officials. It also calls on North Korea to re-establish the seals and monitoring equipment it dismantled, to comply fully with agency safeguards, to clarify details about its reported uranium-enrichment program, and to allow the agency to verify that all its nuclear material is “declared and…subject to safeguards.”

ElBaradei said during a January 6 interview on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer that North Korea must respond to the IAEA within weeks. If the country fails to do so, the IAEA will report the matter to the UN Security Council, he said. Boucher said January 6, however, that it is unclear whether the council will become involved.

Pyongyang condemned the IAEA resolution when it announced its withdrawal from the NPT, calling it a “grave encroachment upon [its] sovereignty.”

The IAEA had already adopted a resolution November 29 that called upon North Korea to “clarify” its “reported uranium-enrichment program.” North Korea rejected the resolution, saying the IAEA’s position is biased in favor of the United States.

Although the international community unanimously condemned Pyongyang’s actions, there was less agreement on a solution. Most U.S. allies have come out in favor of dialogue with North Korea. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung argued against isolating North Korea or placing economic sanctions on them, Reuters reported December 30. South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun expressed a similar view the next day, according to a December 31 AFX News report.

Japan has strongly condemned North Korea’s actions, but its Foreign Ministry said in a January 7 statement that “direct channels” are still open between Tokyo and Pyongyang. The two countries had agreed in September to hold normalization talks, but the talks have been stalled since late October over North Korea’s weapons program and its earlier kidnappings of Japanese citizens.

Although the TCOG statement says that Pyongyang’s “relations with the…international community hinge” on its compliance with the statement’s disarmament demands, it also highlights the value of Japan and South Korea’s bilateral dialogues with Pyongyang, referring to them as “important channels to resolve issues of bilateral concern.”

Russia and China have said they favor dialogue between the relevant parties, although both have criticized North Korea’s decision to resume operations at its nuclear facilities.

A January 5 statement from KCNA warned against the involvement of other countries, saying that “the situation on the Korean Peninsula will be pushed to a phase of crisis” if they join with Washington in putting pressure on North Korea.