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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
North Korea Restarts Reactor; IAEA Sends Resolution to UN

Paul Kerr

Further escalating the crisis over its suspected nuclear weapons activities, North Korea has restarted a small nuclear reactor that had been frozen by the 1994 Agreed Framework, U.S. officials confirmed February 27. The move came two weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found North Korea in “further non-compliance” with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and referred the matter to the UN Security Council.

The five-megawatt reactor can produce approximately one bomb’s worth of plutonium each year, according to a November 27 report by the Congressional Research Service. Although the reactor poses no immediate threat, restarting it is the most aggressive step that Pyongyang has taken since the crisis began in October, when it allegedly admitted to a U.S. delegation that it was pursuing an illicit uranium-enrichment program.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities were supposed to have been halted by the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities, including the reactor, a fuel-rod fabrication plant, a reprocessing plant, and two partially completed larger reactors. In return the United States agreed to provide two proliferation-resistant reactors and supply North Korea with 500,000 metric tons of heating oil each year while the reactors were under construction.

But in response to North Korea’s alleged admission of a program to enrich uranium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the U.S.-led international consortium responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework, announced in November that it would suspend fuel oil deliveries to North Korea.

North Korea then announced in December it was restarting the reactor to produce electricity. During the next few weeks, North Korea removed seals and monitoring equipment from its nuclear facilities and ordered IAEA inspectors, who had been charged with monitoring the freeze, out of the country. On January 10, Pyongyang further inflamed the increasingly tense situation by announcing that it was withdrawing from the NPT.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said February 27 that North Korea’s decision to restart the reactor was “another one of these provocative steps in the wrong direction that I think demonstrates that North Korea’s commitments and promises are consistently violated.”

Returning February 25 from a trip to Asia, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told reporters that North Korea had not yet begun to move spent fuel rods stored at the reactor site to the reprocessing facility, and Boucher indicated that that remained the case. Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 4 that reprocessing the rods could yield enough plutonium for four to six weapons. Powell said during a February 24 press conference in Beijing that the United States would “view any move by North Korea” to reprocess spent fuel or produce nuclear weapons “seriously.”

North Korea said in a February 14 program on the state-owned Pyongyang Korean Central Broadcasting Station that it withdrew from the treaty and decided to reactivate its nuclear facilities in response to U.S. actions, repeating charges that Washington violated the Agreed Framework and threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

Pyongyang also alleges that the United States is threatening to invade North Korea and impose a blockade. A North Korean army spokesman said February 18 that North Korea would “abandon its commitment” to the 1953 Armistice Agreement signed at the end of the Korean War if the United States imposes a blockade, according to a report from the state-owned Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). A State Department official would not say in a February 25 interview if the Bush administration is considering such a measure.

North Korea also signaled that it might not adhere to its moratorium on testing long-range missiles, which it extended indefinitely during a September 17 summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s ambassador to China Choe Jin Su said that Pyongyang believes it “cannot go along with the self-imposed missile moratorium any longer,” according to a January 12 Los Angeles Times article.

North Korea did test a missile February 24, but it was not one covered by the moratorium. During a February 25 press conference in Seoul, Powell called the test of the short-range, surface-to-surface naval missile “innocuous” and said that Washington had had advance information that it might happen.

Washington vs. Pyongyang

Pyongyang insists that it is not blackmailing the international community or trying to gain concessions with its nuclear program, saying in a February 19 KCNA statement that it wants an end to U.S. “military threats” as well as efforts to “hamstring” its economic development efforts—an apparent reference to U.S. efforts to increase multilateral pressure on the regime. North Korea says that the reactor will produce electricity and that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang also continues to call for Washington to negotiate a “legally-binding non-aggression treaty.” North Korea had appeared to soften its demand for a treaty following its withdrawal from the NPT, but KCNA reported January 25 that Pyongyang wanted an agreement ratified by Congress because it does not trust the Bush administration’s assurances of nonaggression. A February 20 KCNA statement indicated that North Korea is willing “to clear the US of its security concern” if the United States concludes such a treaty and “does not stand in the way of [North Korea’s] economic development.”

In a February 25 statement, Powell reiterated that the United States has no intention of invading North Korea but added that military force is an “option that is always available.” He added that Washington might “document such a statement” but would not sign a nonaggression treaty.

U.S. officials have expressed differing views about North Korea’s intentions. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said February 25 that North Korea is “engaged in brinksmanship…to get rewards by the international community.”

In contrast, CIA Director George Tenet argued in a February 12 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea “is trying to negotiate a fundamentally different relationship with us…that implicitly tolerates…[its] nuclear weapons program.” Pyongyang is “committed to retaining and enlarging its nuclear weapons stockpile,” he added. Armitage expressed concern during his February 4 testimony that North Korea could sell its weapons.

Powell said February 23 that the Bush administration will not negotiate with North Korea but that it will discuss with Pyongyang “how it can address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear weapons program.” Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said in a February 13 hearing before a House international relations subcommittee that North Korea must dismantle both its enriched uranium and plutonium-based nuclear weapons programs, cooperate with the IAEA, and “come into compliance with the NPT and its Safeguards Agreement.”

Powell said February 25 that the United States wants any talks with Pyongyang to take place in a multilateral setting, arguing that North Korea’s nuclear program affects many countries. No talks have been scheduled, but Powell suggested that Washington is communicating with North Korea via informal channels and that such channels may be used in the future. Powell did not say whether the United States would engage in bilateral discussions with Pyongyang if multilateral talks began.

A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a January 25 KCNA statement that Pyongyang will not participate “in any form” of multilateral talks, insisting that only the United States can solve the problem because its policies created the current situation. North Korea has continued to characterize U.S. attempts at multilateral solutions as containment. A February 18 KCNA statement dismissed the U.S. position on dialogue as a “farce” and a “tactic to cover up its intent to ignite a war of aggression.”

Kelly said in his February 13 testimony that the Bush administration stands “ready to build a different…relationship” with North Korea, including taking “political and economic steps,” if it fulfills its disarmament requirements. Powell suggested in his February 13 testimony that the United States would likely address North Korea’s energy needs if a new relationship materializes.

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. Powell indicated this is still the case during a February 13 House Budget Committee hearing.

The IAEA Acts

Responding to North Korea’s rejection of two previous IAEA resolutions, the agency’s Board of Governors adopted a resolution February 12 declaring Pyongyang in “further non-compliance” with its obligations under the NPT. The board decided to report the matter to the UN Security Council, in accordance with agency mandates.

The two previous resolutions, adopted in November and January, called for Pyongyang to provide details about its reported uranium-enrichment program, as well as reverse its recent decisions to expel IAEA monitors, remove monitoring equipment and seals from nuclear facilities, and withdraw from the NPT. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

The new IAEA resolution “stresses” the board’s “support” for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. According to a February 19 UN press statement, the Security Council referred the matter to its group of experts, who are to study the resolution and make recommendations to the council.

A State Department official said in a February 25 interview that Washington is consulting with allies about future Security Council action, adding that it is “too soon to speculate” about specific measures. Fleischer explained in a February 12 statement that the council’s options ranged from a statement condemning North Korea’s actions to imposing economic sanctions.

The IAEA board voted 31-0 to adopt the resolution, with Russia and Cuba abstaining. Fleischer expressed the Bush administration’s approval, calling the resolution a “clear indication that the international community will not accept a North Korea nuclear weapons program.”

U.S. allies, however, continued to resist the administration’s approach, arguing that Washington should soon engage in bilateral talks with Pyongyang. A February 17 statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the IAEA referral decision “a premature and counterproductive step.” The statement added, however, that Moscow had been “prepared to support the…resolution” if a “direct dialogue” were established between Washington and Pyongyang.

Newly installed South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun condemned North Korea’s nuclear activities during his February 25 inauguration speech, but he emphasized that the North Korean nuclear issue “should be resolved peacefully through dialogue,” according to a February 25 Channel NewsAsia report.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan stated February 24 that China wants the Bush administration to “begin dialogue as equals” with North Korea, according to a February 24 Xinhua News Agency article.

Hatsuhisa Takashima, press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a February 21 statement that Tokyo’s priority is to “maintain unity and solidarity” among Japan, the United States, and South Korea, adding that the issue should be “addressed with good care and caution.”