"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
North Korea’s Uranium Program Moving Ahead, Kelly Says

Paul Kerr

North Korea’s suspected uranium-enrichment program is “not so far behind” its plutonium-based nuclear program in its capacity to produce nuclear weapons-grade material, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly testified in a March 12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Kelly said the uranium-enrichment program could produce fissile material in “probably…months and not years.” This assertion differs somewhat from earlier U.S. government estimates. A February 27 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report cites a December 2002 CIA statement that Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment program “likely” could produce a nuclear weapon in 2004, apparently supporting Kelly’s claim. Previous reports have indicated that North Korea is building an enrichment plant—with the ability to produce enough fissile material for at least two nuclear weapons per year—that could be operational by mid-decade.

Kelly’s testimony came shortly after the Bush administration’s February 27 announcement that North Korea had restarted a small nuclear reactor that had been frozen by the 1994 Agreed Framework. (See ACT, March 2003.) That reactor could produce approximately one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year, according to the CRS report.

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 plutonium-based 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 tonnes of heating oil each year while the reactors were under construction.

Last October, however, Kelly said North Korea admitted to a U.S. delegation that it was pursuing an illicit uranium-enrichment program in violation of its commitments under the Agreed Framework and other international nuclear nonproliferation commitments. (See ACT, November 2002.)

North Korea’s admission of an enrichment program prompted the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization—the U.S.-led international consortium responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework—to announce in November that it would suspend fuel oil deliveries to North Korea.

In response, North Korea announced in December that it would restart the plutonium-based reactor to produce electricity. During the following 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 announced that it was withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The withdrawal clause of the NPT, however, requires states to give 90 days’ notice before officially withdrawing.

North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT has prompted fears that Pyongyang would begin to reprocess spent fuel rods stored at the reactor site, although North Korea has said it has no plans to produce nuclear weapons. In a March 18 interview with International Wire Services, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that there was no indication that Pyongyang has begun reprocessing the fuel rods.

North Korea could extract enough plutonium for four to six nuclear weapons if it reprocesses the rods, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified in February. Kelly stated in his March 12 testimony that North Korea could do this within approximately six months after beginning reprocessing.

A State Department official interviewed March 24 reiterated the administration’s position that reprocessing would be a matter of “grave concern” to the administration, but the official did not elaborate.

Although North Korea currently possesses the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it remains unclear whether the country has constructed one. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated that North Korea “probably” has “one or two plutonium-based devices” during a February 12 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A State Department official was more definite in a January interview, saying that North Korea has already produced these weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

Missile Test

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether North Korea will continue to adhere to its moratorium on testing long-range missiles. North Korea conducted a missile test March 10—its second in less than a month. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a March 10 statement that the missile was a “land to sea cruise missile” that is not covered by the moratorium. The missile tested last month was of a similar type and also did not violate the moratorium, he said.

North Korea denied that it is planning any long-range missile tests in a March 17 statement from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), but Pyongyang asserted in a March 19 KCNA statement that it has the “sovereign right” to have a “peaceful” missile program. Pyongyang agreed to extend indefinitely its moratorium on missile testing during a September 17 summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

It is unclear what effect Japan’s March 28 launch of two spy satellites will have on North Korea’s missile test moratorium. Earlier in March, North Korea said Japan’s plans to launch a satellite threatened its security, and, in response, Pyongyang threatened to break its moratorium on testing long-range missiles if Japan launched a satellite, according to a March 18 KCNA report. Shortly after the satellites were launched, Japanese Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Hatsuhisa Takashima rejected North Korea’s criticism. “[W]e have been making it very clear that this launch of the information-gathering satellite system is not a hostile action, nor does it pose a threat to anybody,” he said in a March 28 press briefing.

U.S. Policy

Washington’s position that a resolution to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program should be negotiated through a multilateral forum remains unchanged. Fleischer reiterated in a March 19 statement that the administration’s policies “focus on working in a multilateral fashion with…other nations involved” to achieve a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, although he added that “all options are on the table,” which could include military force.

Kelly said in March 12 testimony that the administration will engage in direct discussions with Pyongyang, but “in a multilateral context,” although he added that Washington is not “ruling out” engaging in bilateral talks. Kelly also stated that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must be involved in any verification agreement.

Powell suggested in a March 6 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that Washington is engaged in some behind-the-scenes diplomacy to “get a multilateral dialogue started,” but no multilateral talks have been announced.

North Korea continues to reject multilateral talks and the involvement of the IAEA, arguing in a March 11 KCNA statement that the United States has threatened its security and is trying to “evade its responsibility” for the current crisis.

North Korea continues to call for bilateral negotiations with the United States to resolve the dispute over its nuclear programs and other security issues. The country has said it would consider a U.S.-North Korea verification agreement but not international inspections. North Korea also continued to call on the United States to “conclude a non-aggression treaty” and reiterated charges that the United States is planning to attack North Korea, citing recent U.S. military exercises with South Korea and the addition of some U.S. military forces in the region.

Although Washington has rejected Pyongyang’s demand for a treaty, the Bush administration has repeatedly said that it has no plans to attack North Korea, and Kelly referred to several bilateral U.S. security guarantees in his March 12 testimony as “precedent” for similar future agreements.

Kelly argued March 12 that North Korea’s refusal to engage in multilateral discussions is not Pyongyang’s “final position,” adding that Pyongyang might accept such discussions because it does not want to remain isolated from the world community.

Kelly also asserted that multilateral talks are necessary because North Korea’s actions affect many countries and because such talks will be more effective than bilateral negotiations. Kelly stated March 12 that the bilateral nature of the Agreed Framework made it easier for the North to “abrogate” the agreement. A State Department official interviewed March 24 said North Korea would incur greater costs if it breaks a multilateral agreement, because such an action would affect Pyongyang’s relationship with many countries. Although the Agreed Framework is a bilateral agreement, it obligates North Korea to accept full IAEA safeguards when a “significant portion” of the reactor project is complete.

Kelly also repeated in his March 12 testimony that the administration will not “dole out rewards to…North Korea to live up to its existing obligations” but will consider a “bold approach” to take “economic and political steps” to help North Korea and move the bilateral relationship “towards normalcy” if Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear programs.

Since June 2001, the Bush administration has linked meetings with Pyongyang to discuss missiles and nuclear weapons with other issues, including conventional forces, terrorism sponsorship, and the government’s human rights record.

Washington also continues to argue that North Korea is engaging in provocative behavior in order to blackmail the United States. The State Department official cited Pyongyang’s demand for a nonaggression treaty as evidence of blackmail in a March 24 interview and asserted that North Korea would demand further concessions before it would “live up” to commitments it has already made.

North Korea repeated its claim that it is not engaged in blackmail or asking for a “reward” from the United States in a March 4 KCNA statement, but it wants a guarantee that the United States will not “stifle” Pyongyang “by military force.”

UN Action Stalled

Meanwhile, there has been little movement in U.S. attempts to put pressure on North Korea through the UN Security Council. The IAEA reported the matter to the council when it 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.

A U.S. official interviewed March 24 said that the United States was working with the permanent five members of the Security Council to get draft language approved for a Security Council president’s statement condemning North Korea’s actions and calling for Pyongyang to come back into compliance with its international nonproliferation obligations. China, however, has not been willing to “engage” the other members of the Security Council in drafting the statement, he said.

The official also said that Washington might try to overcome China’s reluctance by sharing the draft language with the rest of the Security Council in an attempt to gain their approval in the hope that Beijing will then go along. China’s approval is essential because such a statement requires consensus from the entire Security Council, he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan stated in a March 13 press conference that U.S.-North Korean dialogue is “key” and that Security Council involvement is not “appropriate” at this time.

Several other key countries continue to have reservations about the administration’s approach. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov said in a March 17 interview with the ITAR-Tass news agency that a settlement of the North Korea issue should “include a bilateral dialogue” between Washington and Pyongyang, “supplemented” by a multilateral dialogue.

South Korea also supports a peaceful solution to the crisis, and South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-Kwan stated that Washington should show “more willingness to settle substantial issues” with North Korea, the Associated Press reported March 12.

Takashima expressed somewhat stronger support for the U.S. position in a March 22 statement, arguing that military action is not yet “appropriate” and that the matter “can be resolved diplomatically.”