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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
U.S. Delegation Visits North Korea

Questions Remain Over Pyongyang's Weapons Claims

Paul Kerr

The January visit of an unofficial U.S. delegation of arms control and North Korea experts, including senior Senate staff aides, to North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon resolved some uncertainties concerning the status of Pyongyang’s nuclear program but left other questions unanswered. The delegation members were the first foreign observers to visit the site since North Korea ejected UN inspectors in December 2002.

One of the most important revelations about the visit came when delegation member Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jan. 21 that North Korean officials allowed him to handle a jar containing what appeared to be plutonium metal, although he explained that he lacked the proper instruments to verify that claim absolutely. Plutonium metal is used to form the explosive core of one type of nuclear weapon.

North Korean officials claimed that the fuel came from reprocessing approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods from its five-megawatt nuclear research reactor. Those fuel rods had been kept intact in a cooling pond and closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the now-defunct 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. The IAEA is the agency charged with monitoring compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which North Korea signed in 1985 and from which it withdrew in January 2003.

As part of the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang also agreed to shut down the Yongybyon reactor and related facilities, as well as halt construction of two larger reactors, and to allow the IAEA to monitor its compliance. North Korea restarted the reactor in February 2003.

According to a statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Jan. 10 that North Korean officials showed the delegation its “nuclear deterrent.” North Korea has said it possesses nuclear weapons, and the CIA told Congress in August that North Korea “has produced one or two simple” nuclear weapons and “validated the designs” without explosive testing. (See ACT, December 2003 and January/February 2004.)

However, Hecker stated that he told the North Koreans they had only produced evidence that they knew how to form plutonium metal, not that they either had nuclear weapons or the ability to design, build, and deliver such weapons. He also told the Senate panel that, even if the plutonium metal sample was authentic, it might not have been made from the spent fuel rods restricted under the Agreed Framework, but from an earlier batch. IAEA officials and intelligence analysts have long believed that Pyongyang might have reprocessed enough plutonium to build one or two bombs before that accord went into effect.

Hecker stated that the North Koreans claimed to have reprocessed all of the spent fuel rods between January and June 2003 and allowed the delegation to visit the pond that had contained the fuel rods. The delegation also visited North Korea’s reprocessing facility. Activity at the reprocessing facility had been frozen under the Agreed Framework. Hecker said the delegation observed that the fuel rods were no longer in the pond but could not confirm that North Korea had reprocessed the spent fuel as it had claimed.

Hecker also told the Senate that North Korea has indeed restarted the research reactor but that it is not rebuilding the smaller of the two incomplete reactors, describing that reactor as being in a “terrible state of repair.” The group was not able to observe the status of the larger reactor, Hecker said. North Korea has implied that it may resume construction of both reactors, which would vastly increase the number of bombs it might be able to build each year.

North Korean officials indicated that they viewed the visit as leverage in pushing the United States to hold and conclude additional talks on North Korean terms.

Hecker said that North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, told the delegation that an early resolution of the crisis is in the U.S. interest, arguing that delays in resolving the nuclear crisis have “not been beneficial to the U.S. side. With an additional lapse in time, [North Korea’s] nuclear arsenal could grow in quality and quantity.”

The delegation, which also included John Lewis, a professor at Stanford University, and Charles “Jack” Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities Jan. 8. During a Jan. 21 appearance on PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Pritchard speculated that North Korea invited the delegation to view its nuclear facilities in order to resolve ambiguities concerning its nuclear capabilities following its withdrawal from the NPT.

In addition, Pritchard said Jan. 15 that Kim clarified North Korea’s previous denials that it has a uranium-enrichment program by providing new details. Kim told the delegation that North Korea does not have any relevant equipment or scientists trained to run such a program. The recent crisis began in October 2002, when a U.S. delegation accused North Korea of pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program—an alternate method for obtaining fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The United States continues to maintain that North Korea admitted to having such a program during that meeting, but North Korea has argued that it never made such a stark admission. Journalist Don Oberdorfer stated in November 2002 that North Korean officials informed him that an October 2002 KCNA statement contains the exact words used during the U.S.-North Korean meeting. The relevant portion of that statement reads, “The [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea] made itself very clear…that the D.P.R.K. was entitled to possess not only nuclear weapon[s] but any type of weapon more powerful than that so as to defend its sovereignty and right to existence.” (See ACT, December 2002.)

According to Hecker, North Korean officials gave Lewis the Korean language transcript of the meeting, which Lewis gave to the Department of State.

Two Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members also visited the Yongbyon facilities and had other meetings with North Korean officials, but committee sources told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that their reports are still being prepared.