After a fresh series of provocative North Korean actions, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill traveled to China, Japan, and South Korea late last month in another effort to restart six-party talks designed to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The talks, which also include Russia, have been stalled for nearly a year.
A Bush administration official, as well as a congressional source familiar with the matter, told Arms Control Today that recent North Korean statements, along with a modest amount of new intelligence, have increased U.S. officials’ concern that North Korea may test nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has not tested such weapons, although it has threatened to do so.
In addition, a senior North Korean diplomat said April 18 that Pyongyang had halted the operation of its five-megawatt nuclear reactor, an action that could permit it to obtain additional plutonium for use as fissile material in nuclear weapons. The announcement came approximately two months after North Korea announced that it possesses nuclear weapons.
The United States believes that North Korea possesses one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons and may possess enough fissile material for several more. Whether Pyongyang is in the process of augmenting its purported nuclear arsenal, however, remains unclear.
Administration and congressional sources confirmed an April 25 Wall Street Journal report that the United States sent an urgent diplomatic message to allies earlier in the month notifying them of U.S. concerns that North Korea might conduct a nuclear test. The message also asked at least certain talks participants, such as China and South Korea, to urge Pyongyang to refrain from provocative behavior.
The other participants have been more supportive of engaging North Korea than has the United States. Nevertheless, South Korean Foreign Minster Ban Ki-moon warned North Korea against testing April 25, stating that such an act would result in Pyongyang’s “isolation.”
The congressional source said the other countries would likely follow suit, but perhaps not publicly.
Although conveying impatience with Pyongyang’s behavior, U.S. officials continued to express support for the talks. Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli acknowledged April 25 that “the stalemate has gone on…longer than any of us would have liked” but “vehemently” denied that administration officials are “at the end of our rope on this.”
In an April 28 news conference, President George W. Bush also indicated continued U.S. support for the talks, adding that other actions, such as involving the UN Security Council in the matter, would depend on other participants’ support. China, which has veto power on the Security Council, and South Korea have resisted asking that body to take up the issue.
The duration of the current diplomatic track “is dependent upon our consensus amongst ourselves,” Bush said.
For its part, North Korea continues to express a willingness to return to the talks, albeit under certain conditions.
Pyongyang says it wants the United States to end its “hostile policy” toward North Korea, express a willingness to accept peaceful coexistence with the current regime, and retract Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s reference to the government as one of several “outposts of tyranny” during her January 2005 confirmation hearings. (See ACT, April 2005.)
Perhaps significantly, North Korean officials have also hinted that Pyongyang may change its stance on discussing its suspected uranium-enrichment program. The congressional source, as well as a witness to at least one such discussion, told Arms Control Today that these officials have suggested to unofficial interlocutors within the past several months that Pyongyang is willing to discuss U.S. concerns about the program in private bilateral talks.
Suspicions that North Korea is pursuing the capability to enrich uranium have played a central role in the current nuclear crisis. The standoff began in October 2002 after a visiting U.S. delegation accused Pyongyang of pursuing such a program covertly. North Korean officials admitted as much, U.S. officials said later, but Pyongyang has denied that it made such an admission. Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are the two types of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons.
The issue has also become a major point of contention in the six-party talks. During the last round, the United States insisted that North Korea disclose and dismantle the program, but the North Korean delegation denied that it has such a program and refused to discuss the matter. Pyongyang has not publicly changed this position.
The United States has said repeatedly that it will not engage North Korea in bilateral negotiations, although it has met privately with the North Koreans during the six-party talks. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
Testing and Threats
According to the congressional source, the United States has identified “about half a dozen” possible North Korean nuclear testing sites and has recently seen “foggy” indications that Pyongyang may be preparing to test. However, South Korea’s National Security Adviser Kwon Jin-ho dismissed reports of such preparations in an April 27 radio interview, stating that “no unusual [North Korean] moves have been detected.”
Washington’s concerns stem mainly from Pyongyang’s recent provocative statements, rather than any new intelligence, the administration official said.
A March 31 North Korean Foreign Ministry statement describing the country as a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state” is one such example. Speaking to reporters April 27 in Beijing, Hill voiced concern about what North Korea “might do to further demonstrate that [status],” Reuters reported.
Hill’s warning came three days after North Korean Army Staff Chief Kim Yong Chun further escalated the tension, stating that Pyongyang will “steadily bolster its nuclear deterrent force,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The extent to which a nuclear test would advance North Korea’s weapons capabilities is unclear. According to an August 2003 CIA assessment, North Korea has “validated” designs for simple fission nuclear weapons without conducting “yield-producing nuclear tests.”
U.S. officials are also concerned about a reported North Korean threat to transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists. North Korea expert Selig Harrison told reporters April 9 that, during a recent meeting, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan said Pyongyang might give nuclear weapons to terrorists if “the United States drives us into a corner.”
North Korea has previously implied that it would transfer nuclear weapons to other countries, but Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR) Thomas Fingar told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February that “[t]here is no convincing evidence that [North Korea] has ever sold, given, or even offered to transfer such material to any state or nonstate actor.”
Han Song Ryol, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told USA Today April 18 that North Korea had shut down its research reactor at Yongbyon. Pyongyang plans to reprocess the spent fuel to produce additional nuclear weapons, Han added.
South Korea has verified the reactor shutdown “through various channels,” Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry official Kim Sook told the Korean Broadcasting System the same day.
Whether Pyongyang is in the process of producing additional plutonium is unclear.
Stopping the reactor’s operation is necessary if North Korea is to unload the reactor’s irradiated nuclear fuel rods. Spent nuclear fuel can be “reprocessed” to separate plutonium from other elements of those fuel rods, which can then be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.
Despite Han’s boast, other observers are not certain that Pyongyang intends either to unload or reprocess the fuel rods.
South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency quoted an unnamed South Korean “senior government official” April 18 who contended that North Korea suspended the reactor merely for “technical reasons.” That official cautioned that this assessment could change, the report said.
The U.S. assessment that North Korea has one or two weapons is believed to have been based on estimates of the amount of plutonium North Korea separated from spent fuel produced in the reactor prior to a 1994 agreement with the United States. Whether Pyongyang has since built weapons is unclear.
North Korea announced in December 2002 that it was restarting the reactor, which, along with North Korea’s reprocessing facility and approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods, had been frozen under the 1994 agreement. Later that month, North Korea ejected International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze. The United States announced in February 2003 that North Korea had restarted the reactor.
Pyongyang’s announcement followed the escalation of bilateral diplomatic tensions after the October 2002 meeting with the U.S. delegation.
Pyongyang has since claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel previously subject to IAEA monitoring. That fuel would have contained enough plutonium for “several more” nuclear weapons, then-CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2004.
North Korea’s possible reprocessing likely formed the basis for current CIA director Porter Goss’s February 2005 statement before the same committee that Pyongyang’s “capability” to produce nuclear weapons has “increased.” (See ACT, March 2005.)
South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung reportedly stated in February, however, that North Korea has reprocessed “only part of the spent fuel rods.” Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2004 that the fuel rods were no longer in storage when he visited North Korea earlier that year, but he could not verify North Korea’s reprocessing claim. (See ACT, March 2005.)
A 2004 Congressional Research Service report stated that the fuel rods currently in the reactor could yield enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon annually.
Describing another possible danger of North Korea’s unfettered nuclear program, a 2003 INR assessment indicates that North Korea is more apt to export nuclear material as it produces more plutonium. Pyongyang would be “most likely to export nuclear material if it has more fissile material than it believes it needs for deterrent purposes and if it perceives little risk” that such a transaction would be detected, the assessment said.