NK Shuts Down Reactor; Talks Progress

Peter Crail

In July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that North Korea has shut down five facilities at Yongbyon and Taechon associated with Pyongyang’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. The shutdown was the primary step in the first phase of a Feb. 13 agreement intended to lead to North Korea’s denuclearization. The six-party talks are now focused on discussing the implementation of the second phase of that agreement.

Two IAEA inspection teams visited the Yongbyon site in July and were the first to conduct verification activities at the facilities since the agency’s inspectors were expelled in December 2002. In addition to verifying the shutdown of the facilities, the inspectors installed seals on closed areas of the complex as well as surveillance equipment to allow the IAEA to monitor the status of the complex remotely. The inspectors also indicated that no new construction has been carried out at the incomplete 50-megawatt and 200-megawatt reactors at Yongbyon and Taechon, respectively.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei stated in a July 18 press release that “[t]he IAEA’s verification activities are going smoothly with good cooperation” from North Korea. ElBaradei is scheduled to present his report on the agency’s monitoring activities in North Korea to the IAEA Board of Governors at its Sept. 10-14 meeting.

As stipulated in the February 2007 agreement, North Korea received 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil in return for shutting down the Yongbyon facilities. This shipment represents the first portion of the one million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent to be provided to North Korea throughout the implementation of the agreement.

During the first phase, the United States also agreed to begin the process of removing North Korea from the list of sponsors of terrorism and to cease applying the Trading With the Enemy Act to Pyongyang. These actions are to be taken in line with the broader process of normalizing relations between the two countries.

A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Aug. 21 that the United States is not prepared to begin the process of removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism until further steps are taken by Pyongyang to resolve outstanding concerns regarding North Korean actions that placed them on the list. Discussions so far have been aimed at explaining to the North Koreans the efforts that they are expected to take.

One of the key outstanding issues is North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, which Tokyo has put at the top of its priority list in dealing with Pyongyang. The State Department official indicated that the United States has continued to express its support to Japan on the issue of the abductees in consultations with Tokyo.

North Korea maintains that it has resolved the abduction issue. When Japan called for progress on the matter during the Japanese-North Korean bilateral working group in March, the North Korean delegation walked out of the talks. On July 19, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a memorandum strongly criticizing the Japanese government for continuing to raise the issue, threatening that “[i]f Japan is allowed to pursue such design, the nuclear issue on the peninsula will remain unsettled for an indefinite period like the ‘abduction issue.’”

Both the U.S.-North Korean and the Japanese-North Korean bilateral working groups are scheduled to meet at the end of August and are expected to address this issue in preparation for a six-party plenary in September. The other parties in the talks are China, South Korea, and Russia.

Uncharted Waters Ahead

The six countries met in a previous plenary session July 18-20 coinciding with the IAEA’s confirmation of the shutdown of the Yongbyon facilities. The six parties agreed that the five working groups created under the February agreement would meet in August in order to discuss the details of implementation of the second phase of the February agreement. The parties were not able to agree on a timetable for the completion of this phase.

Under the terms of the second phase of the February agreement, North Korea pledged to submit a full declaration of its nuclear programs and to disable all existing nuclear facilities. Unlike the shutdown of the Yongbyon facilities, which North Korea carried out in accordance with the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea has never provided such a declaration, nor has it taken steps to disable its facilities. The technical parameters for both activities were discussed in an Aug. 16-17 working group on denuclearization.

One of the key challenges regarding the North Korean declaration is its suspected work on uranium enrichment. In 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly declared to North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gye-gwan that the United States had evidence of an illicit North Korean uranium-enrichment program. After Kim’s initial denial, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Suk Ju suggested that Pyongyang was seeking to develop facilities to produce highly enriched uranium, according to U.S. officials. (See ACT, November 2002.)

Since that time, doubt has been cast on the quality of U.S. intelligence regarding the North Korean enrichment program. In March, a senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the intelligence community has less confidence in the extent of its knowledge of Pyongyang’s enrichment program that it did in 2002. (See ACT, April 2007.) Pyongyang has never publicly acknowledged having such a program.

Because of this uncertainty, U.S. officials have viewed the information provided by North Korea on its uranium-enrichment activities and the verification of North Korea’s declaration in this regard as critical to gauging Pyongyang’s commitment to complete denuclearization. Washington has continued to call for the declaration to include information on any uranium-enrichment programs. During a July 23 press conference, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill asserted that the declaration “needs to be all nuclear programs, which means that not only plutonium but uranium nuclear programs would have to be…fully declared.”

Citing tentative progress on the enrichment issue after the denuclearization working group meetings, Hill told reporters Aug. 17 that the North Koreans “have not acknowledged having a uranium-enrichment program, but they’ve acknowledged that the issue must be resolved.”

The denuclearization working group also held discussions on the process of disablement, which entails making alterations to North Korea’s nuclear facilities so that additional time and effort would be necessary to reverse those alterations before the facilities could be used again. Potential disablement steps might include drilling holes or pouring concrete in key areas of the facilities.

Stopping short of declaring that there was agreement on the process of disablement, Hill explained after the conclusion of the denuclearization working group that the parties “have the basis now for achieving a common definition.”

Disabling the Yongbyon facilities is likely to take place at the same time as the declaration process. Hill indicated Aug. 17 that there was agreement with the North Koreans that the two activities would overlap, citing in particular that “there’s no need to wait for the full declaration before understanding the need to disable the five-megawatt reactor.” By conducting some of the disablement efforts in tandem with the declaration procedure, disabling the facilities at Yongbyon will not necessarily be held up due to any difficulties regarding the declaration.

North Korea is also due to receive the remaining 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent during the implementation of the second phase. Given North Korea’s limited storage capacity for heavy fuel oil, the economy and energy working group has been discussing potential equivalents to the fuel oil, including taking steps to increase North Korea’s storage capacity so that it would be able to handle shipments of more than 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per month.

North Korea has also recently reiterated its demand for a light-water reactor (LWR) in return for dismantling its nuclear programs. Kim Gye-gwan told reporters July 21, “For the shutdown, disabling, and eventual dismantlement, the light-water reactor should come in.”

Even though the February agreement does not address the supply of an LWR to North Korea, according to the September 2005 Joint Statement, which set the basic parameters for the Feb. 13 plan and Pyongyang’s denuclearization, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States “expressed their respect and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision of [a] light-water reactor to the DPRK.”

Since the September 2005 Joint Statement was announced, the United States has maintained the position that discussions about the provision of an LWR cannot begin until the North Korean denuclearization process is complete. During a July 23 press briefing, Hill reaffirmed that “we are prepared to discuss the subject of a provision of a light-water reactor, and we have explained that the appropriate time is when DPRK gets out of this dirty business that they’ve been in and returns to the NPT.”

The issue of providing an LWR initially threatened to unravel the September 2005 Joint Statement soon after its conclusion when North Korea declared that it would not rejoin the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or the IAEA until it received a reactor. (See ACT, November 2005.) Although North Korea appears to have backtracked from this position, it is still  to be seen whether North Korea will once again insist on receiving a reactor prior to taking more irreversible steps.

Although a time frame for implementing the next phase of the February agreement has not been agreed, U.S. officials have expressed their hope to complete the process by the end of this year. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters July 18 “what we’re pushing for is to have this phase completed by the end of the year,” adding, “what that means is a full declaration of their nuclear program, including the uranium aspect of it, as well as a disablement of the reactor.” The plenary meeting of the six-party talks to take place at the beginning of September is expected to negotiate the implementation time frame.