Disablement Begins But Process Unclear

Peter Crail

On Nov. 5, a team of U.S. experts led efforts to begin disablement of North Korea’s core nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. According to U.S. officials, disabling the facilities is intended to ensure that they cannot be operated for at least a year while negotiations proceed on dismantling all of North Korea’s nuclear programs. The disablement process is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 31.

The three facilities subject to disablement consist of a fuel fabrication facility, a 5-megawatt reactor where plutonium was produced, and a reprocessing facility where plutonium was separated for potential use in nuclear weapons. These facilities are believed to have been used to produce the material for the device North Korea tested in October 2006, as well as any other nuclear devices that have been created.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill stated Nov. 3 that the disablement process for the Yongbyon facilities will consist of at least 10 steps negotiated primarily in a working group on denuclearization. What specifically constitutes these 10 steps has not been disclosed. China, the chair of the six-party talks, which also include Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, has stated that disclosure requires a consensus among the parties. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said Nov. 8 that China has “almost no problem” agreeing to such a disclosure.

However, it does not appear likely that the details of the process will be made public at this time. A diplomat close to the talks told Arms Control Today Nov. 19 that discussions were held amongst the six parties regarding the disclosure of the specific disablement measures and that “the majority of the parties” preferred not to make the specific steps public. The diplomat added that the parties “do not intend to hide” the steps that have been taken once they are completed, suggesting that the parties are willing to publicize each step as it is taken.

Although the parties have not agreed to disclose the disablement steps, U.S. officials have given some indications of what the work will entail.

Hill noted Nov. 3 that one of the first steps will involve cutting chains at the reprocessing facility. These chains are part of a series of cranes that transport caskets of spent fuel rods from storage to the reprocessing facility for chemical separation.

According to U.S. officials, a fairly urgent part of the process will involve cleaning the storage pond where spent fuel rods from the reactor are left to cool prior to reprocessing. The pond is currently filled with radioactive debris and poses a health hazard to anyone working on disablement at the site. Hill said Nov. 3 that the cleaning process will take “a lot longer” than a couple of weeks.

Cleaning the pond is also necessary before 8,000 spent fuel rods can be removed from the reactor. If reprocessed, these rods would be able to yield enough plutonium for five or six nuclear weapons. After cooling the rods, Hill noted that arrangements will have to be made “to send them to some place…willing to accept them.” He also indicated that an agreement was reached with North Korea that fresh fuel rods would not be placed in the reactor.

Fresh fuel rods would have to be created at the fuel fabrication facility, which is also to be disabled. Moreover, IAEA officials visiting the facility in June were told that fresh fuel had not been produced since 1994.

With just more than a month remaining to achieve the year-end deadline for disablement, it is unclear if the intended time frame will be met. Sung Kim, the head of the U.S. disablement team, told reporters Nov. 6, “I think we are off to a good start and will look forward to completing the task by the end of the year as planned.”

Hill, however, seemed to leave room for the possibility that the disablement process will continue into early next year. Citing the need to proceed cautiously due to safety reasons, he told reporters Nov. 3 that “even at the end of December, when we will have substantial disabling, we need to be careful not to hurry things in a way that could cause any health risk to anyone working on the process.”

Further progress on disablement must also address the issue of including other parties in the process. Although the United States has taken the lead, U.S. officials have stressed that participation should be expanded. Hill told reporters Nov. 2, “We anticipate that other members of the six parties will participate in subsequent missions.… [T]his was something that the North Koreans assured us is quite okay.”

Tokyo has indicated that it will consider its participation in the disablement process. A Japanese diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 19 that Japan has held consultations with the United States on this issue and that some efforts may be taken “before not too long.”

U.S.-Japanese Rift on Terrorism List, Abductees Issue

On the other hand, Japan has maintained its position that it will not take part in the energy assistance being provided to North Korea in return for progress on disablement as long as bilateral issues between the two countries are unresolved. The key bilateral issue between Tokyo and Pyongyang is Japan’s demand that North Korea account for its abduction of more than a dozen Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s.

Tokyo has maintained that the United States should not remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism until the abductees issue is resolved. Japanese officials have recently expressed concern about a Feb. 13 agreement that links North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list with its disablement efforts. Tokyo fears that Washington will remove North Korea from the list irrespective of Japanese concerns.

Calling on the United States to be cautious in going forward with the delisting, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura observed that “[t]he United States has its own criteria in removing the status of terrorist-sponsoring nations and the abduction issue is not defined there.”

U.S. officials have acknowledged the lack of a direct connection between the terrorism list and the abductees issue. During a Nov. 13 Department of State press briefing, Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey stated that North Korea must be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism “in accordance” with U.S. law, adding that the terrorism list and abductees issues “are not necessarily specifically linked.”

According to U.S. law, removing a country from the list when there has not been a change in government requires that the president certify that the government has not provided support for international terrorism during the preceding six months and that it has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. U.S. officials have stated that such assurances include joining various international conventions and agreements against terrorism.