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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
NK Continues Denial of Enrichment Program
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Peter Crail

Over the past five years, U.S. officials have alleged that North Korea has pursued a program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. In recent discussions with U.S. officials, North Korea has sought to prove that the dual-use materials it imported that may be used in a uranium-enrichment program were intended for non-nuclear uses and that it has not pursued an HEU production effort. Each side has expressed an interest in resolving the issue to “mutual satisfaction” by the end of the year, but a wide gulf apparently remains between North Korean claims and U.S. concerns. An impasse could impede progress in fulfilling six-party agreements on North Korea’s denuclearization.

U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Pyongyang has acquired or attempted to acquire a variety of materials and components related to a uranium-enrichment program. The Washington Post reported Nov. 9 and Arms Control Today confirmed with diplomatic sources that Pyongyang contends that the dual-use materials it imported were intended for non-nuclear uses.

Responding to questions about discussions on the uranium-enrichment issue, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told reporters Nov. 14 that “some progress” has been made but the discussions “by no means have resolved the issue up to now.” Hill told subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Oct. 25 that he expected that, by the end of the year, the United States could be assured that a North Korean HEU program would no longer represent a threat. In an Oct. 3 agreement, North Korea pledged to provide a complete declaration of all nuclear activities by Dec. 31. (See ACT, November 2007.)

A South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that North Korea’s attempts to resolve the issue demonstrate progress in Pyongyang’s attitude toward cooperation on enrichment. The diplomat cautioned, however, that more concrete information is needed, including access to all of the imported materials and any facilities associated with them.

The uranium-enrichment issue was the critical factor behind the 2002 collapse of a previous denuclearization agreement between Pyongyang and Washington. At the time, U.S. officials claimed that North Korea admitted to pursuing a uranium-enrichment program. The United States responded by cutting off heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea, which led North Korea to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and resume plutonium production. North Korea has continued publicly to deny making such an admission or enriching uranium for weapons.

In March, U.S. officials acknowledged that the confidence level of the intelligence assessments regarding Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment capabilities has declined. (See ACT, April 2007.) Joseph DeTrani, North Korea mission manager for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, stated in a March 4 news release that in 2002 “the Intelligence Community had then, and continues to have, high confidence in its assessment that North Korea pursued” a uranium-enrichment capability. In comparison, he noted that the intelligence agencies have “at least moderate confidence” that North Korea continues to maintain such a program.

One of the most critical allegations regarding North Korean procurement efforts comes not from the United States, but Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. In his 2006 autobiography, Musharraf stated that a proliferation network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan provided North Korea with about 20 centrifuges in the mid- to late-1990s.

The only plausible purpose for procuring these centrifuges would be for a uranium-enrichment program. It is unclear what additional assistance North Korea may have received from the Khan network.

North Korea has not admitted to any dealings with the Khan network, and a South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that North Korea’s failure to address this allegation is likely to be a sticking point in further negotiations.

One key piece of evidence that led to the U.S. assessments that North Korea had a large-scale uranium-enrichment program is North Korea’s acquisition of about 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia in 2002. North Korea is currently trying to clarify the purpose of these tubes as part of its claim that it did not intend to produce HEU. The dual-use nature of the tubes makes it possible that they were not intended for a centrifuge facility.

Pyongyang’s capability to produce uranium hexafluoride may also serve as an indicator of an intended uranium-enrichment program. Uranium hexafluoride is fed into gas centrifuges in order to enrich uranium to low levels for power reactors or high levels for nuclear weapons.

A Department of State official told Arms Control Today in October 2006 that the U.S. intelligence community did not have “evidence” that Pyongyang has a facility to produce uranium hexafluoride. U.S. intelligence assessments have indicated, however, that North Korea provided Libya with two tons of uranium hexafluoride via the Khan network.

North Korea’s fuel fabrication facility at Yongbyon is able to produce uranium tetraflouride, the precursor to uranium hexafluoride. (See ACT, April 2007.) However, this facility was shut down and subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections until 2002 as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework, suggesting that any uranium hexafluoride would have had to have been produced at an undeclared facility.

Preliminary Declaration Expected Soon

Since the conclusion of a Feb. 13 agreement in which North Korea agreed to provide a full declaration of its nuclear activities, the United States, as well as South Korea and Japan, have insisted that the declaration must address the uranium-enrichment question. According to an Oct. 3 six-party talks joint statement, North Korea committed to providing such a declaration by the end of the year. (See ACT, November 2007.)

An initial declaration is expected in the coming weeks. Hill indicated Nov. 2 that he believed North Korea has “something ready” in regard to a declaration and that the United States would likely see it “in the next week or so.” Hill told reporters Oct. 30 that it is important to receive an initial declaration sooner rather than at the end of the year because clarifying it will probably “be going back and forth.”

The United States, along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea as the countries involved in the six-party talks, are expected to compare the eventual declaration with their understanding of North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

According to U.S. officials, the IAEA will also have a role in the verification of the declaration. Speaking to reporters about the issue of verifying the declaration, Hill said Nov. 14, “We want to make sure that the list is complete, and obviously we will be working very, very closely with the IAEA on that matter.” The IAEA is currently responsible for monitoring the shutdown of the facilities associated with North Korea’s plutonium program.