U.S.-NK Clash on Nuclear Deadline

Peter Crail

North Korea missed Dec. 31 deadlines to disable its nuclear reactor complex and declare all of its nuclear programs, albeit for different reasons. The disablement process is nearly complete, but was held up primarily for technical reasons as one of the final steps involves a months-long process of removing and cooling the spent fuel in the Yongbyon reactor. In regard to the declaration, however, the United States asserts that North Korea has not provided a full accounting of all of its programs while Pyongyang alleges that a declaration was provided in November.

Declaration Delayed, Declaration Denied

One of the key components of an Oct. 3 six-party talks agreement involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States was North Korea’s obligation to provide a “complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs—including clarification regarding the uranium issue—by the end of the year.” (See ACT, November 2007. ) North Korea asserts that it provided a declaration as required in November 2007. The official Korean Central News Agency released a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement Jan. 4 that declared that North Korea “worked out a report on the nuclear declaration in November last year and notified the U.S. side of its contents.”

When asked by reporters if North Korea had provided a declaration, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, explained that “they discussed what elements should be in a declaration, and it was clearly not a complete and correct declaration.” He added that any formal declaration would have to be provided to the Chinese, the coordinator of the six-party process. Hill traveled to the region and Moscow to meet with his Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and South Korean counterparts in early January.

“The uranium issue,” as referenced in the Oct. 3 statement, is chief among U.S. concerns about the declaration. Pyongyang is suspected to have pursued a program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. 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. Moreover, in his 2006 autobiography, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stated that a proliferation network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan provided North Korea with about 20 gas centrifuges used in the uranium-enrichment process during the mid- to late-1990s.

North Korea continues to deny that it pursued a uranium-enrichment capability and sought to convince U.S. officials last November that materials it imported that may be used for an enrichment facility were intended for other purposes. (See ACT, December 2007. ) The materials shown to the U.S. officials did not include the centrifuges provided by the Khan network.

Since North Korea’s failure to meet the year-end deadline for providing its declaration, U.S. officials have emphasized that what matters is the content of the declaration, rather than the timing. Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters Jan. 3 that Pyongyang “can produce it at any time, and we’re going to encourage them to do so as soon as possible, but also they should not sacrifice completeness for speed.” Speaking to reporters Jan. 10, however, Hill stated that “it would be desirable” if the declaration and disablement were completed by the end of February when South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak takes office.

Beijing reacted to the missed deadlines by underlining that some delay was to be expected. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu told reporters Jan. 3 that “[t]he pace is faster in some areas and slower in some areas,” adding that “this is natural.”

Although North Korea insisted that it was adhering to its own commitments, Pyongyang alleged that the commitments made by the other parties were not being completed on schedule. The North Korean Foreign Ministry statement asserted that the energy assistance that it was to receive “was being steadily delayed.”

China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea pledged to provide North Korea with 900,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent as part of the Oct. 3 agreement. In order to accommodate the limited amount of fuel oil North Korea could import during a given month, the parties agreed that Russia and the United States would continue to deliver the fuel oil while China and South Korea provided other forms of energy-related assistance.

Although no deadline was stipulated for the completion of the energy assistance to North Korea, Hill told reporters Oct. 3 that the intention was to complete the process by the end of the year. (See ACT, November 2007. ) Since the October agreement, North Korea has received 50,000 tons of fuel oil from the United States. Following a delay in Russia’s delivery of fuel oil to North Korea in December, Moscow indicated that it intends to complete its shipment of 50,000 tons of fuel oil by Jan. 21.

At the end of December, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul began making arrangements regarding the types of energy assistance China and South Korea would provide for North Korea as part of the six-party agreement. A diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Jan. 9 that, although preparations were being made to carry out this assistance, the discussions are still ongoing.

North Korea also accused the United States of failing to honor its commitments to remove the country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and to stop punishing it under the Trading with the Enemy Act. In February 2007, Washington agreed to begin the process of carrying out both of these actions. During a Dec. 13 briefing, a State Department official indicated that the United States remains committed to finalizing these steps, but only when a complete declaration has been received and disablement has been completed.

U.S. Looks to Disablement Completion, Next Steps

Disabling the nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon was the second task to be completed by the end of the year. This process, which entailed a series of 11 steps to make the facilities inoperable for at least a year, is largely being carried out by U.S. technicians with North Korean assistance. The reason behind the missed deadline is largely technical because one of the final steps, unloading the spent fuel rods from the reactor, is estimated to take about 100 days. The process of unloading the fuel rods began in mid-December.

Unlike the delay in receiving the North Korean declaration, U.S. officials have welcomed the progress made on disablement. Hill told reporters Jan. 7 that “some 75 percent” of the disablement steps have been completed, adding that “the disabling has gone pretty well and continues to go on.”

In the Oct. 3 agreement, the United States agreed to lead the disablement activities and provide for their initial funding. As of the start of 2008, nearly the entire cost of the process has been borne by Washington. There has been some consideration, however, of potential burden-sharing arrangements with the other parties. (See ACT, December 2007. ) In this regard, a Department of Energy official told Arms Control Today Dec. 12 that “it would make the most sense, in the context of cooperation, for another party which can use the plutonium in the spent fuel to bear the cost of removing it and taking it out of the country.” The official also noted that this is also the highest-cost endeavor of the disablement steps.

In spite of the U.S. commitment to continuing the disablement process, legal impediments may slow or halt Washington’s ability to continue to fund and carry out the work. It may also hinder its ability to dismantle the North Korean facilities should there be an agreement on such an effort.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in 1994 prohibits the United States from providing nonhumanitarian assistance to states that have detonated a nuclear weapon and are not nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea tested a nuclear device in October 2006. Due to this restriction, the only funding source that may be used for North Korean disablement activities is the State Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund (NDF).

Although NDF funds are not restricted under the Glenn amendment, there are other limitations on its long-term use for disablement and dismantlement in North Korea. In a Dec. 17 interview, the Energy Department official explained a number of these constraints, in particular, the fact that the cost of the work in North Korea is likely to exceed the NDF annual budget, which was $38 million in fiscal year 2007. Moreover, the official indicated that the NDF was designed to respond to emergency nonproliferation needs. Now that disablement and the six-party process has been going on for sometime, “the process has become institutionalized,” the official said, reducing the justification for the use of NDF funding.

In order to get around such constraints, the Energy Department has been holding discussions with Congress in order to carve out an exception to the application of the Glenn amendment specifically for disablement and dismantlement activities in North Korea. Congress has taken some steps to address the funding concerns. A $10 million earmark for Energy Department nuclear disablement activities in North Korea was included in the omnibus appropriations legislation that was signed into law in December.

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