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North Korea Slows Nuclear Disablement

Peter Crail

Two months after a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline to disable its nuclear reactor complex and provide a declaration of all nuclear activities, North Korea has slowed disablement work and has yet to offer a complete declaration. Pyongyang says that faster progress on its obligations is contingent on first receiving concessions from the United States and other parties participating in the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. Meanwhile, South Korea’s new and more conservative administration has similarly declared that economic assistance it provides to North Korea must be linked to progress on denuclearization, representing a shift in the reconciliation-oriented policy of Seoul’s two previous administrations.

Disablement Slows

North Korea was supposed to complete disablement of the three primary facilities involved in its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program by Dec. 31, but work is currently poised to continue for several months. The deadline was established as part of an Oct. 3, 2007, joint statement in which North Korea pledged to disable its facilities and provide a declaration of all of its nuclear activities in exchange for additional energy assistance and the rescinding of certain U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang. (See ACT, November 2007. ) The delay in meeting the initial deadline was due originally to technical and safety considerations, but political motives have now slowed progress even further. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

In Feb. 6 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, indicated that North Korea was slowing down the disablement process by reducing the number of work shifts from three per day to one. Siegfried Hecker, former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided further details following his mid-February visit to Pyongyang and Yongbyon. He explained during a Feb. 16 press briefing that the fuel rods from the reactor were being unloaded at a rate of about 30 each day. More than 6,000 fuel rods remain in the reactor.

North Korea has declared that it would slow down disablement work due to delays in receiving concessions from the other parties engaged in the talks. The North Korean state-run media quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry official Jan. 4 as stating, “Now that other participating nations delay the fulfillment of their commitments, the DPRK is compelled to adjust the tempo of the disablement of some nuclear facilities.”

Hill admitted Feb. 6 that the pace of providing the energy assistance pledged to North Korea has not matched the pace of disablement. He explained that, while eight of the 11 disablement steps have been completed at Yongbyon, North Korea has only received 20 percent of the 1 million tons of heavy-fuel oil other parties agreed to deliver in return for the disablement of its Yongbyon facilities and its declaration. However, a deadline was not expressly established for the provision of energy assistance in the October 2007 agreement, unlike the deadlines set for disablement and the declaration.

China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have each delivered a shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea.

NK Seeks Concessions First on Declaration

In addition to using the heavy-fuel oil delays as an excuse to slow the disablement work, Pyongyang has made receiving this fuel a condition for providing a declaration on its nuclear programs. Hecker said Feb. 16 that North Korean officials told him that until they receive the energy aid and are removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act, “they will not be able to produce what Ambassador Hill calls a ‘complete and correct’ declaration.”

The notion that North Korea is now withholding a complete and correct declaration appears to step back from Pyongyang’s claim in January that it had already “notified the U.S. side” of the contents of its declaration. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

Regarding two of the most contentious issues related to the declaration, Pyongyang’s suspected uranium-enrichment program and its nuclear cooperation with other states, North Korea has attempted to provide some assurances it is not currently engaged in these activities. Yet, it has not offered such assurances about similar past activities.

On the uranium-enrichment issue, Hill described Feb. 6 North Korea’s explanations regarding thousands of aluminum tubes it imported several years ago that raised suspicions of a North Korean uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, December 2007. ) North Korea showed U.S. officials two conventional weapons systems that utilized these tubes, one of which was incompatible with this material. Hill told the committee that “it is our judgment that the tubes were not brought into [North Korea] for the weapon system that did not work” and that the tubes were then transferred to another weapons system that did work.

Although it appears that North Korea is currently using these materials for a conventional weapons system, the original intention behind the acquisition of the tubes is unclear. U.S. technicians discovered traces of enriched uranium on the tubes provided by North Korea for examination, further calling into question the original purpose of the material.

Two Asian diplomats told Arms Control Today that the process of uncovering information about a North Korean uranium-enrichment program might move faster if Washington would share its evidence regarding such a program with North Korea and its allies in the region. Hill admitted Feb. 6 that there are different assessments among the other parties engaged in the talks about the existence and nature of a North Korean uranium-enrichment program.

The matter of North Korea’s nuclear cooperation with other states largely hinges on Pyongyang’s possible nuclear assistance to Syria. On Sept. 6, 2007, Israel carried out an airstrike against a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, which may have been constructed with North Korean assistance. (See ACT, November 2007. ) Hill told reporters Feb. 19 that he has continued to discuss “the Syria matter” with North Korea. According to Hill, Pyongyang has stated that it is not currently engaged in nuclear cooperation with other countries and says that it will not do so in the future. North Korea also maintains that it did not carry out any such cooperation with Syria.

Shift Expected in Seoul

The Feb. 25 inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak brought the first conservative government into power in Seoul in a decade. Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) has traditionally opposed the “Sunshine Policy” of short-term reconciliation with North Korea adopted by his two predecessors, instead favoring the application of greater pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize. Although Lee has not suggested an end to Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang, he has indicated that his country’s assistance to North Korea will be linked closely to progress on the nuclear issue.

The shift in Seoul’s North Korea policy appears to be part of a broader expected realignment in South Korea’s foreign policy focus, with greater attention to be given to the country’s relations with Washington. Moreover, the new president has asserted that such a shift may benefit inter-Korean relations. The International Herald Tribune quoted Lee Jan. 14 as stating, “[I]f South Korean-U.S. relations get stronger, it will actually help improve inter-Korean relations. And it can actually help improve North Korean-U.S. relations.”

A diplomatic source close to the six-party talks told Arms Control Today Feb. 15 that, unlike previous South Korean administrations, the Lee government is not seeking any major accomplishments in regard to North Korea. Moreover, the new administration will review the pledges made by former president Roh Moo-hyun in October 2007 to provide North Korea with a range of economic development assistance and carry them out only if they are supported by a “national consensus.” (See ACT, November 2007. )

Bush Administration Seeks Congressional Authorization

In his Feb. 6 testimony, Hill indicated that the administration requires a congressional waiver of U.S. legislation in order to carry out additional work in North Korea beyond the current disablement process. Due to North Korea’s October 2006 detonation of a nuclear device, U.S. law currently prohibits nearly all agencies from using funds for nonhumanitarian assistance in North Korea. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

Hill stated that the current funding is enough to cover disablement “but not much more” and that “more substantial” funding would be required with respect to additional activities, which include verification, facility dismantlement, and the removal of spent fuel and other materials. According to Hill, the administration is seeking language in the fiscal year 2008 supplemental appropriations bill funding U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan “or any other appropriate legislative vehicle” that would remove restrictions on the use of funds to carry out further denuclearization work in North Korea.

In his opening statement during the hearing, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the committee chairman, stated that he and the ranking member, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), “have drafted legislation that would provide the Department of Energy and the Department of State with the necessary authority to implement a robust denuclearization plan.” Congressional sources told Arms Control Today that, at the end of last year, the administration attempted to seek this authorization as part of the fiscal year 2008 omnibus appropriations bill but did not do so in time to incorporate the appropriate language.