North Korea has begun taking steps to restart operations at its reprocessing facility at Yongbyon as negotiations over verifying its nuclear activities have bogged down. Pyongyang announced Aug. 26 that it would consider taking steps to restore the disabled facilities in response to Washington’s insistence that North Korea first agree to a verification protocol before being removed from the Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See ACT, September 2008.) Pyongyang claims that it has already carried out what the United States said was necessary to be removed from the terrorism list.
Pyongyang also recently suggested it may withdraw from commitments made in multilateral talks over the last year. Quoting a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Sept. 19, the official Korean Central News Agency stated that Pyongyang is no longer interested in being taken off of the terrorism list and that it “will go its own way.” U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley admitted to reporters the same day that it is unclear whether North Korean statements “reflect a change in policy or are just the kind of negotiations we’ve seen before.” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is scheduled to travel to Pyongyang Oct.1 in an attempt to resolve the impasse over the verification arrangement.
The current logjam has ensued amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered from a serious health problem in August, leading to his lack of public visibility in the last several weeks. In particular, Kim was unexpectedly absent from a major celebration of the North Korean regime’s 60th anniversary on Sept. 9. It is unclear what role Kim is currently playing in the decision-making process of the leadership in Pyongyang. North Korean officials have denied reports that Kim is in ill health.
NK Rejects Intrusive Inspections
Pyongyang insists that verification has not been a requirement of previous agreements in the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Hyun Hak Bong, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy director-general stated during a Sept. 19 meeting with South Korean officials that “the October 3 agreement…does not call for so-called verification.”
According to an October 2007 joint statement, Pyongyang pledged to disable its primary nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and provide a “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear activities. In return, the other parties, with the exception of Japan, agreed to provide energy aid. The United States also agreed to “advance the process” of lifting certain restrictions against North Korea, including removing it from the terrorism list, once North Korea delivered its declaration.
North Korea submitted a declaration on its nuclear activities at Yongbyon June 26.
U.S. officials, however, have insisted that a verification protocol is part of the declaration process, and therefore a requirement for North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list. Hill said during a Sept. 5 press conference that “a declaration without a [verification] protocol is only half the obligation.”
The six parties agreed to establish a verification mechanism in a July 12 joint statement. (See ACT, September 2008.) The statement outlined broadly what such a mechanism would entail, including facility visits, review of documentation, and interviews with technical personnel.
In addition to claiming that it is not obligated to conclude a verification protocol, North Korea has asserted that some of the proposed inspections procedures are too intrusive. Hyun expressed concern with provisions of the protocol calling for inspectors to “visit any place at any time to take samples and to investigate with measurement devices,” adding that this meant “coercive” inspections akin to those which preceded the 2003 Iraq war.
According to the original U.S. verification proposal provided to North Korea in July and published by The Washington Post Sept. 26, Washington insisted on “full access upon request to any site, facility or location” whether or not it was in the North Korean declaration. It also provided for inspectors to make use of a variety of surveillance, recording, and detection equipment “at any site, facility or location.”
Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories told Arms Control Today in June that access to key parts of the Yongbyon facilities and the ability to sample the waste from their operations would provide a “high degree of confidence” regarding the amount of plutonium North Korea produced. North Korea reportedly claimed to produce about 37 kilograms of plutonium in its June declaration. U.S. estimates have assessed that North Korea may have produced as much as 50 kilograms. (See ACT, June 2008.)
Pyongyang Prepares to Reconstitute Yongbyon Facilities
Following through on a threat to begin reconstituting its disabled nuclear facilities, North Korea has begun to move some equipment from out of storage and asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove seals from its reprocessing facility. According to a Sept. 24 IAEA press release, North Korea informed the agency that it would begin introducing nuclear material at the plant “in one week’s time,” and has denied agency inspectors access to that facility.
Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed to Arms Control Today Sept. 24 that monitoring mechanisms and agency seals were still in place at two other key facilities, a fuel fabrication plant and a five megawatt reactor. She also indicated that inspectors still have access to those facilities for now. U.S. monitors also remain at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
In November 2007, the six parties agreed on 11 steps to disable these three primary facilities, which North Korea used to produce much of its stockpile of plutonium. The disablement steps are intended to temporarily prevent North Korea from operating these facilities. U.S. officials have asserted that it would take North Korea at least a year to reverse these measures and being operating the facilities again should the disablement work be completed.
At the time that North Korea halted the disablement work in mid-August, 8 of the 11 disablement steps had been completed. The three remaining steps include removing 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor, removing the mechanisms that operate the reactor’s control rods, and rendering currently stored fresh nuclear fuel unfit for use in the nuclear reactor.
Removal of the spent fuel rods began at the end of 2007. Hyun told South Korean officials Sept. 19 that 4,740 spent fuel rods had been removed from the reactor before Pyongyang halted that process. Removing the drive mechanisms for the control rods can only occur once the removal of the remaining spent fuel rods is completed.
North Korea has still not agreed on how the fresh fuel rods are to be addressed. A Department of Energy official told Arms Control Today in December 2007 that the United States wants to bend the fresh fuel rods so that they cannot be run in the reactor. While Hyun acknowledged Sept. 19 that addressing the fresh fuel rods is an outstanding step, North Korea has not yet agreed to disable the rods.
Measures to permanently dismantle the facilities are intended to be part of a future agreement.
Hill told reporters Sept. 22 that it would take weeks to “very few months” for North Korea to restart the reprocessing facility, “depending on how the machinery operates.” He added that “certainly they have taken the machinery out and put it back together.”
Hecker echoed this assessment, explaining to Arms Control Today Sept. 17 that it would only take “a month or so” to restart operations at that facility once the equipment was moved back into place. He noted that “the reprocessing facility was the one that was disabled the least.” The disablement work on the reprocessing facility focused on the “front-end” loading operations because the other portions of the facility contain high-level radioactive waste.
Reconstituting the reprocessing facility would allow North Korea to chemically separate plutonium from the 4,740 spent fuel rods that were removed from the reactor, as well as those still left to be unloaded. Together, these 8,000 spent fuel rods contain about 7-10 kilograms of plutonium, enough for 1-2 nuclear weapons. North Korea would first need to remove the IAEA seals from the removed spent fuel rods in order to reprocess them.
Hecker indicated that, although considerable work would be needed to restart operations at the 5 megawatt reactor and the fuel fabrication facility in particular, North Korea was sufficiently capable of reconstituting the three facilities without relying on foreign sources of equipment or materials.
It is unclear what impact the halting of disablement operations may have on incentives North Korea has been receiving for its denuclearization activities. According to the July 12 agreement on a verification framework, the six parties agreed that the disablement steps would proceed in line with the delivery of energy aid, with an aim to completing disablement and the delivery of heavy-fuel oil from Russia and the United States by the end of October.
A Russian diplomat told Arms Control Today Sept. 24 that Moscow intended to “suspend” some it its energy assistance to North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s backtracking on disablement.
The United States has not indicated whether or not it would engage in a similar suspension. When asked whether Washington would continue its energy assistance to North Korea during a Sept. 27 Reuters interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that “We may need to take steps, but that’s not the stage at which we are right now.” The United States, however, is not slated to deliver another shipment of heavy-fuel oil to North Korea until after the suspended Russian shipment.
China and South Korea agreed to provide North Korea with heavy-fuel oil equivalents. South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Yu Myung-hwan, told reporters Sept. 22 that “any further aid provision might be difficult if North Korea suspends disabling on a full scale and begins restoring the reactor as it is related to aid of materials.”
NK Constructs New Missile Test Site
North Korea has also raised tensions by carrying out work on its ballistic missile program, opening up the possibility of additional long-range missile tests. Based on satellite imagery of a site near the North Korean village of Pongdong-ni, Janes Defense Weekly reported Sept. 17 that North Korea has nearly completed a new missile test site. The site is believed to be more sophisticated than North Korea’s current site at Musudan-ni, with a capacity to carry out flights tests on a more frequent basis.
The site contains a 10-story tower aimed at accommodating North Korea’s largest ballistic missiles, such as its Taepo Dong-2, which has an anticipated range of about 5,500 kilometers, capable of reaching parts of Alaska if successful. North Korea has not yet successfully tested the Taepo Dong-2 and last carried out a failed flight test of the missile in July 2006.
Although North Korea’s missile programs have not been specifically addressed in the six-party talks, the UN Security Council prohibited Pyongyang from further advancing its ballistic missile programs after the failed 2006 Taepo Dong-2 test. The council adopted Resolution 1695 in July 2006, demanding that North Korea “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program,” and reestablish its voluntary missile moratorium agreed in 1999. It reiterated this demand in Resolution 1718 following North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear test.