After nearly two months of deadlock and North Korean threats to undo denuclearization progress made over the last year, the United States announced Oct. 11 an agreement with North Korea on measures to verify Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs. U.S. officials emphasized, however, that the agreement must still be finalized and adopted by the other four parties (China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) involved in six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearization. The six countries are scheduled to meet in early November to discuss the agreement.
In addition to its announcement regarding the verification agreement, the Department of State removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington had made the delisting contingent on agreement on a satisfactory verification plan consistent with “international standards.”
Since mid-August, this disagreement had stalled progress on implementing two agreements by the six parties made last year aimed at disabling North Korea’s primary nuclear facilities and paving the way for the country’s eventual denuclearization. North Korea had objected to a U.S. demand to agree on a verification protocol before it was removed from the list. In the weeks prior to the Oct. 11 announcement, Pyongyang restricted access to all of the key facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex to international monitors and was in the process of restoring its ability to separate plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
Despite North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list, Washington continues to impose a wide range of sanctions against Pyongyang for human rights violations, proliferation, and its status as a Communist state. (See ACT, September 2008.)
The day of the State Department announcement, the Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. president issued statements in response. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called the agreement “a modest step forward” in denuclearizing North Korea, adding that the decision to delist Pyongyang “is an appropriate response” so long as there are “immediate consequences” if North Korea does not follow through on the agreement. As part of such a response, he suggested that the parties providing energy assistance to North Korea in return for the disablement of its facilities could suspend such assistance and reimpose sanctions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a far more skeptical tone, criticizing what he saw as a lack of consultation with U.S. allies in the region prior to the agreement. He stated that, before he is able to support the decision to delist North Korea, he “expect[s] the administration to explain exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of our allies.”
A Tentative Verification Agreement
The U.S.-North Korean verification agreement outlines the types of procedures that inspectors will use to determine the extent and history of North Korea’s nuclear activities, as well as who will carry the procedures out. Although the State Department has not released details of that agreement, it issued a summary Oct. 11 that says inspectors will have access to all declared facilities and, “based on mutual consent, to undeclared sites” and can use “scientific procedures” such as sampling and forensic activities. North Korea declared about 15 facilities related to its plutonium-based program in a document provided to the six parties in June.
U.S. officials claim that the verification agreement satisfies all U.S. requirements for inspections in North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Paula DeSutter told reporters Oct. 11, “All of the elements that we sought…are included in the various documents and agreements that they’ve obtained with the North Koreans.”
The State Department summary indicated that the verification protocol would apply to North Korea’s plutonium-based program, which produced the nuclear material used in Pyongyang’s October 2006 nuclear test, and “any uranium enrichment and proliferation activities.”
The United States and its allies suspect that North Korea has pursued a uranium-enrichment program, which could provide it with an additional path to nuclear weapons production. Washington has also accused Pyongyang of aiding the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria to be used for a Syrian nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, May 2008.) Israel destroyed the reactor while it was under construction in September 2007. (See ACT, October 2007.)
North Korea has publicly denied pursuing uranium enrichment and assisting a Syrian nuclear program, and the two issues have hampered negotiations on implementing a February 2007 agreement on steps leading to North Korea’s denuclearization over the past year. As part of its June declaration, Pyongyang provided Washington with side documents acknowledging U.S. concerns about these activities and stating that it was not engaged in them at present and would not in the future.
Although the verification agreement potentially paves the way for addressing these two contentious concerns, U.S. officials indicated that the inspection effort would initially focus on North Korea’s plutonium-based program. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Patricia McNerney indicated during an Oct. 11 press briefing that “the largest program that we all are aware of is the plutonium program, so it makes sense to start there.”
DeSutter noted during the briefing that although the key facilities related to North Korea’s plutonium-production effort are well known, the United States needs to gain clarity on where that plutonium is fashioned into a pit for a nuclear weapon. She also expressed hope that, in the process of finding out more details about the plutonium program, “we learn things about the uranium program by virtue of that.”
Congressional sources told Arms Control Today Sept. 29 that Senate Foreign Relations Committee members had advocated that the administration pare back its verification plan to focus on North Korea’s plutonium program and postpone efforts to address Pyongyang’s suspected uranium-enrichment efforts until later. A Senate staffer said in communication with Arms Control Today Oct. 15 that “it makes sense to begin with the declared sites, build confidence and familiarity and collect information, and then proceed to the undeclared sites of interest.”
In spite of the assurance by U.S. officials that the agreement contained everything Washington sought initially, some of the provisions of the agreement do not appear to be consistent with Washington’s initial verification proposal in July.
That proposal contained provisions for sweeping inspection measures, potentially in all parts of the country, including “full access upon request to any site, facility or location,” regardless of whether the sites were contained in North Korea’s June declaration. (See ACT, October 2008.) North Korea rejected this proposal as too intrusive, asserting that the access provisions for inspectors were “coercive.”
In its summary, the State Department indicated that inspectors will have access to undeclared sites “based on mutual consent” rather than “upon request,” as originally proposed. DeSutter explained Oct. 11 that the notion of mutual consent is implicit in any access inspectors have to relevant facilities, stating that the host country will generally “have to ensure that we get the access we need when we get to the site.” She added that the United States has not yet provided a list to North Korea of the sites that it wants to visit.
It is also unclear what types of North Korean personnel inspectors may interview and at what locations. Although McNerney stated Oct. 11 that the agreement met all of the criteria sought by Washington, including interviews with North Korean nuclear personnel, the State Department summary makes no mention of such interviews. The July proposal suggested that experts would be permitted to interview relevant personnel, including scientists, technicians, and facility managers, “at any site, facility, or location.”
The format of the verification agreement includes a written joint document and verbal agreements between the two parties regarding verification. It is unclear whether North Korea agreed to some of the measures that the United States initially proposed verbally rather than as part of the joint verification document. Moreover, U.S. officials described the verification agreement as a “baseline” to be finalized by the six parties. A State Department official told Arms Control Today Oct. 22 that this baseline left room for an agreement to include additional clarification and specific measures.
State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters Oct. 11 that the terms of the written and verbal agreements had been conveyed to the other parties. Asian diplomats told Arms Control Today in October, however, that Washington provided little information regarding the verbal agreements and questioned Pyongyang’s willingness to formalize them so soon after limiting its agreement to verbal assurances.
McCormack noted Oct. 11 that Japan insisted that the agreement should be formalized and included in writing, adding that the United States shares this position.
One provision of the agreement sought by Tokyo and Seoul was that experts from all six parties involved in the talks, “including from non-nuclear states,” would participate in the verification activities. Asian diplomats told Arms Control Today in October that North Korea had previously insisted that only countries that possessed nuclear weapons should be allowed to take part in verification, thereby excluding Japan and South Korea.
North Korea Reverses Its Reversal of Disablement
Following the Oct. 11 announcement of the verification agreement and the delisting, North Korea has recommenced work to disable its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, thereby rendering them temporarily inoperable. The official Korean Central News Agency issued a statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry Oct. 13 stating that, with its removal from the U.S. terrorism list, North Korea “decided to resume the disablement of nuclear facilities in [Yongbyon] and allow the inspectors of the [United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] to perform their duties on the principle of ‘action for action.’”
In the weeks prior to these announcements, North Korea had taken steps to reverse some of the work carried out over the last year to disable its key plutonium-production-related facilities, including a five-megawatt nuclear reactor, a fuel fabrication facility, and a reprocessing plant. (See ACT, October 2008.)
Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories, has estimated that it would take about a month for North Korea to be able to start reprocessing its spent fuel once again. (See ACT, October 2008.)
McCormack told reporters Oct. 17 that, in regard to the five-megawatt reactor, North Korea reimplemented the disablement work it reversed since mid-August and reapplied IAEA seals to equipment and nuclear material and had proceeded with disablement beyond the point when it began its reversal. Pyongyang, however, has not yet reimplemented all of the disablement work it reversed at the fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants.