North Korea Hedges on Nuclear Sampling

Peter Crail

In a further setback for currently stalled efforts to denuclearize North Korea, that country's foreign ministry issued a statement Nov. 13 denying that it had agreed to allow inspectors to conduct sampling at its nuclear sites when they take steps to verify Pyongyang's plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. The statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, said that the verification methods contained in a preliminary agreement between Washington and Pyongyang in October would be confined to "field visits, confirmation of documents, and interviews with technicians" and would only begin once North Korea received energy assistance promised last year.

The statement followed a series of informal meetings U.S. officials held with North Korean diplomats in New York in early November, including a Nov. 7 meeting attended by Frank Jannuzi, a foreign policy adviser for President-elect Barack Obama. In regard to Pyongyang's approach to the incoming U.S. administration, the North Korean Foreign Ministry's director-general, Li Gun, said to reporters Nov. 6, "We will have dialogue if [the United States] seeks dialogue. If it seeks isolation, we will stand against it."

In October, Obama called the preliminary agreement on verification between Washington and Pyongyang a "modest step forward" but said there must be "immediate consequences" if North Korea did not follow through on the accord. (See ACT, November 2008.) In order to take effect, the agreement must be adopted by the six countries engaged in negotiations on North Korea's denuclearization, a group that includes China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a Nov. 23 press briefing that the six countries will meet Dec. 8 to try to finalize the agreement.

In light of Pyongyang's position on sampling, however, finalizing the verification process may prove difficult. The Nov. 13 North Korean statement contradicts U.S. administration claims in October that North Korea agreed to allow inspectors to collect samples from North Korean nuclear facilities and material and remove them from the country for analysis. (See ACT, November 2008.) Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Paula DeSutter told reporters Oct. 11 that the preliminary verification agreement "includes taking samples and bringing them back home."

Such samples could help yield important clues regarding the efficiency of Pyongyang's nuclear efforts and the amount of nuclear material it produced. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories, has said that sampling key North Korean nuclear facilities and gaining access to documents and scientists would provide "a high degree of confidence" regarding the amount of plutonium North Korea has produced and extracted. (See ACT, June 2008.)

An August 2007 unclassified report to Congress estimates that North Korea "could have produced up to 50 [kilograms] of plutonium." (See ACT, June 2008.) North Korea, however, declared that it produced about 37 kilograms of plutonium in its June declaration. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) U.S. officials have indicated that this declaration is "in the low range" of estimates regarding Pyongyang's plutonium production.

The Nov. 13 statement regarding the terms of the verification arrangement may not be North Korea's final position regarding the prospect for sampling. The October agreement included written and verbal components, and the statement, which specifically addressed the written accord, did not rule out the possibility that sampling was addressed as part of a verbal agreement. (See ACT, November 2008.)

Moreover, the day before the North Korean statement, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan suggested that North Korea's rejection of sampling measures was simply a bargaining position to extract additional benefits. He said during a Nov. 13 press briefing that North Korea's strategy "has always been to create a crisis before resolving something, and trying to use that point to secure further concessions."

Gary Samore, former U.S. National Security Council director for nonproliferation and export controls, expressed a similar sentiment. He told a Council on Foreign Relations audience Nov. 12 that, "at the end of the day, the North Koreans will allow sampling to verify their plutonium declaration" but that they would only do so "if the price is right."

In regard to the price of its cooperation, North Korea reiterated its complaint that it has not received the energy assistance promised last year in return for its denuclearization efforts. The Nov. 13 North Korean statement said that due to "the delayed fulfillment of the economic compensation" by China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, it was slowing the pace by which it unloads the spent fuel rods from its five-megawatt reactor by half. Kyodo News reported Nov. 8 that North Korea recently reduced the rate it was removing the rods from 30 rods to 15 rods per day. As of October, North Korea had removed about 5,000 of the 8,000 total spent fuel rods.

The removal of the spent fuel rods constitutes one of the last of 11 steps North Korea agreed to take in November 2007 to disable the three primary facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex involved in its plutonium-based weapons program. (See ACT, December 2007.) Under that accord, the four countries pledged to complete the delivery of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent in return.

North Korea slowed this disablement work on a number of occasions throughout the year and in August began taking steps to reverse these efforts following a disagreement with the United States on the verification process. Pyongyang recommenced disabling these facilities in mid-October following its removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Nov. 24 that, of the 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent promised to North Korea last year, about 550,000 tons have been provided thus far. This amount includes a U.S. shipment of 50,000 tons being delivered in November and early December.