U.S. to Send Senior Envoy to Pyongyang

Peter Crail

The United States has agreed to send a senior diplomat to Pyongyang Dec. 8 for bilateral discussions with North Korea to return that country to multilateral talks on denuclearization, U.S. officials announced last month. The announcement came just before President Barack Obama made his first trip to Asia Nov. 12-19. The North Korean nuclear issue was high on the agenda in meetings with leaders in the region, U.S. officials said.

Department of State spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Nov. 9 that Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth will head an interagency delegation to Pyongyang for direct talks. They would be Bosworth’s first formal discussions with North Korean officials since he was appointed to his post in February. (See ACT, March 2009.) Bosworth, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea and still serves as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at TuftsUniversity, last traveled to Pyongyang as a private citizen to hold discussions with North Korean officials in the weeks prior to his appointment.

North Korea invited Bosworth to Pyongyang in August. Before November, U.S. officials had maintained that Washington was willing to hold such discussions only if they were held in the context of the six-party talks. Those talks were an effort begun in 2003 to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and involved China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Pyongyang withdrew from the talks in April in response to the UN Security Council’s condemnation of a North Korean rocket launch. (See ACT, May 2009.)

U.S. acceptance of the North Korean invitation suggests that North Korea has taken steps to meet the key stipulations Washington put forward for holding bilateral discussions, primarily related to the pledges Washington is seeking from Pyongyang. (See ACT, November 2009.) U.S. officials held informal meetings with a senior North Korean official visiting the United States in October, but Washington has not indicated what has changed in North Korea’s position to lead the United States to accept the invitation now.

Explaining what the United States was seeking from such a meeting, Crowley said one goal was to bring North Korea back into the six-party talks. A second goal is “to seek a reaffirmation of [North Korea’s] commitment under the 2005 joint statement,” he said, adding, “[W]e believe North Korea understands what the purpose of the meeting is.”

In September 2005, the six parties agreed to take reciprocal steps aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. As part of that agreement, North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, accepting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and returning to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), from which it withdrew in 2003.

As part of the reciprocal commitments, the United States affirmed that it had no intention to attack or invade North Korea, and South Korea affirmed that it would not receive or deploy nuclear weapons and that none exist on its territory.

The parties indicated that they would meet their commitments “in a phased manner” and in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action.” The parties agreed in February 2007 on phased steps toward North Korea’s denuclearization. That agreement focused on disabling three key facilities involved in producing plutonium at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for energy aid and political inducements. North Korea left the six-party talks after only 10 of 12 disablement steps for those facilities had been carried out. Pyongyang has since taken steps to reconstitute its reprocessing facility.

In light of such reversals, the Obama administration has maintained that it would not take a similar approach to rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Jeffrey Bader, National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs, told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington Nov. 6, “We are not interested in buying Yongbyon for a third time.”

In 1994, Pyongyang and Washington concluded the Agreed Framework, an agreement that also focused on North Korea’s plutonium-related nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

Broader Commitment Sought

Instead of a gradual process, the United States and its allies have indicated that they are seeking a broader denuclearization commitment from North Korea. In a Nov. 19 joint press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said that the two leaders “are in full agreement on a common approach” to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the nuclear issue by seeking from Pyongyang “concrete and irreversible steps to fulfill its obligations and eliminate its nuclear weapons program.”

Criticizing the incremental approach under the prior agreements reached through the six-party talks, Lee proposed a “grand bargain” approach toward North Korea in September. “The world should be in pursuit of a one-shot deal, rather than taking steps in negotiations,” Lee told a Council on Foreign Relations audience in New York Sept. 22. Under this approach, Lee said, the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program should proceed from the beginning, rather than at the end of successive stages. At the same time, North Korea would receive economic assistance and security guarantees.

Pyongyang rejected Lee’s suggestion. In a Sept. 30 statement, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called Lee’s idea “nothing more than a ridiculous proposal” and “not worthy of consideration.”

In addition to seeking North Korea’s return to the six-party talks and recommitment to prior agreements, Foreign Policy magazine reported on its Web site Nov. 2 and Arms Control Today confirmed with diplomatic sources that Washington also wanted to ensure that Bosworth would meet with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju.

Kang is believed to be more influential than North Korea’s lower-lever nuclear envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan. Joel Wit, former U.S. coordinator for the Agreed Framework at the State Department, said in a Nov. 17 e-mail that Kang “played a key role in previous dealings with North Korea during the Clinton Administration,” noting that he was a key adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his father and predecessor, Kim Il Sung.

Further Plutonium Extraction Claimed

Meanwhile, KCNA said Nov. 3 that North Korea had finished reprocessing its last load of 8,000 spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon reactor. Through reprocessing, plutonium is extracted from spent nuclear fuel. “Noticeable successes have been made in turning the extracted plutonium weapon-grade for the purpose of bolstering up [North Korea’s] nuclear deterrent,” added KCNA.

Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, who has visited the Yongbyon facilities on a number of occasions in recent years, estimated in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists May 12 that the spent fuel could contain up to 12 kilograms of plutonium, enough for up to two nuclear weapons.

The spent fuel reprocessing was one of the steps that North Korea said it would take in April in response to the Security Council’s condemnation of its rocket launch earlier that month. Pyongyang also said that it would restore the facilities that had been disabled since 2007 “to their original state.” (See ACT, May 2009.)

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in response to the North Korean announcement Nov. 3 that “reprocessing plutonium is contrary to North Korea’s own commitments that it committed to in the 2005 joint statement.” Reprocessing also violates UN Security Council resolutions, Kelly added.

Thus far, however, North Korea has not indicated that it has taken any steps to bring its five-megawatt Yongbyon reactor back to operable status. Citing satellite imagery analysis, a Sept. 4 report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security concluded that “there do not appear to be any reconstruction efforts at the reactor site.” Arms Control Today confirmed with knowledgeable official sources in November that no reconstruction efforts at the reactors have been detected.

Obstacles to Reconstitution

North Korea would have to reconstitute the reactor in order to produce any additional plutonium for nuclear weapons. Hecker estimated in May that prior to the reprocessing of the 8,000 spent fuel rods this year, North Korea separated enough plutonium for “at most eight” but as few as four nuclear weapons. North Korea is believed to have used some of this material to carry out nuclear tests in 2006 and in May. (See ACT, June 2009.)

To run the reactor again, it would first need an additional load of fuel. North Korea’s fuel fabrication facility was disabled under the 2007 agreement. Many of its functions had been abandoned since the 1994 Agreed Framework, and no additional nuclear fuel has been produced since that time.

North Korea still has about 2,000 fuel rods for its five-megawatt reactor left over from 1994. It also has about 12,000 bare fuel rods for a 50-megawatt reactor whose construction was halted under the Agreed Framework and that has since fallen into considerable disrepair. (See ACT, October 2007.) The five other parties to the six-party talks could not reach an agreement with North Korea on how to address the fresh fuel rods as part of the disablement actions under the February 2007 agreement. (See ACT, October 2008.)

In order to ready a full load of 8,000 fresh fuel rods for the smaller reactor, North Korea could use some of the 50-megawatt reactor fuel, with some modifications.

Hecker noted in a Nov. 17 e-mail that the bare fuel rods for the larger reactor would need to be clad in a magnesium alloy, which helps to contain the fission products produced in the reactor operations. That cladding process could take about six months, he said.

Although there does not appear to have been any detectable work on reconstituting the reactor, Hecker said it is “unlikely” that work on preparing the fuel rods for the reactor could be detected from overhead.

Beyond preparing the fresh fuel rods, North Korea would need to repair the secondary cooling loop severed as part of the disablement process and, more importantly, rebuild the cooling tower, which it demolished in June 2008. Hecker said the cooling tower could take about six months to rebuild, a time frame similar to the one that probably would be required for preparing the fresh fuel rods.

It is not clear why North Korea has not started reconstituting the reactor, Wit said. He suggested that one potential explanation is that “the North has already planned out its next cycle of nuclear force building and escalation of the threat,” but has decided that the time for those steps is not yet right, for political or technical reasons.