Phase II: Denuclearizing North Korea

Note for Reporters by Paul Kerr

For Immediate Release: July 24, 2007
Press Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107 Paul Kerr, (202) 463-8270 x102

On July 18, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that North Korea has shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, along with four related nuclear facilities: a plutonium separation facility; a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; and two larger, incomplete nuclear reactors. The shutdown has, for now, ended North Korea’s production of plutonium, which had been ongoing since 2003.

The IAEA said the “installation of the necessary surveillance and monitoring equipment by the IAEA team is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.” The details of the monitoring arrangements are described in a July 3 agency report obtained by the Arms Control Association.

The shutdown is part of the first phase of a two-step February 2007 agreement detailing the implementation of the September 2005 joint statement by the governments of China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. In that statement, the Pyongyang government pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons and “existing nuclear programs” in exchange for a series of political and economic incentives.

The IAEA verification of the shutdown completes the first phase of the February agreement. Pyongyang failed to meet an initial 60-day deadline to halt its nuclear facilities. But this delay was due to a U.S.-North Korean dispute over North Korean funds in the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia that was recently resolved to Pyongyang’s satisfaction.

Denuclearization: Looking Ahead

On July 20, the six parties concluded their most recent round of talks with a statement reiterating their intention to fulfill their commitments under the February agreement and September 2005 Joint Statement. They also agreed to take further steps to begin the implementation of the February agreement. (1)

In the near term, North Korea is to provide a “complete declaration of all nuclear programs” and disable “all existing nuclear facilities” as called for in the February 2007 agreement.

Among the key questions that must be settled now are:

  • What constitutes a complete declaration of all nuclear programs, how and to what extent do U.S. officials seek to verify the accuracy of the declaration, and what steps would be taken if the six parties cannot agree as to whether North Korea has produced a full and accurate declaration?
  • What constitutes disablement and to what extent should it be irreversible? and
  • How long should it take to complete this process?

There may be some common ground on the scope of the potentially controversial nuclear declaration. According to the Yonhap News Agency, the chief South Korean negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, told reporters July 18 that his North Korean counterpart, Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan, “said his country will declare all its nuclear programs without omitting anything.” A declaration which fails to include all relevant information – such as North Korea’s production of plutonium since the beginning of 2003, including the amount of nuclear material used in its October 9, 2006 nuclear weapon test explosion, and Pyongyang's suspected program to produce highly enriched uranium – could potentially hamper the implementation of the agreement by diminishing the other parties’ confidence in North Korea ’s willingness to negotiate in good faith.

Whether, to what extent, and at what pace North Korea chooses to give up its nuclear program remains to be seen. The regime’s diplomatic choices will be influenced by the degree of trust Pyongyang has in the other parties (particularly Japan and the United States), as well as North Korea’s perception of its sources of negotiating leverage.

In the near term, North Korea could, for example, be unwilling to accept an irreversible method of disabling its nuclear facilities. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill acknowledged July 18 that it is possible to disable the facilities “in a way that makes it impossible to be brought back, difficult to be brought back, easy to be brought back.” Which one Pyongyang agrees to will depend, at least in part, on the extent to which it wishes to hedge against other parties’ pocketing of North Korean concessions.

In the longer term, there will likely be further disagreements regarding, for example, North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear facilities, as well as its probable stockpile of nuclear weapons. Which of these Pyongyang bargains for more strenuously will reveal much about whether the North Korean regime views its potential fissile material production capabilities or its potential stockpile of nuclear weapons as a greater source of leverage.

It is, of course, impossible to know what North Korea will ultimately choose to do. At this point, the other participants should encourage continued North Korean cooperation by fulfilling their commitments under the six-party process. If and when disputes arise, all parties should use the six-party framework to resolve them and keep the denuclearization process on track.

For more Arms Control Association resources, news, documents, and analyses on the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs and diplomatic efforts to reverse them, see:

In April, Arms Control Today published the most recent ACA assessment of North Korea’s suspected uranium enrichment program:

(1) The parties agreed that: 1) Before the end of August, five working groups charged with implementing the February agreement “will convene their respective meetings to discuss plans for the implementation of the general consensus;” 2) In early September, the six parties will hold another round of talks in Beijing “to hear reports” from the working groups and “work out the roadmap for the implementation of the general consensus; “and 3) Following those talks, the parties “will hold a ministerial meeting in Beijing as soon as possible.” The full text can be found at: