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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Break the Deadlock on North Korea
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Note for Reporters

Oct. 10, 2008

Contact: Peter Crail, Research Analyst (202-463-8270 ext. 102)

Washington - Negotiations with North Korea to shut down its primary nuclear weapons program now stand at the precipice. Unless the United States and its allies can walk North Korea from the edge of fully restarting its bomb-producing efforts, the next president will assume office in the midst of another nuclear proliferation crisis.

According to an Oct. 9 report in the Financial Times, the George W. Bush administration has "agreed in principle" to a compromise proposal that would reportedly focus verification of North Korea's nuclear efforts on its primary facilities at Yongbyon, which North Korea has relied on for its weapons material.

To stabilize the rapidly deteriorating situation, the United States and its allies should move forward with this arrangement in order to pave the way for permanently shutting down those facilities and uncovering how much plutonium North Korea has produced. Failure to do so would leave North Korea open to continue its reversal of the hard-fought progress made over the last year that has temporarily halted North Korea's plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

Roots of the Current Impasse

Two years ago, North Korea detonated a nuclear device-demonstrating clearly the risks of allowing Pyongyang to go its own way and improve its nuclear weapons capabilities. Two months after the test, the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's denuclearization, involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, resumed for the first time in nearly a year. Following a tough UN Security Council resolution and a new sense of urgency, the talks finally resulted in a February 2007 agreement in which North Korea pledged to shut down its nuclear reactor and then temporarily disable its key nuclear facilities in return for economic and political incentives. This deal was reaffirmed and further clarified in October 2007, when the six parties agreed on a December 2007 deadline for North Korea to disable its key nuclear facilities and provide a declaration of all of its nuclear programs. This agreement began to falter shortly afterwards.

One of the key problems began to emerge a month before that agreement in September 2007, when Israel destroyed a facility believed to have been a Syrian nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance. In addition, Pyongyang has remained unwilling to clarify its efforts to pursue a uranium enrichment capability, which could potentially provide it with another path to nuclear weapons.

Washington and Pyongyang provisionally resolved the Syrian and uranium enrichment issues in April 2008 when Hill obtained agreement from North Korea that, in addition to handing over a declaration regarding the plutonium production facilities at Yongbyon, Pyongyang would provide side documents regarding its position on the two contentious subjects. The United States indicated that it would prepare to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for this declaration. Pyongyang handed over its declaration and the side documents in June as work continued to dismantle key components of North Korea's Yonbyong nuclear complex. President George W. Bush immediately followed by announcing his administration's intention to remove North Korea from the terrorism list, declaring that North Korea met the criteria for de-listing.

Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang came to a head once again in August following North Korea's refusal to accept a stringent verification protocol proposed by the United States. The proposal insisted on "full access upon request to any site, facility or location," whether or not it was in the North Korean declaration. Moreover, Washington claimed that it would not remove North Korea from the terrorism list if Pyongyang did not agree to the protocol, an apparent shift from the previous U.S. position that it would de-list North Korea in return for a declaration. North Korea, a reclusive totalitarian state which sees itself still at war with the United States, was never likely to agree to the intrusive terms of the protocol, and the United States rejected a far weaker counter-proposal issued by North Korea at the time.

As a result of this disagreement, North Korea accused the United States of failing to live up to its promise to remove it from the terrorism list after the end of a 45-day notification period which began with Bush's announcement in June. Pyongyang then began to reverse the work done over the last year to disable its key nuclear facilities.

Current Status and Future Risks

With the current compromise in limbo, North Korea is still moving to reassemble parts of its key nuclear facilities, and Pyongyang will be able to extract enough plutonium for one or two additional weapons in a matter of months. In about a year's time, it may be able to reload its reactor to produce plutonium for even more weapons. This, however, may only be the beginning.

North Korea has also been constructing a more sophisticated missile test site designed to accommodate the long-range missiles Pyongyang continues to develop, the very missiles that may be able to reach parts of the United States. Moreover, the chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff recently stated publicly that North Korea is working on a weapon design capable of fitting on top of a missile.

Whereas North Korea's nuclear test two years ago did not succeed as planned, and the long-range missile Pyongyang tested that same year failed, should the talks break down and allow Pyongyang to continue its pattern of escalation, the next administration may have to confront a North Korea which has both demonstrated its ability to successfully detonate a compact nuclear weapon and developed a functioning long-range ballistic missile.

Not only could such developments pose a direct threat to the United States and our allies in the region, it would also be significantly more difficult to get Pyongyang to relinquish these capabilities through the types of diplomatic efforts that are now being pursued.

A Path Forward?

The alternative to walking away and allowing North Korea to continue its nuclear activities is aiming to cap North Korea's plutonium stocks in the near term while working toward that country's complete nuclear disarmament in the years ahead. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratories Siegfried Hecker argued in a Washington Post op-ed in May, "It's the plutonium stupid." In their estimation, shutting down the plutonium-related facilities at Yongbyon would mean "no more bombs, no better bombs and less likelihood of export" of nuclear material.

Undoubtedly, eliminating North Korea's plutonium program and making sure its nuclear material is not sold to others will require extensive verification. At the very least, a verification arrangement agreed with North Korea at this point in time will need access to any of the Yongbyon facilities involved in the plutonium program and the ability to take and analyze samples. Coming to an agreement on such a baseline should not be seen as a tacit acceptance of North Korea's other illicit activities, but rather as a stepping stone to deal with them in time. If the North Korean proposal meets this requirement, Washington should remove Pyongyang from the terrorism list and begin working with North Korea to complete the disablement work at Yongbyon.

President Ronald Reagan's famous arms control maxim was "trust but verify." Of course, there is no reason to begin with "trust" when it comes to North Korea, which has a long record of obfuscation regarding its nuclear programs. In this case, the watchwords should be "verify and build trust." The United States and its partners have an opportunity to verify the nuclear program North Korea used to produce any weapons it created, and a responsibility to do what is necessary to shut down that program permanently. At the same time, the United States can and must demonstrate to the North Koreans our intention to effectively verify the elimination of the remainder of their nuclear activities. The stakes are too high to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Keeping North Korea out of the plutonium-making business is not only a good thing but it is essential to international security. It is not too late to do so.

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