Conferences, Videos & Testimony

Weapons of Mass Destruction and North Korea: U.S.-Korea Working Group

by David Albright

May 10, 2001

U.S.-Korea Working Group

I think everyone appreciates that the Agreed Framework is a compromise and, as Bob Gallucci likes to say, we are better off with an imperfect agreement than without one. In 1994, the United States and North Korea reached a stalemate. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could not verify North Korea’s compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Most people believed that North Korea had produced significantly more plutonium than it had declared to the IAEA, perhaps enough for 1 or 2 nuclear weapons. They also believed that the United States could not force North Korea to comply with its obligations under the NPT short of war, which was not a desired outcome. The United States was also increasingly worried about an impending surge in the number of North Korean nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure was growing rapidly, and it was entering a period where it might produce plutonium for tens of nuclear weapons a year. The United States had to decide to subordinate the goal of acquiring a complete account of what is a small and uncertain amount of plutonium in North Korea to the aim of controlling the future of the large and dangerous amount of nuclear fuel. According to Ambassador John Rich, who was then the U.S. representative to the IAEA in Vienna, the ancestry of North Korea’s nuclear program was far less important than its destiny-and that is a fundamental compromise in the Agreed Framework. North Korea has agreed that it will come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement before any significant nuclear components of the first LWR are delivered. In 1994, when the agreement was signed, this did not seem so bad. Most U.S. officials stated that they expected this inspection process to start in about five years. By this time, we had expected to be discussing how the inspections were going or had gone, but instead we are still wondering when they will start. Right now, under the Agreed Framework timetable, the inspections will start around 2004. That date is both comforting and distressing. It seems nice that it is far off in the future, but at the same time, given the way things have gone, it is actually not that far off in the future and a lot of preparation is necessary. The KEDO construction schedule assumes one month for this certification, but it is likely to be a significantly longer period of time and that could be very disruptive to the whole process. Another factor that is increasingly playing out is that, as time goes by, mistrust of North Korea is not decreasing. There is a need for North Korea to demonstrate more transparency about both its past and current nuclear activities. If North Korea does not take concrete steps to demonstrate its transparency, then the entire Agreed Framework could spin apart. North Korea is not required to do anything until a significant portion of the first reactor is completed, but as this process drags on, it is in everyone’s interest for North Korea to demonstrate a greater sense of transparency. A hopeful sign was in the October 12, 2000 U.S.-North Korea Joint CommuniquÈ, in which both sides agreed on the desirability of greater transparency in carrying their respective obligations under the Agreed Framework. Two different types of transparency measures must be addressed. Through the first type of transparency the IAEA must be satisfied with North Korea’s explanation of its past nuclear activities. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea will have to allow the IAEA to visit several undeclared sites and it will have to resolve inconsistencies in North Korea’s declaration. It will have to do that to the satisfaction of the IAEA, a very important phrase in the agreement. The second type of transparency needed concerns dealing with any potential undeclared nuclear activities. There are numerous media reports and leaks from intelligence agencies that North Korea has undeclared nuclear activities. Kumchang-ni was an example of a leak, which turned out to be not true. But again, it is important to determine that North Korea is not building a secret uranium enrichment plant, a secret reactor or a secret plutonium separation plant. Unfortunately, the Kumchang-ni type inspections are not sufficient to develop much confidence that there is an absence of undeclared activities. We may have to wait until this magic date appears where the key components are about to be delivered and then the inspection process will start. The estimates for how long the inspection process will take vary a great deal. The IAEA is saying two to four years, and maybe even closer to four years now. These estimates may be a bit arbitrary. In the case of South Africa, it actually took three years from the time the South Africans agreed to inspections under the NPT until the process was finished. But in the South Africa case, there was no urgency attached. The whole process could have been sped up dramatically if President De Klerk had declared that South Africa had a nuclear weapons program in 1991, instead of in 1993. I think that we should approach these estimates as somewhat under our control. I would like to end with some ideas on how this process could be sped up. I think that from KEDO’s point of view, this is a necessity. From the standpoint of the Agreed Framework, it is not required at all. I would hope that from North Korea’s point of view it is desirable, although that is by no means certain. One of the things that has to happen is that there has to be an assurance that North Korea understands what modern inspections actually are. One of the lessons of the early 1990s is that North Korea did not really understand what was about to hit them. There is a need, particularly with all the changes in safeguards, that North Korea be fully apprised of what is required of them under new procedures. In this case, countries like Australia or possibly Canada, can play important roles in trying to educate the North Koreans and get them on record as saying they understand the kind of things they will have to agree to. More importantly, North Korea needs to take several steps in order to speed up the timetable. One of the easiest steps the North Koreans can take is to cooperate more with the IAEA on the preservation of historical information. This has been a recurring problem since 1994. It is very important, when you are trying to recreate or verify the past, to have access to documents that can confirm what happened. Original documents are important; in South Africa, the IAEA was able to actually date the documents and gain additional confidence through that procedure. Also, part of preservation is making sure the IAEA will have access to people who were involved in the program. That was another step that was taken in South Africa and Iraq. The inspectors were able to interview people and gain much deeper insight into what happened and ultimately gain greater confidence in the veracity of the declaration. North Korea could provide written assurances of its intention to be transparent, at least at the proper moment, including pledges to allow inspectors to go anywhere at any time. North Korea gave this pledge originally, but it withdrew the offer afterwards. Another step that North Korea could take is to allow the IAEA to start implementing safeguards in some of the non-frozen facilities, such as the small Russian supplied research reactor and associated hot cell facility. North Korea could also rejoin the IAEA. It withdrew in 1994 and it is important that North Korea and the Agency start to mend their broken relationship. North Korea could also provide a broader declaration. It does not have to submit a new declaration. The IAEA already asked a list of questions back in late 1992 that North Korea theoretically agreed to answer and that could help resolve most of the inconsistencies in its original declaration. It is important that North Korea actually answer these questions or submit a broader declaration and provide these sooner rather than later. It would be useful if the IAEA could prepare to take samples of the North Korean sites. Some of these sites are very complex to deal with, so it will take time. In the end, North Korea’s commitment or lack of commitment to transparency will be one of the most reliable indicators of its true commitment to denuclearization and peaceful intentions. Certainly, it will not be easy to achieve and is going to be controversial. Even in South Africa, there were many confrontations. They were friendly but still, inspectors had to say, we really want to go here, or we want to know this, and South Africa had to decide whether to agree. So even with full cooperation, inspectors are still going to have problems. Once the inspections start, the IAEA will likely be quick to gain a sense of whether North Korea will be transparent enough or whether the inspection exercise is just an attempt on the part of North Korea to stall for time. We should be very cognizant of that, and be willing to walk away from this agreement if the transparency is not sufficient. Ultimately, this agreement exists to deal with the problem involving nuclear weapons in North Korea. It is not an agreement to build nuclear reactors in North Korea. Therefore, we should take a fairly strict line on the inspections. I should add that that does not mean we are trying to account for every gram of plutonium. Even if the IAEA says North Korea has nine kilograms of plutonium and North Korea says it has ten kilograms, it does not mean that somehow it is unacceptable. We should not be trying to account for everything that North Korea has done. We may have to make compromises on the standards that are applied, and these compromises are made all the time. In South Africa, the sentiment was that if the estimate of the IAEA differed by less than 25 kilograms from the declaration of South Africa—and South Africa produced about 1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium—then South Africa had complied and its declaration was viewed as complete. In the end, they got it down to less than about five kilograms. This concludes my remarks. Thank you.

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