Thursday, January 17, 2008

North Korea Nutshell: Missing the Point

The Six-Party Talks remain stalled this week over the issue of whether or not North Korea has offered a “complete declaration” of its nuclear program. The North continues to hold fast to its position that it has already revealed what it promised to the United States despite the fact the Amb. Hill has repeatedly stated that whatever he was shown in the last few months has not been up to par with what the U.S. would consider acceptable.

But while the negotiators continue to haggle over aluminum tubes, an important opportunity is being wasted. Little over a week ago, North Korea referred to having 30kg of separated plutonium in its possession as part of an overall statement concerning the declaration they had prepared in November of last year. As usual, David Albright and the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) picked up on this and issued a quick analysis that can be found here.

Using the data they computed in their previous work on possible North Korean plutonium production, Albright and his team determined that if the 30kg referred only to the amount of plutonium that was gained from reprocessing spent fuel that had been unloaded from the 5 megawatt reactor, then this amount fell within the projected levels. So, while others seem to be unable to concentrate on anything but the uranium program and what was in a blown-up facility in Syria (still important questions), possible progress in getting to the bottom of the most dangerous part of North Korea’s nuclear program isn't being pursued. The ISIS report sums this point up nicely:

Although North Korea’s declaration must be viewed as a partial one, it should be seen as an initial step in a process aimed at achieving a complete declaration. An initial verification process could be initiated by representatives of the Six Party Talks or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who would seek clarifications and additions to that declaration. North Korea has stated that it is willing to provide more details about its plutonium stock, including the amount of plutonium separated during each reprocessing campaign and the amount of plutonium used in the October 2006 nuclear test. The verification process would need to establish confidence that North Korea declares all of its plutonium, including the total amount of plutonium produced and its subsequent separation and use.
By focusing on plutonium, the negotiators would zero in on the material in North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which are the primary target of any denuclearization effort. Few believe anymore that North Korea developed a program to produce highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Given the relative importance of North Korea’s plutonium stocks, it would be regrettable if progress were stymied over the issue of uranium. Negotiators should keep the uranium issue in perspective—continue seeking information to clarify North Korea’s actions, but not risk fatal damage to the larger denuclearization process over a uranium enrichment program that fewer and fewer believe ever produced highly enriched uranium (HEU).

Confidence in the Six Party Process continues to be lost each passing day. Once the important question of what to do with the spent fuel from the disabled reactor at Yongbyon is answered, there will be very little left to point to as representing continuing cooperation. Taking up the plutonium issue at this juncture, and designing and implementing an initial verification process, would kill two birds with one stone. North Korea would have an avenue by which it could continue to show it is cooperating with the Six Parties and we could begin to get answers to the most important questions we have about the North Korean nuclear program.

This all seems even more vital given the dismal state of planning towards how we are going to verify the North Korean declaration. Andreas Persbo, an outside government expert on verification, painted a grim picture after attending a conference in England last year:
I asked, in one of the plenary sessions, how the six parties intend to verify the forthcoming North Korean declaration and was greeted with silence. Afterwards, one of the insiders said that the reasons why no one can answer how verification should be conducted, is because verification has not been discussed yet. The six parties are truly implementing the agreement by the seat of their pants.

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