Tuesday, January 8, 2008

North Korea Nutshell: The Return of the Light Water Reactors

The North Korean nuclear negotiations are heading towards a pretty important impasse. North Korea claims that it has met its end of the October 3rd deal by making serious progress in disablement and presenting some sort of declaration of its nuclear program to the United States.

Amb. Chris Hill made it pretty clear, especially with the personal letter from President Bush, that the North Koreans still had not entirely fulfilled their end of the bargain and that a more complete declaration would need to be submitted to China (the chair of the 6-Party Talks) before moving forward. The U.S. and other parties still need more information about North Korean efforts towards a uranium enrichment capability and any possible proliferation issues (ie. Syria). There also still may be an issue with Pyongyang’s reporting of plutonium stocks, as the North Korean Ministry recently issued a statement that listed the production at 30kg. U.S. experts place the likely levels of plutonium closer to 50-70kg. The difference is enough to produce several nuclear weapons.

All is not lost, however, as the disablement of the last of the three nuclear facilities at Yongbyon continues and should likely be finished in the next three months. This timeline for completion is somewhat longer than what the U.S. had expected, but it seems that one of the ways North Korea is expressing its displeasure over delayed aid shipments is by reducing staff levels working on disabling the nuclear reactor.

Every expert I talk to concerning this issue gives me approximately the same quote: The North Koreans are going to make this take as long as they can so they can sell us their nuclear program one screw at a time. Given this view, the North’s latest pronouncements seem like yet another attempt to wring further concessions from the 6-Parties. This view tends to be reinforced by the fact that we are now seeing the reemergence of the issue of Light Water Reactors (LWR) in the negotiations.

The Agreed Framework of 1994 had provided the North Koreans with 2 LWR’s in return for the dismantlement of their older, more proliferation friendly graphite reactors. North Korea places a high value on not being beholden to foreign powers for anything and given their extremely large domestic uranium mines, they see nuclear power as essential to their economic development. The building of these reactors never really progressed beyond the initial stages because of a mixture of North Korea continuing to resist IAEA inspections while provoking it neighbors and a hesitation by Congress to fund the project.

In the last few months we have seen a resumption of the request by the North Koreans. What makes this interesting is that a highly regarded figure on North Korean issues, Robert Gallucci, has come out in favor of providing the LWRs. It is not completely surprising that Gallucci would support this move as he was the lead negotiator for the United States in the ’94 deal that included the LWRs. However, it is interesting that he chose to bring it up while talking to reporters during a recent trip to Seoul.

Gallucci made the trip to South Korea as a member of an elite group of officials that went to advise the newly elected President Lee on steps that could be taken to better strengthen their relationship with the United States. The history of U.S.-North Korean negotiations is full of similar situations where important figures float new diplomatic initiatives during their trips to Asia. Whether this is one of those times or just the personal thoughts of a concerned observer, the LWR issue does have the potential to break the current stalemate.

There are two important things that Gallucci discussed that must be kept in mind when considering the viability of LWRs for North Korea. The first is that these reactors use enriched uranium for fuel, as opposed to graphite reactors which use raw uranium, so that the DPRK would need to purchase its fuel from an outside source, and that this would lead to a far greater level of transparency with the North’s nuclear program. The other thing to remember is that the spent fuel from LWRs is not very suitable for plutonium reprocessing which could be then lead to material for nuclear weapons.

North Korea already has significant knowledge on developing nuclear power and is likely to pursue this avenue in the future even under significant international pressure. If the 6-Party talks are able to succeed in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and begins the process of opening them up to more normal relations with the international community (and I understand this is a big if), providing LWRs can help to meet the goals of all concerned parties.

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