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Research Story of the Week
The Status of North Korea's Nuclear Inspections
by Dan Pinkston
Despite President George W. Bush's recent harsh words for North Korea, Washington and Pyongyang do have one arms control agreement: The Agreed Framework. However, the agreement has not been fully implemented, and it is now under the threat of collapse unless North Korea accepts full nuclear safeguards inspections. The 1994 agreement froze North Korea's nuclear program, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify whether or not any plutonium separated before the freeze was diverted for military use. Given North Korea's resources and past behavior, enough plutonium could have been reprocessed for one or two bombs, and recently the U.S. National Intelligence Council revealed that U.S. analysts had assumed since the mid-1990s that the material had been fabricated into weapons.
The Agreed Framework provides that North Korea must come into full compliance with its safeguards commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) before critical components are delivered for two light water reactors under construction at Kumho, which are being provided under the Agreed Framework. Construction of the reactors began in September 2001, which puts the project well behind its target completion date of 2003. Nevertheless, the IAEA's retrospective inspections will have to begin soon, probably this year, if further delays are to be avoided.
In late May 2001, an IAEA delegation visited Pyongyang to discuss a timetable to initiate safeguards inspections, including the two suspect waste sites at Yongbyon, believed to contain evidence of North Korea's past plutonium reprocessing activities. North Korea has steadfastly refused IAEA requests for access to the sites, but will be required to grant this in order to fulfill its obligations under the Agreed Framework. As suggested by the IAEA, the inspections are to proceed with the following "three-step" process:
For North Korea to come into full safeguards compliance, the most critical parts of the inspection process will be the 8,000 canned spent fuel rods, the core of the 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon, and the two suspect waste sites. To begin the process, the IAEA has asked Pyongyang to take two initial concrete steps: 1) allow inspection of the small isotope production laboratory at Yongbyon; and 2) allow inspection of some of the canned spent fuel rods that are sitting in a cooling pond at the Yongbyon 5 MW reactor. The first step is said to be "cosmetic," but the inspection of the fuel rods would be the true beginning of the process to verify the completeness and correctness of North Korea's initial declaration to the IAEA in 1992. In January 2002, an IAEA delegation paid a "visit" to the isotope production laboratory, although there have been no published results of the delegations findings.
North Korea has yet to grant permission for the next step in the
process, ostensibly because of delays in the provision of the light water
reactors under the Agreed Framework. However, Pyongyang has not rejected the
process either. Progress will now depend upon a political decision in Pyongyang,
which could be strongly influenced by U.S.-North Korea bilateral relations.
However, progress may require more than just political will. When the spent fuel
rods were removed from the Yongbyon reactor in May 1994, Korean
engineers mixed up the fuel rods in the cooling pond without IAEA oversight,
making it difficult to reconstruct the reactor's past operation, and to
estimate the amount of plutonium that North Korea could have produced. The IAEA
has reportedly drafted detailed plans to carry out the inspections, and is
working on a special device or devices to inspect the core of the 5 MW reactor
at Yongbyon. But the necessary equipment might not be ready until 2003.
Even if the political obstacles are quickly surmounted, technical glitches
could still delay the inspection process.
Monterey Institute Experts on North Korea:
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