Yongbyon redux

Mar 09 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Ariane Tabatabai, London

North Korea and the US announced recently that they have reached an agreement whereby North Korea undertakes to stop conducting nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to halt nuclear activities at the Yongbyon facility. Importantly, the DPRK has also announced it shall allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors back to Yongbyon to confirm aspects of this suspension. The UN nuclear watchdog has stated that its inspectors are ready to monitor the key site. Given the fractious relationship the DPRK has had with Agency inspectors, how might this long-awaited return play out, and where might the limits of North Korean cooperation lie?

‘Green shoots’ of a new bilateral relationship?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has, once again, pledged to make some concessions on its nuclear programme. The news comes less than three months after the death of Kim Jong-Il and the coming to power of Kim Jong-Un. The agreement reached between the US and the DPRK involves an American pledge to fulfil the 240,000 metric-ton food aid requested by Pyongyang. In return, North Korea has agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and nuclear activities at the Yongbyon site. This site has been the home of the majority of North Korea’s known nuclear programme, and throughout its life has housed a number of reactors and related support facilities. As part of this agreement, North Korea will allow IAEA inspectors to return to this facility for the first time since 2009 to confirm the cessation of uranium enrichment and the disablement of an old nuclear reactor.

Following Pyongyang’s statement, the IAEA announced it was standing ‘ready to return to Yongbyon to undertake monitoring activities upon request and with the agreement of the agency’s Board of Governors.’ Both the Agency and the international community as a whole are quite familiar with such signs of growing cooperation from North Korea, particularly from the recently-deceased Kim Jong-Il. Unfortunately these signs have more often than not proved to be fleeting. Pyongyang has usually taken one step forward, two steps back, falling short of fulfilling its end of the bargain. But in light of the recent change in its leadership, commentators are hopeful that North Korea may be committed to materializing some of its promises this time.

No option can be ruled out in the case of the DPRK. However, a sudden shift towards permanent transparency and cooperation in the verification process seems unlikely, as it would reveal more information than the leadership might want to disclose. Indeed, the news comes in as verification experts try to address new allegations. These include claims that the Hermit State, which has an uncertain stockpile of weapons-usable nuclear material, may have conducted two underground nuclear tests in May 2010, while potentially being involved in illicit nuclear trafficking.

Verification in the DPRK so far…
North Korea under Kim Jong-Il had a record of engaging the international community and securing aid, before taking a step back and refusing to fulfil its end of the agreement. The IAEA has visited North Korea a number of times through their safeguards agreement, technically still active, and later through negotiated verification frameworks. On these occasions cooperation from North Korea was intermittent, and inspectors have been ejected from the country on more than one occasion. While cooperation lasted, inspector activities were either limited or produced worrying conclusions.

Given that a number of previous inspections bear a striking resemblance to those recently proposed, this history is not encouraging. The DPRK-US Agreed Framework, signed in 1994, provided that the IAEA would monitor the ‘freeze on the DPRK graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities’ in tandem with its regular safeguards verification activities. Under this framework the Agency was able to maintain a continuous, though limited, eight-year-long presence at Yongbyon, implementing inspections at a number of facilities and monitoring the reactor freeze. The inspections were halted in 2002 as a result of a controversy generated by the US, according to which the North had an undeclared uranium enrichment programme. Ten days after the departure of the Agency’s inspectors from the Hermit State, Pyongyang announced an unprecedented step: its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In 2003 the first round of the Six-Party Talks began, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. These talks led to the issuance of a Joint Statement in 2005 by all parties, in which North Korea undertook to halt its nuclear weapons programme and to return to the NPT and Agency safeguards in exchange for economic aid and security assurances. However only one year later North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Despite this setback, negotiations within the Six-Party Talks continued and in 2007 the parties agreed on initial actions to implement the 2005 Joint Statement. In a similar manner to the recent announcements, the DPRK agreed to ‘shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility, and invite back Agency personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verification as agreed between the IAEA and the DPRK’.

While the Agency was able to confirm the shutdown of all facilities related to these initial actions, their activities were strictly limited to these actions alone. The accounting for, or verification of, nuclear materials under their safeguards agreement was kept firmly off the table. After this initial step forward, the DPRK decided to take two steps back. After being condemned by the UN Security Council for missile testing, the DPRK asked the inspectors to leave, yet again, and announced that it was reactivating its nuclear programme. This was followed, only a month later, by a second North Korean nuclear test. Since then the Agency has not been allowed back into Yongbyon.

Recent developments and impact on verification
As the Agency prepares for another return to Yongbyon, it will be keenly aware of a number of questions regarding the North Korean nuclear programme that are, and will likely remain, unanswered. As an unnamed source close to the six-party talks has been quoted by Asahi Shumbun; ‘Yongbyon is nothing but a show window’. According to the source, ‘North Korea could not care less even if it suspends activity (in Yongbyon) and readmits inspectors.’ While North Korea has been in self-imposed exile from the international nonproliferation regime, the Agency has kept a close eye on nuclear activities in North Korea, both inside and outside Yongbyon. In both cases there have been worrying developments.

While activities at the new uranium enrichment facility revealed to Stanford scientist Dr. Siegfried Hecker have been included in the Agency’s monitoring remit, it is not clear whether the new nuclear reactor under construction at the site will be. It has been estimated that this new reactor, situated in the shadow of one of its deactivated predecessors, will require several tonnes of enriched uranium fuel to operate. Although North Korea has agreed to suspend all nuclear activities at Yongbyon, if the Agency is not allowed to include this new construction in its activities it will be hard to verify the fulfilment of this agreement. In the same vein, if the Agency were able to confirm the cessation of enrichment at Yongbyon but not the halted construction of this new reactor, it would be hard to suppress suspicions that there may be an undisclosed source of fuel outside Yongbyon.

Suggestions have also emerged that North Korea may have conducted two further nuclear tests in 2010. Swedish defence researcher Lars-Erik De Geer has produced research soon to be published in Science & Global Security which hints that radioactive isotopes detected in Russia and South Korea indicate some type of nuclear explosion in North Korea. Although considerable uncertainty still exists regarding these conclusions, their publication in the lead-up to the Agency’s return will only highlight the limited scope for verification progress.

Once more unto the breach
Very little has been decided regarding the eventual verification process that will be undertaken at Yongbyon, and the suggestions that exist in the recent announcements are not consistent. While the US has announced that the moratorium will concern both the uranium enrichment facility and previously-disabled reactor, Pyongyang has only officially mentioned the former. However, a U.S. senior administration official has confirmed that both aspects were indeed covered during the negotiations, and that both should be subject to IAEA verification.

Even in the best case scenario, IAEA confirmation of the complete cessation of nuclear activities at Yongbyon will not allay the fears surrounding the North Korean nuclear programme. As Dr. Hecker told the US Congress in 2004; 'a “deterrent” [needs] to have at least three components: 1) The ability to make plutonium metal, 2) the ability to design and build a nuclear device, and 3) the ability to integrate the nuclear device into a delivery system. What we saw at Yongbyon was that they apparently have the capability to do the first.' Although the IAEA may be able to monitor the removal of the first component, they will be unable to address the remaining two. Unless North Korea takes an unexpectedly transparent approach, it is also unlikely the Agency will be able to gain solid knowledge of existing stocks of weapons-usable plutonium. Previous estimates of these stocks have fallen between 50 and 60kg.

As the Agency awaits the initiation of dialogue from North Korea on the particulars of their verification visit, much remains to be clarified as to their remit. Which ‘associated facilities’, for instance, will be covered? Will the new reactor under construction be included along with the spent fuel reprocessing facility known to exist at Yongbyon? It is likely that for the Agency, the truly challenging work will begin now as they negotiate a verification framework with North Korea that will allow them to achieve the goals set by both the US and their eventual hosts. Given the previous record with North Korea, and the modest expectations of the US negotiating team responsible for securing the recent agreement, it is prudent to expect that North Korean transparency will be kept to the bare minimum consistent with their announcement.

The United States’ expectations that the DPRK take steps towards irreversible denuclearization, as expressed in their background briefing is certainly not attainable overnight, regardless of change in the country’s leadership. This process may indeed be more challenging than previously experienced, given the brief delay after Kim Jong-Il’s death and his son’s access to power, a period where the regime’s stability can be tested. Given the previous history with similar verification visits, the international community may not be ready to trust any step towards denuclearisation, no matter how small, without a solid verification process in operation.

Clearly, concrete steps towards an irreversible denuclearisation process under IAEA monitoring must be undertaken to establish this long-lost trust in the DPRK. Should the North decide to comply with its engagements this time around, such a process may reach inception. This would be a major step forward, enlightening us on one of the most enigmatic nuclear weapons programmes currently in existence. It is quite possible however that history will repeat itself, and that the DPRK will take one cooperative step forward, only to take two steps back. Nevertheless, getting feet on the ground, even for a short while, will still be beneficial. Given the conspicuous lack of hard, contemporary information available to the IAEA, even a brief period of access should still be seen as a good thing.


Last changed: Mar 10 2012 at 1:46 AM




Shakespeare By Guest on Mar 14 2012 at 11:29 AM
Hugh are you meaning to quote Shakespeare with \"Once more unto the breach\"?
if so it\'s \"into\".

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