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Samore: More Fluid U.S. Stance on N. Korea Nuclear Weapons

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 23, 2008

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Gary Samore, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Bush administration has agreed to a compromise on demands for North Korea to confess the extent of its uranium-enrichment activities. Samore, a senior arms control negotiator in the Clinton administration, says the compromise is to allow the United States “to get into what it considers to be the most important element of the deal, the negotiation over the actual elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.”

What’s the status of negotiations with North Korea? A year ago, it looked like we had an agreement. Now critics are saying the Bush administration is giving away the store and selling out.

For over a year the talks have been stuck over the issue of North Korea making a declaration of all of its nuclear activities. The main question there is North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge a secret uranium-enrichment program and then more recently, its nuclear assistance to Syria. So the administration has made a compromise with North Korea. In the compromise the North Koreans will declare how much plutonium they’ve produced over the years and instead of North Korea having to directly acknowledge the uranium-enrichment program and their assistance to Syria, the United States will make a statement expressing its belief that these activities have taken place and the North Koreans will not refute or challenge that U.S. statement.

In exchange for that, the United States will take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and remove some of the Trading with the Enemy Act sanctions. Most importantly, once the declaration issue has been resolved, the two sides will begin the serious negotiations over the so-called third phase, which is the plan to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear facilities and eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons. Basically the Bush administration has made a concession or compromise on the North Korean declaration in order to get into what it considers to be the most important element of the deal, the negotiation over the actual elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Now, there is a State Department delegation on its way to Pyongyangas we talk. What is it supposed to accomplish?

My understanding is that they are talking about the verification provisions, especially for North Korea’s plutonium declaration. North Korea, as I understand it, has declared or will declare that it’s produced about thirty kilograms of plutonium. That’s at the low end of U.S. estimates for how much plutonium they have produced over the last twenty years. It will be absolutely essential to have some confidence that’s an accurate number, because the natural suspicion is that North Korea will under declare what they have so that can keep some in secret for possible nuclear weapons. The team that is going to Pyongyang, headed by Sung Kim, who is the director of the Korea office at the State Department, will be to talk about what kinds of measures the North Koreans will allow to verify that their statement of thirty kilograms is accurate. That’s going to be very tricky.

In the past North Korea has rejected intrusive inspection methods designed to try to determine how much plutonium it had actually produced. In fact that was the cause of the original nuclear crisis in 1992. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wanted to visit some suspected nuclear waste sites, which would have shown evidence of North Korean reprocessing, and the North Koreans refused to let the IAEA go to those sites. Then they left the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] and that’s what led to the whole crisis during the Clinton administration [which led to the signing of the Agreed Framework in 1994].

Now I’ve read that the United States has estimated North Korea has produced as much as fifty kilograms.

We don’t know. These are estimates based on how long the reactor is operated. You have to take into consideration that when you reprocess you don’t get all the plutonium out of the spent fuel. Some of it is lost. If the reprocessing facility is sloppy, which I wouldn’t be at all surprised in this case, you could lose 20 or 25 percent of the plutonium in the waste stream. Nobody really knows how much plutonium the North Koreans actually produced.

To get some sense of plutonium, it takes about eight kilograms to make a bomb?

It really depends on the design. Again, we don’t know how efficient the North Korean design is, but something on the order of six to eight kilograms per bomb is probably a pretty conservative estimate for the kind of design we think North Korea is most likely to utilize.

So we’re talking about the possibility that they might be secretly keeping enough plutonium to make a couple of bombs.

That’s the natural suspicion—that the North Koreans have lied about their nuclear program over the decade. The natural suspicion is that they would underreport the amount of plutonium; they would falsify records; they would coax their scientists to give us a false story. So unless we have an independent means of verifying, which means sampling from the reactor the waste that was produced in the reprocessing plant. Unless you get those kinds of physical samples to carry out a real forensic investigation, the verification is not going to be very strong.

What do you think is going on in North Korea? You would think they would have a lot to gain from joining the world of nations, by getting trade and everything else that would help their economy.

Especially now. They’ve had a very bad harvest so they are looking at the likelihood of serious food shortages, maybe as bad as they experienced in the mid-1990s. At the same time the North Korean regime wants to hang on to their nuclear weapons, so they are playing the same game they have always been playing, which is to make concessions to limit their nuclear capabilities in exchange for political and economic compensation, while at the same time hold off and resist pressure to actually give up their nuclear weapons.

I expect that if these third-phase negotiations begin you will see a similar kind of process, where the North Koreans agree in principle to give up their nuclear weapons once peace and prosperity has been established on the Korean peninsula and U.S-North Korea relations are fully normalized. So in other words, they will set conditions which are not likely to be met anytime in the near future.

Let’s come back to this compromise that U.S. negotiator Chris Hill reached with the North Koreans. This is one that is getting criticized by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and other conservatives. Did the Bush administration cause its own problem by taking such a tough line back in 2002 and 2003?

The Bush administration was correct when it reached the conclusion that North Korea was cheating on the Agreed Framework by pursuing a secret uranium-enrichment program, but the way it handled the confrontation with North Korea was very clumsy. North Korea took advantage on our focus on Iraq to leave the NPT and to produce more plutonium and to basically walk away from the Agreed Framework. Then the Bush administration realized that it needed to negotiate but unfortunately it was too late to roll back what the North Koreans had already done.

“The main question there is North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge a secret uranium-enrichment program and then more recently, its nuclear assistance to Syria. The administration has made a compromise with North Korea.”

Now the Bush administration has frozen any further North Korean plutonium production and it has created a good diplomatic framework for the next U.S. administration to pick up the talks. It’s unlikely that you’ll see a deal reached on the third phase during the rest of this administration because North Korea is likely to demand things, like the light-water nuclear-reactor project, that so far the Bush administration has not been willing to give. But at least the talks will get started and will put the next administration in a better position to pick them up and hopefully bring them to a conclusion.

I haven’t seen much said by any of the candidates about North Korea in particular; am I missing something?

No, that’s right. As long as the situation seems to be under control, as long as the negotiations are proceeding, it’s really not a major foreign-policy challenge, especially given all the big problems in the Middle East, Iraq being the first.

If you were in the new administration would you recommend that they do anything different?

The Bush administration has provided a good diplomatic framework for trying to work out an agreement with the North Koreans to eventually give up their nuclear weapons, even though I am skeptical that the North Koreans will actually carry out that commitment. The next administration just has to pick up where this administration leaves off. The big issue, which is sort of out there for these third-phase negotiations, is whether we agree to resume the light-water reactor project. You will remember that in the original Agreed Framework, the North Koreans were to get nuclear power in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons.

We were supposed to supply a light-water reactor?

It was mainly funded by the South Koreans and Japanese but the United States also had to support it because the design was a U.S. design. That project of course was suspended when we found out that North Korea was cheating. The North Koreans are saying they still want that light-water reactor because they need the electrical power.

But for them to get a light water reactor we have to be absolutely certain about what their nuclear situation is?

That’s why the verification is so important. The declaration that the North Koreans have made was always intended to be an initial declaration and the understanding was that unless you verified it, the initial declaration wouldn’t be worth very much. So these talks that are going on in Pyongyang are critically important for the plutonium question; even more difficult will be how to verify eventually the status of the uranium-enrichment program because we know so little about that. At least in the case of the plutonium program we know where the facilities are, so we can go visit the facilities and take physical measurements. In the case of the enrichment program, we don’t even know where it is.

And they’ve denied it all?

Well, yes, they’ve sort of denied it. Apparently they acknowledged it during the 2002 meetings with [James] Kelly [assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs], or at least that’s what our side claims. But the official position of the North Koreans is that they deny it. The evidence that they had or still have a secret enrichment program is very strong. We just don’t know how advanced it is.

Are we worse off now regarding North Korea? They’ve had a nuclear test and built a couple of bombs. Who’s at fault here? The Bush administration, or the North Koreans?

The fundamental fault rests with Pyongyang. They are the ones that decided to renege on the Agreed Framework, although the way the Bush administration handled the discovery of their cheating was not the most effective way to go about it. Taking on Iraq and North Korea at the same time created an opening for the North Koreans to walk away from the Agreed Framework with impunity.

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