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Samore: North Korea May Delay Nuclear Treaty Implementation Until 2009

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 25, 2008

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Gary Samore, an arms control official in the Clinton administration, says the prevailing view in the Bush administration is that North Korea is unlikely to carry out the terms of the international nuclear disarmament agreement it signed in February 2007 until there is a new president in the White House. He says U.S. officials believe that “the North Koreans are certainly not, in the remainder of this year, going to give up their nuclear weapons.”

There’s been a certain amount of public confusion over whether North Korea is complying with the agreement it made at the Six-Party Talks last year, to close down the Yongbyon reactor and also provide full declaration of its past nuclear activities by last December 31 and eventually to close down all these activities. What’s causing this confusion?

You have to separate the two steps that North Korea was required to take. The first step was to disable the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. North Korea, in fact, has taken most of the steps required to disable the five-megawatt reactor. So it would not be easy for North Korea to resume production of plutonium. At the same time it appears that the reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon facility is still intact, so in theory, if the North Koreans wanted to play hardball, if they wanted to create a crisis, they could reprocess the spent fuel they already have on hand to recover enough plutonium for a weapon or two. They still have a threat in their arsenal even though the five-megawatt reactor has been pretty much disabled.

Weren’t they supposed to close down the reprocessing plant too?

Yes, part of the agreement is to disable both the reactor and the reprocessing facility. But the North Koreans have slowed down the disablement, in part because they are complaining that the heavy fuel oil, which they are getting paid in return for disabling the facilities, has been slow in coming. In part, this is because the second step of the process, the “nuclear declaration,” has completely gone off the rail. When Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was in Pyongyang in November, he was shown a draft declaration by the North Koreans. Hill told them that the declaration was completely inadequate in terms of the amount of plutonium that it declared, in terms of its explanation of North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment, and in terms of what the North said about possible nuclear exports to Syria. Hill told the North Koreans that unless they gave him a more credible, plausible declaration he would not be able to sell it back in Washington. In return for a plausible declaration, the United States has promised to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The process is stuck now because North Korea has not given Hill a plausible declaration.

Is there a new deadline?

I don’t think the administration wants to set a deadline. It is hoping that when the new South Korean government takes office in February—the new president-elect, Lee Myung-bak, has campaigned on a platform of being tougher with North Korea—that this might influence the North Koreans to make a more forthcoming declaration. That remains to be seen. It may be that the North Koreans have decided they are just going to freeze the process and wait until the next U.S.president takes office and then resume the negotiations. They may come forward with a more forthcoming declaration in the hopes of getting off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Or they might, if they want to escalate, threaten to stop the disablement process and to actually separate plutonium from the spent fuel they have on hand. They have options in front of them.

In an article by nuclear experts David Albright and Jacqueline Shire that appeared in the Washington Post on Thursday [January 24, 2008], they said that North Korea had revealed that it had a separated plutonium stockpile of thirty kilograms and denied that it had a uranium enrichment program. Were the North Koreans that specific?

That’s my understanding. The problem is that [chief U.S. negotiator] Chris Hill was expecting a much bigger number. Privately he has been saying the number would be closer to sixty. The natural question is why did the North Koreans come in with a very low number? David Albright is right; thirty kilograms is still within the range, because we don’t know of course how much plutonium they actually have, but it’s at the lower end of the range. The natural suspicion is that North Korea has deliberately given us a low number so they can hide the other twenty or thirty kilograms that they have. Chris Hill just thought that thirty kilograms wasn’t credible enough to take back to Washington. On the uranium- enrichment side, we know that we have extremely good information that the North Koreans were out trying to buy large quantities of specialized materials of components for enrichment programs.

It may be that the North Koreans have decided they are just going to freeze the process and wait until the next U.S. president takes office and then resume the negotiations.

Some of their efforts to buy this specialty material were intercepted and stopped mid-shipment. We know that they were trying to buy very large quantities; enough for thousands of centrifuges. For the North Koreans to come back and say “we didn’t really have an enrichment program” just is not plausible.

This is the issue which halted the North Korea-U.S. talks in 2002, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. The CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] concluded that North Korea was cheating on the Agreed Framework, signed by the Clinton administration in 1994, by pursuing the secret enrichment program. That judgment was correct. What we don’t know is how far that program went. We know that North Korea got a small quantity of centrifuge machines from Pakistan. We know that they were out trying to buy much larger quantities of raw material, which would allow them to reverse engineer and build thousands of centrifuge machines. But how far that program proceeded and what the status is now, we just don’t know. Unless North Korea comes forward with a more plausible explanation rather than just denying everything, then the whole process of an accurate declaration is at a standstill.

If they don’t comply then they don’t get the oil?

No, there’s a separation for disablement of Yongbyon, for which they are getting the oil, and the declaration, for which they would be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In theory, the process could be on hold for the rest of this year. As long as they don’t reverse disablement, they would continue to get paid the heavy fuel oil.

What do they still have to do on disablement?

My understanding is they have done most of what needs to be done on the five-megawatt reactor. There’s still a question of how to dispose of the existing spent fuel, which has to be removed from the reactor and stored in a cooling pond right on site. As I understand it, they still have to take some steps to disable the reprocessing facility but that’s on the very end of the list. My guess is that the North Koreans are holding that in reserve as it allows them to threaten to resume reprocessing.

Let’s talk about Jay Lefkowitz, who is a human rights ambassador on North Korea. He says the North Koreans are not going to comply and it’s all a failure by the Bush administration. What do you make of his comments?

He said publicly what a lot of administration officials believe privately—that the North Koreans are certainly not, in the remainder of this year, going to give up their nuclear weapons. And it looks like they may not even submit a credible declaration, in which case the whole process would stop. In that case, the next administration would have to pick the whole issue up.

Do you think the North Koreans now figure they should wait for the next administration?

Everybody in Asia is beginning to think beyond the Bush administration, and in the view of all the important players—China, South Korea, Japan and North Korea—the Bush administration has very little time left in order to make much more progress with the North Koreans. That doesn’t mean it is all over. It is still possible that the North Koreans would make a credible declaration, in which case, the United States would remove them from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the next steps in the process would begin, which would include negotiations for a peace treaty, and negotiations for the dismantlement and removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But the longer this stalemate goes on, the more and more it looks like the North Koreans might have decided they would be better off trying to make a deal with the next administration.

If the North Koreans wanted to play hardball, if they wanted to create a crisis, they could reprocess the spent fuel they already have on hand to recover enough plutonium for a weapon or two.

That’s one subject that most candidates seem to have avoided speaking about. I know they all have prepared statements.

It’s true. What is interesting is that the Democrats are more sympathetic and supportive of the new approach the Bush administration has taken than the Republican candidates. At least in the past, Senator John McCain [R-AZ] has been very critical of this kind of approach which the Clinton administration began in trying to negotiate these kinds of incremental arms-control agreements with North Korea. So my guess is that Senator McCain is not very sympathetic with what President Bush has done, but there is very little value in raising this issue as long as the situation seems to be under control. It is certainly not a crisis that any of the candidates have to address.

Do we know for sure how many nuclear weapons North Korea possesses?

We can guesstimate based on our estimates of how much plutonium they have and how much would be required for each weapon. Those are the two variables. It is reasonable to say that they have something on the order of less than a dozen weapons unless they have some sources of plutonium that we don’t know about.

What kinds of weapons are these?

These would be simple weapons.

Missile warheads?

It is another uncertainty. We don’t know if the North Koreans can build warheads small enough to be delivered by the No-dong missile. That’s an interesting issue because we know that the Pakistani bomb will fit on the No-dong missile. That’s why Pakistan bought the No-dong missile. The question which has never been fully answered is whether in addition to providing centrifuge technology, the Pakistanis might have provided nuclear-warhead technology to North Korea, in which case the North Koreans would have in their possession the nuclear design that is capable of being delivered by missile. That’s just speculation. We don’t know the answer.

What about the Syrian connection—the secret Israeli bombing of a facility in Syria, said to have been put together with North Korean help?

I still hear different things. The Israelis are absolutely convinced that they bombed a nuclear reactor under construction and that the North Koreans were providing technical assistance and material for that project. Some people in the U.S. administration accept that. Others are more skeptical and say it was a kind of military facility but whether it was nuclear is really in doubt. Amazingly enough, unlike most situations, not enough has come out in the public domain to make an independent judgment. The people who are reviewing the actual evidence are not talking.

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