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Nuclear Agreement with North Korea Is 'A Useful Initial Step'

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 26, 2008

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Gary Samore, who was a senior arms control negotiator in the Clinton administration, says North Korea's submission of a declaration on its nuclear activities, and the lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang by the United States marks "a useful initial step." But considerable work still needs to be done to ensure that North Korea is confirmed to have disarmed in the nuclear field. "All of the remaining issues—accounting for the enrichment program, accounting for North Korean proliferation activity, disabling other nuclear facilities and, of course, removing their plutonium and nuclear weapons—are more difficult issues," he says.

North Korea has presented to the six-party conference in Beijing its report on its nuclear activities. And then almost immediately President Bush issued a statement saying he intended to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and to lift the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act in regard to North Korea. What happened?

The basic core of the deal is that North Korea has taken the final steps to disable the Yongbyon nuclear facility and to declare how much plutonium it produced at that facility. In exchange, the United States has taken steps to lift economic and political sanctions against North Korea, in particular the Trading with the Enemy Act and the sanctions against North Korea for being on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This was a statement North Korea was supposed to turn in at the end of last year, as I understand. A six-month delay in the world of diplomacy is not a huge thing, and I suppose the document that was received is rather detailed. Do we have any idea of what's in it?

There were two issues that caused the delay. The first was the abductee issue, which greatly concerns Japan. The United States worked with Japan and North Korea to come up with a side deal that satisfied the Japanese who have been concerned about Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea in the past. The side deal basically was that North Korea would resume bilateral discussion with Japan on questions about the abductee issue.

The second stumbling block, which took a fair amount of work to resolve, was what measures North Korea would allow to verify the declaration they've made about their plutonium production. That was a key issue because even though the North Koreans have apparently handed over to the United States the operation records of the reactor and the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, the only way to really be confident that those records are full and accurate is to carry out scientific tests and measurements at the facility. And as I understand it, there has been a negotiation between U.S. and North Korean experts on what kinds of forensic evidence could be collected and also on who would actually be involved in that work. Would China or Russia be involved? To what extent would the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] be involved? And all of those issues had to be hammered out before the United States was prepared to accept the North Korean declaration. As I understand, the North Korean declaration says that they've produced something on the order of thirty-seven kilograms of plutonium over the course of the operating period of the Yongbyon facility [which began as an experimental reactor in 1980]. And the United States will try to verify that during the forty-five day period it takes for North Korea to be officially removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Is this possible to verify actually?

If the North Koreans cooperate and they allow the kind of sampling that the scientists would like to take, it is possible with considerable confidence to verify the declaration. Whether you can do it in forty-five days though is another question. That may be very difficult. Normally, this kind of process would take a little bit longer than that. So I'm not sure it can be done that quickly, but if the North Koreans allow the kind of tests that U.S. scientists would like to take, we can be pretty confident that we will be able to verify the declaration.

The total of thirty-seven kilograms is somewhat less than what the United States had estimated, isn't it? I thought the United States estimated North Korea had about sixty kilograms.

The United States estimated a range because we didn't really know, of course, how much they produced. And the range has been between thirty and forty and sixty. So thirty-seven is certainly at the low end of what the United States has estimated in the past, but that's not surprising, because the U.S. intelligence community naturally intends to do a worst-case assessment. In reality, the North Koreans have probably run into some problems and inefficiencies over the years in terms of operating these facilities.

The United States has been pressing for some disclosure on a possible enriched-uranium program the North Koreans had allegedly undertaken. When we talked in April, you were fairly confident that the intelligence information was pretty good, that they had at least tried to start an enriched uranium program. Where do we stand on that?

In order to get this deal, the Bush administration compromised on both the secret enrichment program and on North Korea 's proliferation activities in support of other countries, like Syria. In both cases, the United States has made a statement about its beliefs that North Korea has provided assistance to countries like Syria and has engaged in a secret enrichment program. And the North Koreans have agreed not to refute the statement. But basically this kicks the can down the road. In the next phase of negotiations, the United States will try to get from North Korea an agreement to be transparent about both its enrichment and proliferation activities. And the United States will try to reach agreement with the North on some kind of verification mechanism in order to have confidence that North Koreans statements are accurate. Both of those issues are going to be extraordinarily difficult to resolve. Verifying the plutonium production is relatively easy because you are dealing with known facilities. To verify the enrichment activities will be very tough because we don't really know much about the location or how advanced the program was. There is good reason to believe there was or still is a program, but it's hard to verify something when you know very little about it.

We know they got some centrifuges from A.Q. Khan in Pakistan and that they tried to import materials to replicate centrifuges. This is not so easy, I would assume. The United States doesn't really know how many centrifuges they have, does it?

That's correct. All we know is that they got the technology from Pakistan, with a couple of sample machines, and we know that they've tried to purchase much larger quantities of raw material, which could be used to make a large number of centrifuges. But we don't really have a very good idea how advanced the program is and what its status is. We've also found some samples of enriched uranium on items that have come from North Korea, including, apparently, the actual operating records that the North Koreans turned over to us. We found on them particles of enriched uranium. We're going to have to try to figure out where that came from, whether it was contamination or whether it reflects enriched uranium produced in North Korea.

You've been following this issue since the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994. How will this be remembered? Is this a plus for U.S. diplomacy? Did Bush make too many compromises, as critics say, just to get an agreement?

It's a useful initial step. Under this agreement, North Korea is not able to produce any more plutonium, at least from the known facilities. It also identifies the total amount of plutonium that they have on hand, so if we ever do reach the point of disarmament, we'll know when we've been able to capture and remove all of the existing plutonium. But as Bush said, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done in order to finish the job. And all of the remaining issues—accounting for the enrichment program, accounting for North Korean proliferation activity, disabling other nuclear facilities and, of course, removing their plutonium and nuclear weapons—are more difficult issues. And those are very unlikely to be resolved during the Bush administration's remaining months in office.

Do you think North Korea is signaling that it wants to enter the wider world? That it wants to end its self-imposed isolation?

I actually don't. The North Korean strategy has been very consistent for almost the last two decades. They're prepared to sell bits and pieces of their nuclear program in exchange for concrete economic and political benefits. But they are not willing to give the program away completely. That is the strategy that they have pursued very consistently. So they want access to the outside world to the extent that it brings them food and fertilizer and heavy fuel oil and cash, but they are very much afraid of a full embrace with the outside world, which in their view would undercut the survival of the regime.

The fact sheet the State Department put out this morning indicates that most of the trade restrictions on North Korea have already, more or less, been lifted, but that there are other Security Council sanctions stemming from the North Korean nuclear test in 2006. Can you describe these? What is North Korea able to do on trade with the United States?

The most significant impact from the lifting of sanctions will be to make North Korea eligible for financial assistance from the international financial institutions, like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Under current U.S. legislation, the United States is required to oppose any loans or assistance from those international financial institutions. But once North Korea is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in theory, they are eligible for support from these institutions—whether they get that support is a different matter. In terms of a bilateral trade relationship, I don't think it has any significant implications. In any event, American business is not clamoring to invest in North Korea even if the sanctions are lifted.

So the next administration will obviously have to continue these negotiations. I haven't seen much said by either Senators Barack Obama or John McCain on this issue recently. Have you?

I haven't seen much either. I assume both campaigns will react to this announcement today. But my feeling is that whoever is elected is very likely to continue to pursue the current Bush approach, as long as it continues to produce concrete results. Obviously if North Korea refuses to cooperate or if they do something outrageous, then the next administration may need to take a different approach. As long as the incremental quid pro quo strategy is making progress in terms of limiting North Korea's nuclear program and at least moving in the direction of disarmament, I think the next administration will keep moving in that direction. We can't ignore North Korea, we can't force them to give up their nukes, so the only strategy that is left is the incremental quid pro quo strategy.

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