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North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program: The Latest

February 29, 2012

A satellite image of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea, in 2006.
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Today, the State Department surprised North Korea watchers with the following announcement:

“The DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.”

Despite U.S. policy that food aid should only be based on three criteria—need, severity of need compared to other countries, and satisfactory monitoring systems—the same press release also announced a “targeted U.S. program consisting of an initial 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance.”

Anyone with a long-term memory (or access to Google) should be deeply skeptical of this latest agreement with North Korea. The North Korean government has made a number of similar promises regarding its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in the past, including the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, 1994 Agreed Framework, 2002 agreement with Japan (in which Pyongyang promised not to test long-range missiles), and 2006 Six-Party Talks agreement. None of these were fulfilled.

This afternoon, in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Representative Howard Berman echoed this widely-held skepticism: “You know, I know, the chair knows, we all know, that we’ve been down this road several times. Hopefully, this time North Korea will keep its promises.”

A few thoughts:

First, this is a very limited agreement that does not begin to cover all of North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons activities. The 5-MW reactor and reprocessing facility at Yongbyon were basically dismantled under the observation of U.S. experts from October 2007 until April 2009, when they were expelled by the North Korean government. In November 2010, the Institute for Science and International Security released satellite photographs of new construction at Yongbyon, which might have involved a new experimental light-water reactor. While Yongbyon should be a high-priority intelligence collection and analysis target for the United States, the presence of IAEA or American inspectors on the ground could be decisive in verifying the extent of nuclear activity at the facility.

However, the more important site to observe and monitor is the gas centrifuge facility, also at Yongbyon, which was shown to an unofficial U.S. delegation in November 2010. It is estimated to be capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon per year. In addition, the United States believes there are other clandestine enrichment facilities. In December 2010, Glyn Davies, formerly the permanent representative to the IAEA and now the special envoy for North Korea, warned, “There is a clear likelihood that DPRK has built other uranium enrichment-related facilities in its territory.”

Second, according to Secretary Clinton, today’s announcement was only brokered between the United States and North Korea. Since the first Six-Party Talks (involving North Korea, South Korea, United States, China, Russia, and Japan) in August 2003, both the Bush and Obama administrations have emphasized the need for a regional approach to a comprehensive agreement. Such a regional approach would include the minimum requirements of U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan (who want an end to military provocations and the return of kidnapped Japanese remains), as well as Russia and China (who want to avoid or mitigate the sudden collapse of North Korea). Presumably, follow-up discussions with Pyongyang will be broadened to include the other four members of the Six-Party talks.

Third, the agreement will restart the provision of much-needed U.S. food aid to vulnerable populations. According to the New York Times, the aid will be “limited to high-protein biscuits, infant formula and other nutritional supplements, rather than rice and grains,” which can be more easily diverted by the regime.  The latest joint UN Food and Agricultural Organization-World Food Program report, Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, noted: “The planned commercial imports and recommended food assistance do not fill the entire uncovered food deficit, leaving an additional gap of 294,000 tons.” It is probably not a coincidence that the promised American food dispersal matches the gap (when converted from metric tons).

Finally, it’s a relatively cheap deal. Since the 1994 agreement, the United States has provided North Korea with over $1.6B in assistance (adjusted for inflation)—roughly 60 percent for food aid and 40 percent for energy assistance. This breaks down to: $916 million under Clinton, $717 million under Bush, and $10 million under Obama. Extrapolating from earlier estimates of U.S. food aid to North Korea, the 240,000 metric tons announced today will cost somewhere between $150 to $200 million.

Not surprisingly, a North Korean statement reads differently than the American version, noting: “[North Korea] agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.” It is uncertain how one would verify “productive dialogues,” or even know when they had ended. But if history is any guide, we will find out years from now—and the outcome will not involve North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons capability.