Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly...

This is Part One of a two-part post on the subject of North Korea.

Nicholas Kristof has written a wonderful fairy tale for the New York Times. Stop me if you'd heard this one before. There once was a multilateralist President who felt the pain of a lonely and isolated Korean tyrant and comforted him. One day, a new President came along, but he was a unilateralist cowboy who bullied the lonely Korean tyrant. So, the lonely Korean tyrant ran away to hide in his underground lair where he could build nuclear weapons to destroy his neighbors in a "Sea of Fire"!

Well, I've heard this one before and I admit that Kristof did not stick strictly to the script. It's usually the 29 JAN 2002 Axis-Of-Evil speech that supposedly triggers the lonely Korean tyrant's retreat to the dungeons. Instead, Kristof seems to believe it's the Bush Adminstration's "ABC" or Anything-But-Clinton approach that is the cause of this ongoing problem with North Korea. I'm going to sprinkle some magic reality dust on his analysis because as is, this story just doesn't fly.

When last we had a serious diplomatic conflict with North Korea, the Clinton Administration engaged them in bilateral negotiations resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework (pdf). Larry A. Niksch of the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) summarized the Agreed Framework as a deal under which the United States will provide North Korea with a package of nuclear, energy, economic, and diplomatic benefits in return for a halt to the operations and infrastructure development of the North Korean nuclear program. Basically, we ship an average of $40 million in oil and $60 million in food to North Korea every year until we get a couple of light water nuclear reactors built for them. Plutonium from light water nuclear reactors would be harder to use for weapons than the plutonium from North Korea's current graphite moderated ractors. Now, let's examine Mr. Kristof's analysis of this:

A bit of background: North Korea made one or two nuclear weapons around 1989, during the first Bush administration, but froze its plutonium program under the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with the Clinton administration. North Korea adhered to the freeze on plutonium production, but about 1999, it secretly started on a second nuclear route involving uranium.

That was much less worrisome than the plutonium program (it still seems to be years from producing a single uranium weapon), and it probably could have been resolved through negotiation, as past crises had been.

Instead, Mr. Bush refused to negotiate bilaterally, so now we have the worst of both worlds: that uranium program is still in place, and the plutonium program is churning out weapons material as well.

It is generally accepted that North Korea (DPRK) did halt the plutonium reactors in their nuclear power plants, but Kim Jong Il, the President of the DPRK, never really came into full compliance with the Agreed Framework and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Before I get into that, I want to point out that North Korea's High Enriched Uranium (HEU) program was not much less worrisome as Mr. Kristof suggests. I promise you that if a nuclear weapon is detonated near San Diego, my first thought is not going to be whether it was a plutonium or a uranium bomb. There is another reason the HEU program was a little more troubling than what Mr. Kristof leads us to believe in his article. According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), questions remained unanswered about the quantity and disposition of spent fuel from North Korea's nuclear power plants that were shutdown under the Agreed Framework.

September 1995:IAEA Director General Hans Blix reports to a special IAEA Board of Governors meeting that North Korea has denied the IAEA permission to measure the amount of plutonium in the 8,000 spent fuel rods or in the liquid-waste at its radiochemical lab [reprocessing facility]. Blix says that North Korea agreed only to allow IAEA inspectors to determine if the fuel rods were irradiated and to photograph the radiochemical lab. North Korea has indicated that it will make the examination of plutonium contingent upon progress in negotiations for a light-water reactor supply contract.

The United States rejects as “not implementable” the IAEA’s requests to verify North Korea’s nuclear history. The IAEA wants to inspect the plutonium contained in North Korea’s nuclear fuel rods located in a cooling pond. The United States wants to store the rods and delay inspections for four or five years, after which the rods can be examined with special inspections of North Korea’s undeclared nuclear facilities. IAEA officials insist that it will be impossible to verify North Korea’s nuclear past if the rods are not examined prior to storage. A US official insists however, that the stance taken by the Agency represents an “abrogation of the Geneva Agreement.”

This exchange presents a number of questions. First, why would we be so concerned about the amount of plutonium remaining in spent fuel rods? Well, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, it can be used to make nuclear bombs, albiet the less worrisome kind, like the ones the U.S. was deploying through the late 1970s.

Until the late 1970s, the United States acquired materials for nuclear weapons by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from government-owned nuclear reactors. - DOE

It seems the good doctor, Hans Blix, was rather concerned with measuring the plutonium in the spent fuel rods, but this CNS report indicates the U.S. administration only wanted to seal the rods and measure the plutonium years later. For all the faith Kristof has in the Clinton Administration's ability to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, this particular concession doesn't seem all that constructive. Mr. Kristof even makes note of the importance of the fuel rods currently used in the Pyongyang nuclear power plant. He states that it could give North Korea enough material for two or three more weapons. An unclassified portion of a December 2000 CIA report relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction gives us some indication of the kind of priority the Clinton Administration assigned to canning the spent fuel rods.

The United States and North Korea completed the canning of all accessible spent fuel rods and rod fragments in April 2000 in accordance with the 1994 Agreed Framework. That reactor fuel contains enough plutonium for several more weapons.

It took five years to get around to sealing the spent fuel rods and, apparently, the level of plutonium remaining in the rods was never ascertained. The CIA report can only estimate the amount of plutonium in the now sealed cannisters to be enough for several more weapons.

These spent fuel rods would certainly be less worrisome in the absence of a uranium enrichment program, but even Kristof admits North Korea constituted a uranium enrichment program in about 1999. In fact, it is suspected that North Korea has had a High Enriched Uranium (HEU) program since the 1980s. According to CNS, Larry Niksch reported to Congress that North Korea's HEU program began in earnest some time after 1995 with help from Pakistan. Of course, that gets into the whole epsiode involving Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

This is where I'll get into the current crisis between the United States and North Korea. For the first two years of the Bush Administration, everything was going along just as it had under the Clinton Administration. We were spending $100 million per year to ship food and heavy-fuel oil to North Korea, construction was beginning on the two light water nuclear power plants, and Kim Jong Il was diverting the food aid to his Communist Party supporters in Pyongyang and proceeding with his secret uranium enrichment program. Along comes Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly who, in October 2002, presents his North Korean counterparts with clear evidence of their uranium enrichment program. It is this confrontation that led North Korea to publicly acknowledge it had a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the NPT.

At first the North Koreans tried to deny the evidence, but eventually "they acknowledged they had a secret nuclear weapons programme involving enriched uranium," one official said.

"By acknowledging that, the agreed framework was essentially nullified," he said, referring to the 1994 Agreed Framework under which in return for halting its weapons programme North Korea was given US assistance in building two light water reactors.

Less than 30 days later, a state broadcast from North Korea followed their admission with the revelation that the DPRK actually had an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In addition to the North Korean state run broadcast, it was the New York Times that reported A.Q. Khan's confession to interrogators that he saw what he described as three plutonium nuclear devices while in North Korea sometime in 1999. The North Korean state run broadcasts and even Mr. Khan are not entirely credible under the circumstances, but the CIA has believed that North Korea possessed one or two nuclear weapons since the Clinton Administration. However, there is still no hard evidence that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea actually has even one functioning nuclear weapon.

In my next post due out this week, I'll be discussing the Bush Administration's reaction to these admissions and try to figure out why Nicholas Kristof sees a problem in President Bush's approach.


Blogger Mike said...

Excellent post. Very informative. I look forward to part 2.

8:36 AM  

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