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North Korean Plutonium; the Key Issue in Nuclear Negotiations

Jeong Jae Sung  |  2008-07-01 16:33
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With the amount of plutonium in the nuclear declaration 37-40kg as submitted by North Korea to China on the 27th, criticism about verification seems inevitable.

CNN cited the U.S. Department of State on the 27th, saying that North Korea declared its extracted plutonium amount as approximately 40kg. Radio Free Asia (RFA) also cited a statement from a diplomatic source, saying that the plutonium amount is 38kg.

On the 29th, Yonhap News cited a source well-acquainted with the Six Party Talks, saying that North Korea extracted 30kg of plutonium, but declared that it used 2kg in the nuclear test held in October of 2006. According to the source, it is assumed that 8kg of plutonium that has yet to be extracted still exists.

The U.S., by compiling the evaluations of 16 intelligence agencies in the "National Intelligence Evaluation (NIE)," announced in March of last year that North Korea had produced up to 50kg of plutonium as of October 2006. The Washington Post cited U.S. government sources, reporting that the amount of held plutonium could reach a maximum of 60kg.

In its "2006 National Defense White Paper," the South Korean Ministry of National Defense estimated that the total amount of extracted plutonium was 40~54kg.

It is known that ordinarily 4~8kg of plutonium is needed in a single nuclear weapon. The amount of extracted plutonium is therefore directly related to the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the North, so it is expected to be the main item on the agenda in the third phase of nuclear negotiations.

The U.S. is focusing on the verification of North Korea's plutonium stock in order to achieve progress in the 2nd phase of nuclear negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice emphasized at a press conference held in Japan on the 27th, It is important to get North Korea out of the plutonium business, but that will not be the end of the story."

Sung Kim, Director of the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, who visited South Korea after observing the destruction of the Yongbyon cooling tower, said on the 28th that this was very important, What we need to do is, you know, verify the declaration, but also pursue the next and the final phase of denuclearization concurrently, and he added If we work together with the other parties, it's possible that we might complete the task."

This can be interpreted as the U.S.' willingness to concentrate on the verification and abandonment of the plutonium nuclear program with the anticipation of reaping expected results.

The nuclear declaration submitted by North Korea to China is supposed to contain the extracted plutonium amount and places of usage, an inventory of nuclear-related facilities, and the total stock of nuclear fuel, but the number of nuclear weapons was not included.

The significant gap between the plutonium amount that North Korea declared and that the international society believes exists foreshadows that the process of the verification of the North's nuclear programs will not be smooth.

Kim Tae Woo, Chief Researcher in the Arms Control Studies Division of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said, "There is a big difference between the international community's estimate of the amount of plutonium produced (50kg) and the production quantity contained in North Korea's nuclear declaration. This number is indicative of the number of nuclear weapons possessed by North Korea, so a serious problem could result."

He predicted, "Accordingly, there is a great possibility that the plutonium issue will be transformed into a political negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea. Inspecting 13 years of nuclear reactor operation records for just 45 days is technically impossible, so the U.S. will most likely find a solution without putting strain on the current atmosphere.

Researcher Kim forecasted, "For now, negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea will move on to the process of removing the latter from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, but in the subsequent 'verification' process, the voices of U.S. hardliners will be louder and differences of opinions between the U.S. and North Korea are expected to result, so in practice entry into the 3rd phase of negotiations will be difficult."

Korea University Professor Yoo Ho Yul said, "Regarding the observed differences in the amount of extracted plutonium, the U.S. will carefully investigate the 'verification' process. The verification of the previously-obtained 18,000 pages of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor operations log will form the groundwork and the U.S. will request an on-site inspection if any disparity is found."

He forecasted however, "The possibility of the North agreeing to on-site inspections is still low. If the U.S. makes such a request, North Korea has to make a choice, but if it does not go smoothly, the nuclear issue could return to the starting point."

Professor Yoo added, "North Korea will most likely be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. If it does not cooperate with the 45-day period verification process, the U.S. will seek another route at that time."

The Bush administration, which has a thirst for diplomatic achievements, may well gloss over these differences in the plutonium amount. However, to the administration, which has ignored the opposition of hard-liners regarding the Uranium Enrichment Program (UEP) and the suspicion of nuclear proliferation vis-a-vis Syria and focused solely on the plutonium issue, this way still may be quite a big political burden.

At the Six Party envoy talks which will be held shortly, the verification of North Korea's declaration of its extracted plutonium amount will be the most challenging issue in preparing a road-map for the third phase of nuclear negotiations.
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