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North Korean nuclear realities

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#415-416
19/08/1994
Article

(August 19, 1994) In writing this article, I have elected to say relatively little about the matters that have received the greatest press attention, namely the threat of war, sanctions, the sanity and personal habits of North Korean leaders and the 'realpolitik' of the situation, and have tried instead to focus attention on the somewhat neglected realities of the North Korean nuclear industry, on the question of whether or not the DPRK does or does not have weapons, and on the extent and nature of its nuclear program in comparison with the programs of other countries (South Korea and Japan) and particularly other proliferators such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Africa.

(415/6.4125) John Hallam Writing about North Korea isn't easy. It's a 'moving target', and a country about which very little is known. Every time the writer thinks he knows something, there's a new development Just to emphasize the point, Kim Il Sung died on 8 July, immediately before I started writing, adding yet another layer of uncertainty to what is already a complicated enough picture.

The best way into the maze is probably to take a look at the nuclear programs of both North and South Korea, and the relative proliferation proneness of the DPRK program in comparison with South Korea (ROK), India, Pakistan, and Japan.

A look at North Korea's nuclear program in comparison with others is enough to show that it is indeed modest - almost puny - in comparison with the nuclear programs of others. Because of its economic isolation and its wish to 'go it alone' consistent with its philosophy of 'juche', North Korea has opted for a nuclear program based on 'indigenous' technology which is in fact cloning copies of 30, 50, and 200Mw UK Gas-cooled 'magnox' designs of the 50's. At present, a 20-30Mw Thermal gas-cooled reactor is operating, a 50Mwe reactor described as being a copy of the UK's Calder Hall plants is coming into operation in 1995-6, and a 200Mwe plant is scheduled to come into operation in 1996. As of June'94, work on the 50Mwe plant had been slowed down, while work on the 200Mwe plant had been speeded up.

The 20-30MwTh plant is located at Yongbyon together with a 5-8Mw IRT pool-type reactor, and the 50Mwe plant under construction. The 200Mwe reactor is located at Taechon. In addition, the DPRK intends to construct 4 x 440Mwe VVER plants at Sinpo, and a number of 635Mwe LWR plants. (Nuclear Developments in the Asian and Pacific Region p 9-10, ANSTO 1993]

It is often not clear even precisely which reactors whose refueling is controversial, and this is so even in the technical literature. It is important to note that the 5OMwe and the 200Mwe plants referred to in official reports are power reactors, and the DPRK has currently no operating power reactors (though I have seen references to the 20-30Mw gas cooled plant which is the subject of the controversy having an electrical power output of 5Mwe, but I think this is a confusion).

The reactor in question seems to have entered operation in 1986, and North Korea says that its core has not been changed since then, though the reactor was shut down for three months in 1989. According to industry literature:
"Officials familiar with the design of a 30Mw (thermal) 'indigenous' gas-cooled reactor at Yongbyon say that facility closely resembles British Nuclear Fuel's limited's Calder Hall reactors, design information for which was declassified during the 1950s."
[Nuclear Fuel, (NF) Feb 28, 1994 p6]. According to an April '94 report "The reactor, graphite-moderated and air-cooled, is said to have a thermal rating of 20-30Mw, and has been operating since late 1986."

It is this reactor, about the same size as the Indonesian research reactor and the CIRUS facility in India, that has been the focus of IAEA concern. But even industry journals display confusion between this reactor, the 50Mwe Magnox plant under construction at Yongbyon, the 200Mwe plant under construction at Taechon, and the 5/8MwTh pool-type research reactor supplied by the Russians in 1965.

It will be however, possible to operate the 50Mwe and 200Mwe gas-cooled reactors as weapons-grade plutonium-production reactors. In contrast, South Korea has a much more substantial nuclear program. It has 9 PWRs of 550-900Mwe and 1 Candu plant in operation, 4 PWRs and 3 Candu plants under construction, and 'firm plans' for 8 more PWRs and 3 more Candu plants.

Concern has been raised over the proliferative possibilities of North Korea's relatively more primitive gas-cooled reactors which, when the UK first used the design in the 1950s, were primarily meant for plutonium production, a process that demands the ability to refuel the reactor in operation, something that can't be done with PWR plants, though it can be done with Candu plants, of which the ROK will shortly have three. One reason for this is that if fuel is kept in the reactor for long periods - optimum for electricity generation - there is a buildup of 'higher' isotopes of plutonium which is messy to use from a weapons point of view.

So the DPRK will shortly have 250 Mwe of Magnox capacity. When the UK operated its magnox plants from 1956-64 in weapons-grade plutonium production mode, the 50 Mwe Calder Hall plants produced about 76 Kg of plutonium per year. [Pers.Comm Frans Berkhout to Peter Hayes in 'Should the United States Supply Light Water Reactors to Pyongyang?' NPR, Nov 1993, on Peg. Asia. Security.] On this basis, Peter Hayes calculates that a DPRK plant would produce about 315 Kg/y of weapons-grade Pu.

In May 1993, Peter Hayes visited the Heavy industry exhibit in Pyongyang, which featured a display of DPRK nuclear fuel cycle facilities. A cutaway of the 20 Mwe reactor planned for Taechong revealed primary and secondary heat exchange systems plus two generators. However, satellite photos of the Yongbyon nuclear complex where the 50 Mw gas-cooled reactor and the controversial 20-30 Mw reactor is don't reveal any high-tension lines coming from the complex. Hayes, like our own ANSTO, also only acknowledges the existence of the 50 Mw 6CR under construction at Yongbyon, and the 5 MwTh IRT pool reactor. According to both Hayes and ANSTO, the only reactor actually operating in the DPRK is a somewhat aging 5 Mw pool-type reactor supplied by the USSR and upgraded to 8 mwTh in the 1980s.

In contrast, Australia's own research reactor at Lucas Heights is of l0MwTh capacity. South Korea has a 3OMwt research reactor under construction, and two Triga reactors of 2Mwth and 250Kw. Japan has

20 research reactors of various types, varying from 100Kw to 100Mw, with the 50Mw JMTR and the 20Mw JRR-3m in between.

Of the countries that have been the object of proliferation concerns, India has, as well as a large indigenous power reactor program based on CANDU technology entirely outside the NPT framework, 4 research reactors including the l00MwTh Dhruva at Trombay, and the 40MwTh CIRUS from which the plutonium for India's 1974 'Peaceful Nuclear Explosion' originated.

Pakistan has a comparatively modest 10Mw research reactor, but has chosen to develop nuclear weapons by means of the enrichment route, with uranium enrichment cascades at Kahuta.

What has caused additional alarm is the DPRK's reprocessing program. The DPRK has constructed a large reprocessing complex at the Yongbyon site. In 1992, the latest year for which definite information is available, civil works were 80% complete, but only 40% of the process equipment had been installed. The plant is described as 'mammoth', at 180m long and 6 stories high, but has been assumed to be not yet operational. [NF, Feb 28, 1994 p6]

The DPRK seems to have duplicated certain aspects of a spent-fuel reprocessing plant operated by Eurochemic at Mol in Belgium from 1966-74 at its Yongbyon plant. Specifically, the Yongbyon plant copies techniques developed by Eurochemic for removing cladding from spent fuel, and for bitumenising medium-level waste.

The Eurochemic technique for the chemical decladding of fuel turns out to be particularly good for use with irradiated magnesium-alloy fuel of the type produced by the Yongbyon gas-cooled reactor. The basic plutonium extraction process at Yongbyon seems to be a simple 'purex' process supplied by the USSR. The Eurochemic processes for decladding and bitumenisation are however, more technologically sophisticated, require special remote handling equipment, and are 'absolutely unique' to Eurochemic. [NF, Feb 28, 1994 p6]

The DPRK has admitted reprocessing and extracting a small amount (90 grams) of plutonium so far, which was declared to the JAEA in 1990. Obviously this could not have been done at the Yongbyon plant, as it was still very much under construction. But western officials and US intelligence say that the DPRK has produced quantities of waste that indicate that they have actually produced much more than 90 grams of Pu. This waste is at two sites one of which the IAEA has visited, and one of which is known only from spy - satellite photos. According to one official: "We know they have the Belgian technology. It remains to be seen whether they have used it yet." [NF, Feb 28, 1994 p7]

It is known that at least since the 1960s, 'several hundred' North Korean experts were trained in plutonium separation in the USSR and China. [Nucleonics Week, (NWK) Jan 6, 1994 p10] But while weapons-related activities in erstwhile proliferator Iraq were traceable by the purchase of 'dual-use' materials and equipment (such as centrifuge components and high-speed switches, detonators, and flash

x-ray equipment used for implosion testing) - no such equipment trail is visible for North Korea. The DPRK seems to have obtained some dual-use equipment from German and Swiss firms including Degussa and Leybold-Heraus GmbH (also involved in the supply of equipment to Iraq) as well as Siemens Ag.

In addition, the DPRK is suspected of having obtained dual-use equipment from Japan and the USSR. And in November 1990, an attempt by the DPRK to obtain detonation capacitors via Singapore was halted. But according to one US official: "Why should the DPRK have gone to industry in Germany for equipment it could have obtained from China?"

Suspicion that the DPRK may have extracted more plutonium than a mere 90 grams centres round a mysterious shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor in 1989. The DPRK claims that no fuel has been removed from the reactor since fuel was first inserted in 1986. However, according to a former official at Yongbyon who defected to South Korea in May'94, the DPRK has secretly extracted 12Kg of Pu -enough for two bombs. [WISE 413, June 3, 1994 p1 from Greenbase] In addition, in mid '93, it was learned that the DPRK had converted some plutonium nitrate into metal - an indication that the DPRK has been developing the ability to make fissile cores. [NWK, July 8, 1993 p2]

Other suspicious rumors abound, notably a claim by a high-ranking army official who defected to South Korea in 1993, that a severe accident was caused when a nuclear installation or device (not specified in the report) was removed(!) from Pyongyang in an attempt to prevent an inspection by the IAEA. [WISE 398, 24 Sept, 1993]

In late 1993, it was widely reported that North Korea 'had flukes' and that US action to stop the DPRK nuclear program was imminent. On 15 Oct'93, the Pac Rim Intelligence Report revealed that according to the ROK embassy in France, France believed that North Korea had developed nuclear weapons. The French claim was based on photographic satellite analysis of the Yongbyon facility. [Nuc.Facilities, 1.19 pm Oct 15, 1993] There was other evidence of DPRK weapons work including 'the trace of a detonation test'.

US intelligence has 'found evidence' of more than 70 high-explosive tests, so there's little doubt that the DPRK is working on weapons.

But this kind of analysis is far from conclusive. It indicates with certainty merely that weapons-related work is going on, but gives no real indication of how far it has actually progressed.

As of January 1994, US analysts were themselves divided over just how close the DPRK is to actually having a bomb or bombs. Hard evidence is hard to come by. According to one White House official: "Both the CIA and the DIA are protecting themselves by openly suggesting that North Korea has already built a bomb."

According to the US State Department, there is 'no hard information' showing that the DPRK has completed bomb development work. And according to sources at the US Department of Defense: "While possession of a bomb by the DPRK is clearly a worst case, we are confident they are working on it, and the credibility of the worst case is growing over time." [NWK, Jan 6, l994pl0]

The DPRK actually signed the NPT in 1985, though it failed to fulfil its NPT obligations to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA until the 30th Jan 1992, and the agreement entered into force on April 10 '92. By that time, it would have already diverted significant quantities of plutonium.

In addition, the DPRK and the ROK bad signed agreements with each other committing each other not to develop or allow nuclear weapons on each others soil, and not to posses either enrichment or reprocessing facilities. (The DPRK refers to the Yongbyon reprocessing facility as a 'radiochemical laboratory'). The two countries agreed to establish a 'Joint Nuclear Control Commission' to police the agreement, but it has been ineffective. ['Nuclear Prospects in the Asian and Pacific Region' p10, ANSTO 1993.]

In 1992, the IAEA conducted a number of safeguards inspections that revealed that the DPRK had produced more plutonium than it was willing to admit. Therefore, in Feb 1992, the IAEA sought access to two non-declared sites at Yongbyon.

In response, the DPRK said these sites were conventional military facilities and linked the IAEA request to the 'Team Spirit' military exercises conducted by the US and the ROK. The IAEA then requested a 'special inspection' and gave the DPRK a month to respond.

The DPRK then announced on 12 March 1993 that it would withdraw from the NPT, effective as from 12 June 1993, saying that the 'special inspections' were a threat to its security. At a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in April'93, the DPRK was declared to be in breach of its obligations under the NPT. An 11th May Security Council resolution - from which China and Pakistan abstained -called on North Korea to comply with its safeguards obligations under the IAEA and the NPT. [Pacific Research, May, 1993 p7.] On 11 June 1993 -just a day before its withdrawal from the NPT would have been effective -North Korea said it would suspend that withdrawal.

Much of what has followed has been in effect a dispute over what that 'withdrawal suspended' actually means, with the DPRK arguing that it now has a special status, neither in, nor out of, the NPT/IAEA framework, and that it is no longer subject to 'normal' IAEA rules. According to Nuclear Fuel: "In essence, Pyongyang says it's out of the NPT until its in, and its western interlocutors say its in until its out." [NF, Aug 30, 1993 p12]

On 18th August '93, IAEA inspectors were permitted limited access to the nuclear facility at Yongbyon - access that allowed them only to recharge the batteries of cameras and sensing equipment. They were refused access to waste storage facilities that would have allowed them to judge just how much plutonium the DPRK had in fact separated.

By December '93, the IAEA felt that a reliable camera record of activities at Yongbyon no longer existed, and that it was therefore necessary for it to examine 40 special seals it had affixed to nuclear materials inventories and the reprocessing plant itself. The IAEA's surveillance cameras ran out of film round Dec 3 '93, when the IAEA rejected a DPRK offer of 'limited' inspection of the Yongbyon site. At a meeting of the IAEA's Board of Governors on Dec 2-3, 1993, IAEA Director General Hans Blix noted

that: "The lack of IAEA inspectors has led to a situation in which the system cannot be said at present to provide any meaningful assurance of peaceful use of the DPRK's nuclear installations and material." [NWK, Dec 23, 1993 p2]

IAEA inspectors said that continuity of knowledge about nuclear materials could only be restored if IAEA inspectors had full access to the 40 seals affixed to nuclear materials back in 1992. According to one official: "If we see that the seals are intact and have not been tampered with, we can be quite comfortable with assertions that the North Koreans have made that they have not moved any fresh or spent fuel and have frozen all reprocessing activities." [NWK, Dec 23, 1993 p2]

Inspectors were given access to the seals for a mid-year inspection only one evening between 6pm and midnight, at a time when lights were out and they needed flashlights to find the seals. Access to the seals at the 30Mw reactor and reprocessing plant was refused, though the DPRK did permit the inspectors to change batteries and films in its monitoring equipment. [NWK, Dec 25, 1993 p3]

For its part, the IAEA had wanted to do much more than inspect the seals. The IAEA told the DPRK that it wanted to do a complete verification of the physical inventory at Yongbyon, reconcile discrepancies in records, reload its cameras, count spent fuel rods, and establish a procedure to monitor the discharge of the core of the 3OMwTh reactor.

In January '94, a three-hour discussion took place between Hans Blix and a DPRK envoying which: "It was understood by both sides that the forthcoming inspection will have no legal bearing on North Korea's suspension of its NPT membership." [NWK, Jan 20, 1994 p4]. However, the IAEA's own staff were in the process of drafting a position paper emphasizing the necessity for 'periodic inspections' in the DPRK, something the DPRK itself would hardly be willing to permit.

By Feb 15th '94, the DPRK and the IAEA seemed to have agreed on inspections at 7 declared nuclear sites.

But their agreement failed to include the two waste dumps containing material that would establish the extent of DPRK reprocessing. According to an IAEA press release: "The aim of the inspection activities is to verify that nuclear material in these facilities has not been diverted since earlier inspections." [NWK, Feb 17, 1994 p17]

The agreement seems to have been designed to avoid the imposition of sanctions, coming as it did, a week before the IAEA Board could have referred the issue to the UN Security Council. However, the issue of future IAEA access to even these sites was not clear. According to an IAEA spokesperson, even as IAEA inspectors prepared to travel to Pyongyang, "Even if the IAEA gets to all seven sites this time, there is no assurance it will get access again."

By Feb 24th '94, the DPRK seemed to have agreed to the application of 'containment and surveillance' measures at the 30Mw 6CR, to 'freeze the situation until the reactor is shut down' to unload its core. [NWK, Feb 24, 1994 p3]

By the end of April '94, the situation between the IAEA and the DPRK had yet again reached an impasse. On April 20 '94, the DPRK wrote to the IAEA, requesting formally that the 40 uninspected seals on the 3OMwTh Yongbyon gas-cooled reactor be broken, so that refueling could take place. The DPRK wanted IAEA inspectors to break the seals themselves. The IAEA replied that the DPRK must consent to a series of measures for monitoring the unloading of the reactor core. According to Hans Blix: "The IAEA won't show up to be a spectator for the refueling. Even if the IAEA doesn't go, the North Koreans will have to break the safe-guards on the reactors themselves if they want to refuel"

The IAEA said in a letter of reply that, in order to verify DPRK statements that the core of the 30Mw GCR had not been unloaded since 1986, they would need to carry out random sampling and non-destructive evaluation of 10% of the reactor's 850 fuel-pins. 'Delay sampling' would also be done to find out just how long the fuel pins had actually been in the reactor core. The DPRK did not respond to this IAEA letter in reply, but later reports confirmed that they instead, simply went ahead themselves, broke the IAEA seals, and refueled their reactor. On May 20, the IAEA charged that the DPRK had violated international safeguards by going ahead and replacing the reactor core.

Changing the full reactor core was expected by the IAEA to take over two months, and according to the IAEA's UN representative Berhanykun Andemicael 'if the process is halted now, it can be put on track'. This optimism about the time and room available for maneuver was echoed by US defense secretary William Perry in Washington, according to whom, though the removal of fuel rods had commenced, "The IAEA has told us it is confident that there had been no diversion of the fuel for weapons purposes." LIPS. English on PegasusNetwork, 3.37 pm May 23, 1994]

Presumably by this the IAEA was confining its remarks to the current refueling, but this remark is nonetheless surprising in view of the DPRK's crossing of yet another line in the sand. Yet even after the breaking of the IAEA seals, both the IAEA and the US continued to see or say they saw, room for maneuver. This was to continue as the DPRK on the one hand continued to defy the IAEA and play cat and mouse with the safeguards regime, yet on the other hand never wholly broke off negotiations. Both the US, the IAEA, and indeed, the DPRK, in spite of talk of war and sanctions has actually crossed an ill-defined and shifting line that would mean the end of negotiations and a complete resort to either sanctions or military action - and that in spite of Pyongyang's statements that, for example, sanctions would be interpreted as an act of war, and on the American side, analyses of the respective military capabilities of the ROK and the DPRK.

Still, things were getting difficult. The DPRK's Ministry of Foreign Affairs angrily denied charges that fuel rods could be used for weapons purposes, saying that: "This is quite contradictory to the facts, and cannot be construed other than as a sinister intention to intensify pressure on the DPRK under the pretext of inspecting the refueling", and attributing rumors about weapons to 'some quarters in the United States'. LIPS, Op.Cit.]

Meanwhile, the IAEA's Director General Hans Blix telegraphed Pyongyang warning it to cease further removal of the fuel rods until more IAEA inspectors could be sent to verify that the rods were not being diverted to weapons production. In a letter to the UN Secretary General, the IAEA maintained that; "The discharge of the fuel without the safeguard measures requested by the JAEA constitutes a serious violation of the safeguard agreement." Even here however, there was some room for maneuver. The DPRK's own communique said that:"Since the refueling has just begun, there still remain possibilities to solve the problem".

According to IAEA spokesperson Andemicael, IAEA officials were still at Yongbyon from the previous inspection and had been 'able to assess the number of fuel rods that were removed', while the entire process was being monitored - as both IAEA and DPRK conceded - by the IAEA surveillance cameras, limiting the immediate danger of a major diversion. One must conclude therefore that more than a little posturing was taking place on the side of both the IAEA and the DPRK.

A continued willingness to talk even while extremely threatening noises were being made elsewhere continued to be evident, even though the IAEA itself was never satisfied with the DPRK's response to it. And IAEA inspectors continued to be present at the Yongbyon site in spite of the IAEA's denunciation of North Korean actions.

On May 25 '94, the IAEA and the DPRK began talks in Pyongyang 'to determine the age of spent fuel' from the Yongbyon plant. According to the IAEA, "We need to know the age of it, and we would be prepared to negotiate with the North Korean officials to perform certain measurements that are necessary to determine that fact" [IPS, 4.14 am Jun 4, 1994]

The IAEA continued to insist that it needed to 'fingerprint' some of the 580 fuel-pins to ensure that they were the same ones it would inspect later. But the DPRK steadfastly refused to let the IAEA inspectors do any more than watch the operation. The Pyongyang talks were not expected to produce any real results. While the DPRK continued to insist that the fuel in the reactor core had been there since 1986, according to the IAEA, "We have been monitoring it only since May 1992. So unless we have the measurements, we cannot say whether there has been any unreported removal of fuel in between." The IAEA also said they'd like to know exactly what happened to the seals they placed on the 30MwTh GCR. [IPS.English, 4.14 am, Jun 4, 1994]

Even on this technical level, the position has kept shifting rapidly. At the end of May '94, it was being said that the DPRK would need 6-9 months to reprocess the spent fuel from Yongbyon. [NWK, May 26, 1994 p 17] By June 9, '94 however, we were being told that fuel could be reprocessed 'immediately' due to the low levels of 1-131 in it. These low levels could of course, also indicate that the fuel has not been in the core as long as the DPRK claims it has. At a political level while this was happening, talk was increasingly of sanctions and military options, while analyses of North Korean, Chinese, Russian, and US military capabilities rolled off international computer networks. Yet all the time this was happening publicly, IAEA personnel remained at Yongbyon notwithstanding the threats by Pyongyang to withdraw from the NPT.

The situation on the ground at the reactor continued to be that the DPRK would allow IAEA inspectors a limited role, but permitted them to be present at its operations. In other words, in spite of Blix's statement that 'The IAEA won't show up to be a spectator', the IAEA was doing just that. On Jun 13, IAEA UN representative Andemicael said that there was no evidence that the DPRK's oft-stated objections to 'intrusive' IAEA inspections were having any effects on the ground. 'The inspectors are still there' he said. [IPS-2:38pm,Jun-16, i9941

There was still even confusion over the exact nature of the disputed reactor, which now started to be described as '25MwTh' and as '5Mw electric', surely a confusion with the 5 MwTh(thermal) IRT pool reactor. Remember, part of the case for DPRK weapons development had been that there were no high-tension lines coming from Yongbyon picked up by spy satellite photography. If indeed the Yongbyon GCR does generate 5Mwe, (electric) then it casts doubt on the reliability of these assessments.

Be that as it may, it was suggested by the CIA that should the DPRK reprocess the entire core of the reactor, there would be enough plutonium in it for 'five or six' weapons. [NWK, May 26, 1994 p 17] That's if the DPRK had mastered the arcane art of making a fissile core and had all the other bits of hardware in place to make it work plus some kind of delivery system... It was even suggested that on the other hand, the DPRK might actually opt not to reprocess the core at all - at least not immediately - leaving it in spent fuel pools for up to 24 months.

Officials said that in addition, work on the 50Mw GCR at Yongbyon had been slowed, while work on the 200Mwe GCR at Taechon had actually been speeded up. Remember that the 200Mwe plant is the most clearly a power reactor, so that suggests that the DPRK was not so keen to seem in a rush for a purely weapons capability. US officials suggested that Pyongyang wanted to use the GCR program as a 'bargaining chip'.

By early June '94, things looked decidedly more pessimistic if they weren't so already. The IAEA now started saying that it was no longer able to reconstruct the history of the Yongbyon reactor core, and Pyongyang was again threatening to pull out of the NPT.
Hans Blix said that: "We have not concluded that North Korea has built nuclear weapons. However, we cannot exclude that material has been diverted." LIPS, 3.2lpm, Jun 6, 1994] Blix said that only 1,800 fuel rods now remained Out of 8,000 originally in the reactor - too few to determine whether they were from the original 1986 core. He said the IAEA had now irretrievably lost the ability to determine whether weapons-related diversion had taken place in 1989.

Yet even at this stage he added that the DPRK was not actually in violation of its safeguards agreements because the DPRK continued to allow inspection of its current capabilities, saying that:
"We consider that the safeguards agreement remains in force, despite the fact that they have not complied with it in certain points."
Thus, while the US lobbied heavily for sanctions against the DPRK, the IAEA continued to keep the door open for an agreement of some kind.

By June 7, '94, the IAEA was again engaged in talks with the DPRK, this time with the objective of trying to obtain access to the two undeclared waste sites where it said crucial evidence as to the history of the DPRK nuclear fuel was to be found. [IPS, 1.49pm Jun 10, 1994]

When, a week later, the DPRK threatened to withdraw from the IAEA as well as the NPT, Berhanykun Andemicael noted that a wealth of DPRK threats had yielded few concrete actions. The IAEA still clearly wanted to talk and wring some small concessions from the DPRK. Still, things did not look good.

Nor can things have been improved by reports that because the I-131 levels in the GCR fuel were so conveniently low, and because the DPRK was willing to take risks with its nuclear workers, "Spent fuel discharged in recent days and weeks from a 2SMwTh reactor at Yongbyon in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea could be reprocessed immediately". - contradicting earlier claims that it would have to be stored for 90 days under water before it was reprocessed. By June 8th, all but 1500 of the 8,000 fuel pins in the core including the whole of a radial cross-section which the IAEA had wanted to tag and sample had been removed and placed in storage. This meant that the time 'cushion' in bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang was gone.

Also significant were observations that DPRK reactor personnel had been exposed to gamma and x-ray radiation far in excess of internationally accepted standards. IAEA inspectors had reported back in 1993 also that workers at the Yongbyon complex took exceptional risks in handling the high-level reprocessing waste declared the IAEA.

Even more alarmingly, the two IAEA inspectors present said that they intended to leave the site as soon as the reactor had been refueled. This would mean, in the absence of an on-site IAEA presence, that if the DPRK went ahead to reprocess, there would be 'no real-time detection' by the IAEA. [NWK, Jun 9, 1994 p4] The IAEA said it would 'seek to negotiate' a continued presence at the Yongbyon site. Nothing further was said about their access to the two waste dumps that they had wanted earlier.

It was therefore particularly important that when Carter visited Pyongyang on June 15, '94, he said that Kim Ii Sung had expressed willingness to allow continued IAEA inspections at Yongbyon and that the two inspectors present there could remain. In his interview with Carter, Kim Ii Sung had also insisted that the DPRK had no nuclear weapons, and said he wanted to supplant the GCR reactor program with an LWR program. [IPS Jun 19, 1994 2.Olpm, 2.02pm.]

The LWR alternative has been taken very seriously by analysts, and it is assumed that an LWR program would automatically be less proliferative than the current GCR program. However, a few caveats are there: First, it seems likely that the DPRK would not be willing to entirely scrap their 'indigenous' GCR program, though they might/possibly/maybe put it under full IAEA safeguards or 'freeze' it in some way in return for assistance with LWRs. Secondly, they may be willing to use a presumed weapons program as a 'bargaining chip' in return for LWR. Thirdly, they already, in theory, have an LWR (VVER) program in place with Russia. Finally, LWRs are just about the worst possible way for the DPRK to solve its all to real energy and electricity supply problems. Be all that as it may, Kim Ii Sung's desire for LWRs was probably real enough whatever the truth of what he said about weapons.

In the wake of the Carter visit, a little new optimism seems to have entered into the IAEA and the negotiating process, with suggestions of an 'alternative' approach to determining whether the Yongbyon core is in fact the first core loaded in 1986.

Meanwhile, the DPRK said they had conducted the refueling in a manner; "So as to preserve the technical possibility for later measurement of fuel rods on the assumption that our unique status will be removed".

"The fuel discharge operation has been carried out channel by channel, channel group by channel group in sequence, and 40 rods from one channel have been discharged into one basket. All the operations of core discharge including the identification numbers of baskets in the spent fuel pond have been kept on the accounting records and operating records, and confirmed by the JAEA inspectors every day. This shows that the refueling operation is conducted in a manner which preserves the possibility to reconstruct the channels of fuel rods, and the sequence of rods in the channel if necessary." [NWK, Jun 16, 1994 p14]

This didn't stop a US official saying that the DPRK's claims were "A smokescreen that belies the simple fact that they have prevented the IAEA from doing sampling needed to verify the inventory". [NWK, Jun 16, 1994. p14]

The IAEA itself pointed to inadequacies in the DPRK's fuel-pin records.

According to one western safeguards official, it is 'still theoretically possible' to reconstruct the irradiation history of the removed fuel, "But the keys to a satisfactory technical solution are time, money, and a degree of North Korean transparency for which there is absolutely no evidence thus far." If the IAEA could examine all the discharged fuel pins now in the pond being monitored by IAEA video cameras, the cores irradiation history, according to the IAEA, could be estimated 'within a 90-95% confidence level'. The IAEA reiterated that it was/is 'imperative' for its inspectors to remain at Yongbyon. The word from Carter and Kim Ii Sung suggests that they will indeed, remain.

 

Agreement

An agreement between the USA and the DPRK was reached on August 13, 1994:

  • North Korea promised to stay in the NPT
  • Korea freezes its nuclear program and excepts full inspections by the IAEA
  • stop removal from the core of the remaining fuelrods
  • the US will help the DPRK to replace its graphite-rectors for light-water reactors. Washington will try to interest a international consortium for it and find the US$4 billion for it.

(Trouw NL, 15 August 1994)

As of July 8th, the DPRK and the US bad begun a new round of negotiations in which the US wanted to get the DPRK to promise not to develop nuclear weapons, while the DPRK held out for a program of $2 billion worth of development aid in compensation for closing down its nuclear activities. The Swiss newspaper 'Journal de Geneve' said talks between the two parties would be 'extensive' and that 'the only thing separating them will be a table' LIPS, 4.32pm, Jul 11, 1994].

A number of things follow from all this, complex and confusing though the story is. One is that the rulers of the DPRK - previously Kim II Sung, now Kim Jong Ii - are not irrational (though they quite capable of being bloody-minded) and should not be demonized. They do feel themselves cornered, they are not above using the most extreme threats when they feel so, but they do have a rational calculus of interests that leads away from war and most likely away from sanctions. They may be amenable to using their entire presumed weapons program as a bargaining chip if they are offered sufficiently alluring carrots, and their attitude in Geneva immediately before the death of Kim II Sung suggests they are holding out for just such carrots.

They do feel picked on, and it is certainly true that the technical measures the IAEA is demanding in respect to the discharge of the Yongbyon GCR core are not ones it would impose on say, Australia in respect of Lucas Heights. The DPRK's attitude suggests that it is willing to show them that the current GCR core will not be diverted, but that it is not willing to allow the IAEA to discover the history of that core.

The DPRK may or may not have nuclear warheads, but certainly has a program aiming to acquire them. Whether the DPRK will continue to want to acquire them at current political and economic costs is questionable: What they may decide to do is to 'freeze' the program where it is, perhaps in return for LWRs. They may feel it is in their interests to leave a degree of ambiguity about whether they do or don't have warheads, and how many.

The scale and state of advancement of whatever weapons program the DPRK have is nowhere near that of other proliferators, notably Pakistan, India, Israel, and South Africa (who now admit to having manufactured 7-8 warheads). Yet the pressure bought to bear on Pyongyang, and the demonizing of its rulers as 'nuts with nukes' was never applied, for example, to General Zia Ul Haq. One cannot help feeling that a double standard is in operation.

As for where things will go from here, it is impossible to predict. One must be skeptical of those who profess to have some kind of inside track to the thinking of the DPRK's rulers. However, one could hope that Kim Jong Ii will pursue a cautious and mildly conciliatory path in the long run in his relationship with the US, in preference to war with the ROK.

Finally, one can't but observe after 17 years in the antinuclear movement that proliferation of this kind was repeatedly warned of by opponents of uranium mining as far back as the 1976-77 Ranger Inquiry, and that the Ranger inquiry itself took these warnings very much on board. In October 1976, the Ranger Uranium Inquiry warned in its first report "The nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear war. This is the most serious hazard associated with the industry." [Ranger Inquiry, 1st Report Oct, 1976 p 185]

It's yet another argument for keeping (Australia's) uranium in the ground and out of the global nuclear fuel cycle.

Source and Contact: John Hallam, Friends of The Earth Sydney, POBox A474, Sydney NSW 2001, Australia. Tel:+61-2-281-4070; Fax: +61-2-281-5216.
E-mail: foesydney@peg.pegasus.oz.au