(January 30, 2004) After repeating an offer to freeze its nuclear programs in return for economic aid and an end to U.S. sanctions, North Korea announced that an unofficial American delegation, made up of congressional aides, former diplomats, a nuclear scientist and an academic, had visited the country and were given a tour of Yongbyon nuclear facility.
(602.5572) WISE Amsterdam - Despite the 5-day visit, the secretive communist state has dismissed hopes that it too would emulate Libya and scrap its own WMD programs. Such suggestions were described as the "folly of imbeciles" ignorant of the country's independent policies - copying Gaddafi is not an option. Instead the regime of Kim Jong-Il will continue to go it's own way and hope to achieve its main aims - having its cake and eating it. Unlike Libya, North Korea is not afraid of international isolation; in fact isolation is a key factor in sustaining its communist government so it cannot be persuaded to comply with the wishes of the international community on this point. (1)
Yet the invitation of the American delegation suggests that North Korea is desperate to find leverage with which to negotiate its way out of the current stalemate with the U.S. and perhaps speed up the progress of the stalled six-party talks (with Russia, China, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea). (2)
Although the delegations were given a guided tour of Yongbyon, they were of course not allowed to bring along monitoring equipment or remove any samples from the facility. The visitors were told that no clandestine program to enrich uranium existed although one member of the delegation, Jack Pritchard, former U.S. envoy to North Korea, had been present at unofficial talks in October 2002 where a senior official admitted that the country did have a program to enrich uranium. (3)
The issue of the existence of uranium enrichment has been a contentious issue and major sticking point in previous talks - China, Japan and South Korea indicated doubts in American assertions that the program exists. Some have suggested that there was a misunderstanding, that what the U.S. thought they heard was not what North Korea thought it said but there doesn't appear that either side is willing to meet half way on this point as yet. Pritchard has subsequently called on the CIA to share its intelligence in order to convince doubters and move negotiations on at the second round of the six-party expected to take place in February. (4) Given recent proof of fallibility where intelligence reports are concerned, that might not be an inviting prospect.
The former head of U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory, Siegried Hecker, was also among the delegates and commented after the visit that although he remained unconvinced that Pyongyang could actually convert its nuclear technology into a weapon, he was still concerned. Hecker confirmed that reprocessing plant was in good repair and that the North Korean scientists did have the technical expertise required. The 5 MW reactor was reportedly "operating smoothly", adding to the plutonium cache by 6 kg a year.
On 20 January, at a presentation given to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hecker reported that they'd been shown two glass jars (housed in a metal-lined wooden box), one said to contain 200 grams of plutonium metal and the other 150 grams of plutonium oxalate powder. Having examined and held (with gloved hands) one jar to get a feel for density and heat content, Hecker concluded that its appearance was consistent with that if plutonium metal. (5) The message brought back was that North Korea was anxious to have some sort of international confirmation to prove to the West, the U.S. especially, that it was not bluffing about its nuclear materials or its intentions.
Pyongyang was described as uncharacteristically bustling by Jack Pritchard, further giving rise to claims that an economic revival is being nurtured. In July 2003, reforms were introduced legalizing small private markets (with food, clothes, furniture and electronic goods on sale) and increasing wages. In a recently released study by the Institute for International Economics, the North Korean expert rated the chances of regime collapse at around 3%. (6)
London-based think-tank, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), launching a 120-page report on North Korea's nuclear programs on 21 January said that the window for diplomacy to rein in the country's weapons programs could close within the next few years as North Korea develops its capabilities. It suggests that a diplomatic solution be found to halt and eliminate communist states arsenal while it still only has a handful of weapons. It is currently believed that Pyongyang possesses enough material for up to five bombs but in a few years could have the capacity to produce a dozen bombs per year. Two new programs are proposed, one, a near-complete plutonium producing reactor and the other is suspected to be a uranium enrichment program although it is not clear how long it will take for these to go on-line - estimates range from 1-6 years. (7)
(1) Reuters, 9 January 2004
(2) The Christian Science Monitor, 12 January 2004
(3) The Washington Post, 13 January 2004
(4) Reuters, 15 January 2004)
(5) Taipei Times, 23 January 2004)
(6) USA Today, 16 January 2004)
(7) Reuters, 21 January 2004