North Korea Admits Secret Nuclear Weapons Program

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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North Korea Admits Secret Nuclear Weapons Program


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


NEWS AND NEGOTIATIONS

NORTH KOREA REVEALED that it has a clandestine nuclear weapons program during an early October meeting with a high-ranking U.S. official. The admission, which the United States made public October 16, indicates that Pyongyang has violated several key nonproliferation agreements, raising concern worldwide.

North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Suk Ju admitted that Pyongyang has a uranium-enrichment program during October 3-5 meetings with a U.S. delegation after Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted him with intelligence data proving the program's existence, Kelly stated during an October 19 press conference in Seoul.

The intelligence included evidence that Pyongyang was purchasing material for use in a gas centrifuge program that could enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons, according to Bush administration officials. Various press reports have cited Russia, China, and Pakistan as potential suppliers. All three governments have denied any role.

The status of the program is unclear. Kelly said during the Seoul press conference that the enrichment program is "several years old," but Bush administration officials have reported to Congress and allies that North Korea's program still appears to be in its "early stages" and would take a relatively long time to produce enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear device. It is unclear how much time that is.

Kelly stated that North Korea's nuclear program violates "its commitments" under several international agreements: the Agreed Framework, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang's safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The United States and North Korea concluded the Agreed Framework in October 1994, ending a standoff resulting from the IAEA's discovery that Pyongyang was diverting plutonium from its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors for use in nuclear weapons. The Agreed Framework requires North Korea to "freeze its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities," thereby ending its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.

In exchange for shutting down its reactors, the United States agreed to provide North Korea with two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors (LWR), to create an international consortium called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to build them, and to provide shipments of heavy fuel oil in the interim. The first reactor was originally scheduled to be completed by 2003, but construction has fallen behind schedule, and the reactor is not expected to be finished before 2008, barring further delays.

The Agreed Framework requires North Korea to accept full IAEA safeguards when "a significant portion of the LWR project is completed"-a milestone that is approximately three years away. Under those safeguards, Pyongyang must declare the existence of any nuclear facilities and allow the IAEA to inspect them.

The Agreed Framework does not specifically mention uranium enrichment, a different method of obtaining fissile material for nuclear weapons, but it does require North Korea to remain a party to the NPT, under which non-nuclear-weapon states agree "not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." The framework also says that North Korea "will consistently take steps to implement" the 1992 Joint Declaration, which states that "South and North Korea shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities."

The Agreed Framework has been controversial, with some Republicans, including President George W. Bush, questioning whether the United States can trust North Korea. The Bush administration refused last March to certify that North Korea was fully complying with the agreement, a congressionally mandated condition for KEDO to receive U.

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