N. Korea's Uranium Program Moving Ahead, Kelly Says

Article excerpt

NORTH KOREA'S SUSPECTED uranium-enrichment program is "not so far behind" its plutonium-based nuclear program in its capacity to produce nuclear weapons-grade material, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly testified in a March 12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Kelly said the uranium-enrichment program could produce fissile material in "probably...months and not years." This assertion differs somewhat from earlier U.S. government estimates. A February 27 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report cites a December 2002 CIA statement that Pyongyang's uranium-enrichment program "likely" could produce a nuclear weapon in 2004, apparently supporting Kelly's claim. Previous reports have indicated that North Korea is building an enrichment plant-with the ability to produce enough fissile material for at least two nuclear weapons per year-that could be operational by mid-decade.

Kelly's testimony came shortly after the Bush administration's February 27 announcement that North Korea had restarted a small nuclear reactor that had been frozen by the 1994 Agreed Framework. (See ACT, March 2003.) That reactor could produce approximately one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, according to the CRS report.

North Korea's nuclear weapons activities were supposed to have been halted by the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to shut down its plutonium-based nuclear facilities, including the reactor, a fuel-rod fabrication plant, a reprocessing plant, and two partially completed larger reactors. In return, the United States agreed to provide two proliferation-resistant reactors and supply North Korea with 500,000 metric tonnes of heating oil each year while the reactors were under construction.

Last October, however, Kelly said North Korea admitted to a U.S. delegation that it was pursuing an illicit uranium-enrichment program in violation of its commitments under the Agreed Framework and other international nuclear nonproliferation commitments. (See ACT, November 2002.)

North Korea's admission of an enrichment program prompted the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization-the U.S.-led international consortium responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework-to announce in November that it would suspend fuel oil deliveries to North Korea.

In response, North Korea announced in December that it would restart the plutonium-based reactor to produce electricity. During the following weeks, North Korea removed seals and monitoring equipment from its nuclear facilities and ordered IAEA inspectors, who had been charged with monitoring the freeze, out of the country. On January 10, Pyongyang announced that it was withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The withdrawal clause of the NPT, however, requires states to give 90 days' notice before officially withdrawing.

North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT has prompted fears that Pyongyang would begin to reprocess spent fuel rods stored at the reactor site, although North Korea has said it has no plans to produce nuclear weapons. In a March 18 interview with International Wire Services, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that there was no indication that Pyongyang has begun reprocessing the fuel rods.

North Korea could extract enough plutonium for four to six nuclear weapons if it reprocesses the rods, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified in February. Kelly stated in his March 12 testimony that North Korea could do this within approximately six months after beginning reprocessing.

A State Department official interviewed March 24 reiterated the administration's position that reprocessing would be a matter of "grave concern" to the administration, but the official did not elaborate.

Although North Korea currently possesses the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it remains unclear whether the country has constructed one. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated that North Korea "probably" has "one or two plutonium-based devices" during a February 12 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. …