While the US Looked for Iraqi WMD, North Korea Built Theirs

As Washington pressed on with its effort to rid Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction - read nuclear weapons - early last year, North Korea's nuclear program shifted into high gear. Or so Pyongyang would have the US believe. In this first-hand account of the recent unofficial American inspections of North Korea's nuclear program, Jack Pritchard, a North Korea specialist at the Brookings Institution and a former Bush administration official, writes that North Korea and the US have been playing a dangerous game of bluff and bluster. During Pritchard's visit to the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, he says, the American delegation was repeatedly invited to declare that Pyongyang does indeed possess a nuclear deterrent. In the absence of conclusive evidence, however, he and his colleagues could only concede that it is likely that North Korea possesses up to six new nuclear devices. Given this reasonable conclusion, he argues, the Bush Administration urgently needs to start a bilateral dialog aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis. Pritchard believes, however, that prior to the November US presidential election the White House is unlikely to propose any new initiatives, because to engage too actively with North Korea could jeopardize President Bush' chances for re-election. ' YaleGlobal

While the US Looked for Iraqi WMD, North Korea Built Theirs

Bush's early refusal to deal with North Korea makes it harder now to walk Pyongyang back from its weapons program
Jack Pritchard
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Officials from Japan, US, North Korea, China , Russia, and South Korea met in Beijing in August for talks on North Korean nuclear issue: They will meet again, but it has become talks-for-talks sake.

WASHINGTON: Over the past year one of the more bizarre developments in the current nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been Pyongyang's insistence that it is developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) while the Bush Administration has adamantly declined to acknowledge that claim. The upshot of this stubborn refusal to talk to North Korea was that while the administration was busy preparing, and then launching, a war to rid Iraq's suspected (and now it seems non-existent) WMD, North Korea may have acquired four times the fissionable materials it had before, or six more nuclear devices.

Pyongyang notified the Bush Administration in February a year ago that it was reprocessing previously safeguarded spent fuel rods in order to extract plutonium to create a nuclear deterrent. The avowed North Korean purpose in developing its nuclear deterrent was to ward off any US unilateral military action aimed at North Korea following the invasion of Iraq. It was also designed to push the administration to hold talks. For the most part, the Bush response was one of skepticism. A deterrent does not work if the "deterree" does not accept the basis for that deterrence. This lack of a credible deterrence is probably the reason behind Pyongyang's invitation for an unofficial American delegation to visit its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. I was part of that delegation.

While Pyongyang may have hoped we would come to the conclusion that it indeed possessed a nuclear deterrent, we were able to reach agreement that the delegation would report only on what we saw and not make unsupported conjectures. The highlight of the January visit to Yongbyon was what we did not see. We did not see any of the 8017 spent fuel rods that had previously been safeguarded and monitored by the IAEA. We were repeatedly invited to conclude that North Korea did in fact possess a nuclear deterrent. In each instance, we declined.

When we pressed for additional evidence, we were shown what the North Korean director of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities described as the "product" of the recent reprocessing of the spent fuel rods. We were shown two glass jars containing a green powder described to us as plutonium oxalate and another containing a funnel-shaped metal described as plutonium metal. Our delegation included the former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, an expert on plutonium. His judgment at the time was that the materials we were shown were consistent with what he would expect to be plutonium. We still could not, in good faith, conclude that the small samples of plutonium that we were shown necessarily meant that North Korea had reprocessed all of the spent fuel rods and then taken the next step of manufacturing nuclear devices.

But given what we know about North Korean capabilities, and the probability that the spent fuel rods were reprocessed, it is only prudent to assume that Pyongyang now possesses or could shortly possess up to six additional nuclear devices beyond the two we believe they may already have.

Does that change what the US objective should be during the Six Party Talks: the Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program? Not at all. It just means that while the United States was preoccupied with the potential of WMD in Iraq, North Korea announced its intentions and then (most likely) proceeded to accumulate nuclear weapons. Would it have been easier to prevent Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons rather than now try to walk back their program? Yes, but that is not where we find ourselves today.

The Bush Administration's stubborn refusal to have a serious discussion with North Korea is impeding a potential resolution. That is not to suggest that there should not be a multilateral forum (Six Party Talks). There should be and it will play an integral part in any solution. But finding a solution requires a robust and sustained dialogue between the United States and North Korea and a willingness to reach a deal. The current Six Party Talks format does not lend itself to a solution (and therefore an elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program) anytime soon. The Six Party Talks has quickly devolved into a "talks-for-talks sake" situation, something the Bush Administration never wanted to be a party to. The second round of talks ended in February with the apparent agreement by all parties to meet again before the end of June. I say apparent because the Chinese Foreign Minister felt compelled to travel to Pyongyang a month later to extract Kim Jong-il's commitment for his negotiators to attend the next round of talks.

While there will probably be another round of talks before the November presidential elections, there is little chance of any meaningful progress. Neither the North Koreans nor Americans have any incentive to compromise prior to the election. For Pyongyang the election is now a factor; there is a possibility that a new administration (and new policies) will be in power in January 2005. For the Bush Administration, it cannot afford to be seen as "rewarding bad behavior" or push the situation towards actual crisis in the run up to the election. So at the end of the day, more than two years will have passed since the revelation that Pyongyang was engaged in a secret Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program before any possibility of serious movement toward resolution of the current crisis could take place. One can ask what's the harm in this "business-as-usual" approach? Only the possibility that Pyongyang has increased its nuclear arsenal from two to eight nuclear weapons ­ a difficult situation for the Bush Administration to defend.

What does the future hold? While it is only speculation at this point, there are a few possibilities that come to mind. If there is a second Bush Administration, it is possible, but not likely, that the Six Party process would simply muddle along (a term usually applied to the continued existence of North Korea) without resolution. Clearly, that is an unacceptable outcome. More likely, a second Bush term would bring one of two outcomes. Either the hardline influence within the administration wins the day, the Six Party process dies a slow death, and the United States leads an effort to galvanize the other four parties in an effort to isolate, confront and pressure North Korea into compliance (dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program). Or key hardliners are replaced by more moderate advisors, and the Administration accepts the necessity of a serious, complementary bilateral engagement with Pyongyang that leads to a resolution supported by all parties.

While waiting for November, Pyongyang should not make the mistake of assuming that a Kerry Administration would alter the United States' goal of a reunified, non-nuclear Korea governed by a democratic Republic of Korea in the long-term and a non-threatening, non-nuclear North Korea in the interim. A Kerry Administration should energize the Six Party process by initiating a sustained bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang that complements rather than competes with the current multilateral framework.

What is clear is that pending the outcome of the US presidential election in November, there is little prospect for movement toward a satisfactory resolution of the current nuclear crisis. In the meantime, North Korea may possess several unmonitored and uncontrolled nuclear devices or the plutonium to make them.

Jack Pritchard is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was previously the Special Envoy for Negotiations with the DPRK and US Representative to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in the Bush Administration.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization