Denials of Uranium Program Could Jeopardize North Korea Nuclear Talks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Following the revelations about the leaking of Pakistani nuclear secrets to North Korea and other rogue states, the subject of Pyongyang's alleged uranium enrichment program will take priority in next week's six-party talks in China.

U.S. officials at the talks will press for an admission from North Korea that it does indeed have a covert, uranium-based nuclear weapons program.

The North Koreans continue to deny this, claiming only to have a plutonium-based nuclear program. The two materials are used in the core of atomic bombs.

It is the plutonium program, based at a now-reopened reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, that has been the main focus of the 16-month standoff.

But some experts have cautioned that North Korea may seek to strike a deal with the U.S. to shut down the plutonium-based program, while continuing the clandestine effort to obtain highly enriched uranium (HEU).

Pakistan's top scientist, A.Q. Khan, recently confessed to having sold nuclear technology to foreign governments. Investigators said North Korea, Libya and Iran had benefited, and that in Pyongyang's case, Khan had evidently helped set up an HEU program.

The State Department says the North Koreans did, in fact, admit to a covert HEU program, when presented with evidence during bilateral talks in October 2002.

That was the encounter that triggered the present crisis.

After the U.S. retaliated by suspending fuel oil supplies, North Korea resumed operations at the Yongbyon complex - which had been mothballed under a 1994 pact with the U.S. - expelled U.N. inspectors, and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While attention was thus focused on the plutonium-based activities at Yongbyon, North Korea began publicly to deny the existence of a uranium program.

The U.S. has now warned that that stance could jeopardize the talks scheduled to begin in Beijing next Wednesday.

"I think North Korea's unwillingness to discuss the uranium enrichment program could subvert President Bush's determination for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the North Korean issue," Undersecretary of State for arms control John Bolton said in Japan this week.

Bolton described the uranium program as an "800-pound gorilla" sitting at the table, which could not be ignored.

Earlier, another top U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, said that Khan's confession suggested that, if anything, "the North Korean HEU program is of longer duration and more advanced than we had assessed."

Kelly was the official who confronted North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju with evidence of a uranium enrichment program in October 2002. He is expected to head the U.S. team in Beijing.

The talks in the Chinese capital will be the second round since the six-party formula - involving the U.S., North Korea, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia - was agreed upon. A first round, last August, ended without achievement.

North Korea claims already to have a "nuclear deterrent," but exactly what it possesses, and what it is developing, remains the subject of speculation.

The CIA estimated previously that North Korea had obtained sufficient material in the early 1990s before the agreement with the U.S. to build "one or two" nuclear weapons.

If North Korea has completed the reprocessing of 8,000 used fuel rods at Yongbyon, as it claims, then experts assess it will have enough plutonium to build a further four of five bombs, possibly within months.

Because there is no compelling evidence that Pyongyang has already produced enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, they consider the plutonium-based program to be of more immediate concern.

North Korea is demanding economic assistance and diplomatic recognition in return for a pledge to freeze its nuclear facilities.

But as long as it denies the existence of an HEU program, Washington's demand for "a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programs" cannot be met, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher indicated Wednesday.

"You can't end things that you don't acknowledge," he said of the HEU issue.

"It's clear that to make any progress on this, North Korea needs to understand that we're talking about all their programs to make nuclear weapons and nuclear material, and that we're going to need to sit down and discuss those things," Boucher said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow