North Korea Produces Nuclear Data, Leaving Key Questions Unanswered

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - More than three months after it was supposed to produce a full accounting of its nuclear activities, the North Korean government has given the U.S. some 18,000 pages of data relating to its plutonium-based program, but it has yet to lift the lid on uranium-related work and proliferation.

The documents were given to Sung Kim, director of Korean affairs at the State Department, during a visit to Pyongyang last week. Kim arrived back in South Korea on Saturday and was due to return to Washington on Monday.

In a statement, the department said the records, which would now be "examined thoroughly," apparently deal with operations dating back to 1986 at a reactor and fuel reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, a military complex north of Pyongyang where weapons-grade plutonium had been produced. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006.

The department called the handover an "important first step," but said the U.S. and other countries involved in negotiating a deal to end North Korea's nuclear ambitions would continue to press Pyongyang to meet its commitment fully.

The pledge was contained in a 2007 agreement reached at six-party talks involving the U.S., North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

In exchange for disabling key plutonium-based facilities at Yongbyon and giving a complete declaration of its nuclear activities, North Korea was promised economic aid and diplomatic concessions. Of particular importance to Pyongyang is its removal from Washington's list of terror-sponsoring states, and an end to U.S. sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The process of disabling three core facilities at Yongbyon moved ahead, but a Dec. 31 deadline for the nuclear declaration came and went without progress. U.S. officials said North Korea was unwilling to come clean on suspected uranium-enrichment work or on alleged nuclear cooperation with other countries, including Syria.

Analysts say the two issues are crucial: Even if North Korea verifiably shuts down its plutonium facilities, uranium-enrichment could provide another route to nuclear weapons. American evidence of covert uranium-enrichment activity, presented to the North Koreans at an Oct. 2002 meeting in Pyongyang, triggered the current crisis in the first place.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told U.S. lawmakers as recently as February that the intelligence community had "a medium confidence level that they [the North Koreans] have and continue to operate a uranium-enrichment program."

And on proliferation, North Korean collaboration with Syria, Iran or any other likeminded country could advance the future nuclear capabilities of all parties involved.

Whatever Syria's reason for wanting the nuclear facility that the North Koreans helped build and the Israelis bombed last September, its existence could also have been of benefit to Pyongyang -- and, potentially, to Tehran too.

Former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who has also served as the administration top arms-control official, pointed out in an op-ed article published Thursday that both North Korea and Iran have an incentive to hide their nuclear activities from outside scrutiny.

"What better way to conceal proscribed work from inspectors in North Korea or Iran than to build facilities in Syria?" he asked.

North Korea's failure to make the required full declaration led to a four-month standoff in the six-party talks, the latest in a long line of delays since the process was launched in 2003.

But after the recent handover of the boxes of documents, South Korean government sources said at the weekend that the talks could now resume within weeks.

Some conservatives in the U.S., with Bolton at the forefront, are concerned that the administration may ease off on what is required from the North Koreans in order to get the agreement finalized in the coming months.

They will be watching closely in the weeks ahead for any move by the administration to notify Congress of the intention to strike North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring states. A 45-day notice period is required for removal.

Dell Dailey, coordinator of the State Department's Office for Counterterrorism, told a recent press conference that the process of removing North Korea from the list was three-fold: Congress is notified; an analysis is carried out to ensure that North Korea hasn't been involved in any international terror activity over the previous six months; and North Korea will have to provide the U.S. with "a detailed assurance in key areas that they will not engage in terrorism."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow