North Korean Nuclear Crisis Deepens

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - An announcement by North Korea Thursday that it was reactivating frozen nuclear facilities has stunned South Korea, prompting emergency government meetings and appeals by leading parties for Pyongyang to reconsider the decision.

Pyongyang's foreign ministry said it was taking the immediate step in response to a decision by the U.S. and allies last month to stop the shipment of heavy fuel oil to the country.

The shock declaration resulted in a flurry of foreign policy and military meetings in South Korea, and Seoul's foreign ministry in a statement "strongly" urged the North to withdraw the decision.

Korean and U.S. Forces Korea intelligence branches stepped up satellite surveillance of North Korea and planned to increase spy plane flyovers, according to reports from Seoul.

They cited intelligence sources as saying the surveillance was aimed at establishing whether any attempts were being made to reopen a storage facility for spent fuel rods.

According to the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, North Korea has stored at the facility at Yongbyon some 8,000 spent fuel rods, which could quickly be reprocessed into enough weapons-grade material to build up to five bombs.

This is apart from the "one or two" nuclear weapons the CIA estimates the North already had sufficient material to build back in the early 1990s.

Thursday's development raises the temperature considerably in the standoff between the reclusive communist regime and the U.S., sparked by the North's reported admission last October that it was pursuing a program to enrich uranium, one of two main processes used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

As distinct from the recently admitted uranium program, however, Thursday's announcement refers to reopening frozen nuclear facilities involving plutonium, the other material used in the core of atomic bombs.

Center for Nonproliferation Studies experts told recently that, of the two potential North Korean nuclear threats, the plutonium-based program was of more immediate concern.

This was because there was no compelling evidence that the North had already produced enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb, while on the other hand it already had four of five bombs worth of plutonium available in the stored fuel rods at Yongbyon.

Fuel aid stopped

Under a 1994 deal with the U.S. called the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang agreed to shut down one nuclear power station, stop building two others, and to seal the fuel rod storage facility.

In return, the U.S. undertook to provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel oil each year until alternative, safe nuclear reactors were built with Japanese and South Korean funding.

Last month, however, the U.S. fuel shipments were stopped because, the State Department said, the North had admitted to enriching uranium in violation of the Agreed Framework.

Pyongyang's statement Thursday said reactivating the frozen facilities and resuming construction on the unfinished ones was a direct response to the suspension of the fuel shipments.

"The [North Korean] government has no choice but to lift a nuclear freeze which had been enforced on the precondition of supplies of 500,000 tons of heavy oil annually in accordance with the ... Framework Agreement," said the statement, carried on the official Central News Agency.

It would therefore "immediately resume operation and construction of nuclear facilities necessary for electric power generation."

North Korea also seemed to call into question the U.S. report that it had confessed to the uranium-enrichment program during talks with visiting senior U.S. diplomats in early October.

It said the reported admission was "phraseology arbitrarily used by the U.S. president's special envoy after his visit," adding that North Korea "feels no need to comment on it."

The statement ended by saying Pyongyang was willing to find "a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," and that "whether the North refreezes its nuclear facilities or not hinges upon the United States."

South Korea's official Yonhap news agency quoted "observers" as saying that, if the October uranium-enrichment confession prompted the U.S. to stop fuel shipments, the North's latest move - which was tantamount to nullifying the Agreed Framework altogether - would almost certainly bring a "hard line" response from the Bush administration.

They predicted tensions would heighten to the level of the early 1990s.

At the time, the North threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993 and refused to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

The Agreed Framework was negotiated by the Clinton administration as a response to that crisis.


Pyongyang's announcement casts a shadow over South Korea just a week ahead of elections for a new president to succeed Kim Dae-jung.

Both leading parties condemned the North's decision, in statements that reflected different approaches to inter-Korean dialogue and U.S.-Korean relations.

The conservative Grand National Party (GNP) said Pyongyang's action was a result of Kim's policy of making endless concessions to the North without insisting on reciprocal steps.

Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), on the other hand, urged both North Korea and the U.S. to faithfully implement the Agreed Framework.

Kim won the Nobel peace prize in 2000 for his "sunshine" policy of rapprochement with the North.

For many critics, however, Seoul has been overly willing to overlook infringements on Pyongyang's part, in the interests of keeping the policy and hopes for reconciliation alive.

After Washington revealed the existence of the North's clandestine uranium-enrichment program, for instance, Kim urged the U.S. not to impose sanctions against Pyongyang or scrap the Agreed Framework.

The GNP's presidential candidate, Lee Hoi Chang, called last October for a review of the "sunshine" policy if the North tried to use the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip to win more concessions from the international community.

Issues relating to North Korea have traditionally had an impact on voting patterns in the South.

An aide to Lee was quoted as saying Pyongyang may have thought fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea at this time may benefit "a certain candidate" - that is, Lee's opponent - in the election.

The GNP has historically been regarded as closer to the U.S.

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily said in an editorial that Pyongyang's announcement signaled a "dramatic end" to the outgoing president's policy.

"President Kim argued that if we were patient and generous then North Korea would reform and open up. He continued the assistance, despite criticism that it was a unilateral giveaway," it said.

The results, it said, were the North's "missile exports, clandestine nuclear weapons development, and now the scrapping of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, the last safeguard."

See also:
North Korea Nuclear Weapons Admission Resonates In Region (Oct. 17, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow