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North showed jars of plutonium to delegation

13th in a series

Dec 09,2004
A U.S. civilian delegation was invited by North Korea's Foreign Ministry to tour the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, North Pyeongan province, on Jan. 8, 2004. The five-member delegation included Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. envoy for North Korean affairs, and Siegfried Hecker, a renowned nuclear physicist and former director of the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was the first time the Yeongbyeon facilities had been opened to outsiders since the North expelled inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in December 2002.
When the delegates entered the laboratory where nuclear reprocessing was suspected to have taken place, North Korea played another political card.
Mr. Hecker later said that the facilities were extremely well maintained and that North Korean scientists had answered technical questions without difficulty. He said the delegation told the North Koreans that they could not assess the amount of plutonium that the North would have been able to produce.
After that remark, Mr. Hecker said, the North Koreans showed the U.S. delegates a red metal box containing two glass jars. One jar contained 150 grams of plutonium oxalate powder, the North Koreans said, and the other 200 grams of plutonium metal. Plutonium oxalate powder is an intermediate product toward purifying metallic plutonium.
Mr. Hecker said he could not make a firm judgment as to whether the jars contained plutonium. He asked to conduct a simple verification test but was not allowed to do so.
After touring the facilities for nearly seven hours, Mr. Hecker and Kim Kye-kwan, North Korea's vice foreign minister, met alone. "Pyeongyang has nuclear deterrent power," Mr. Kim said. "This trip probably gave you confirmation about that power."
Mr. Hecker challenged Mr. Kim, however; he said that what he had seen did not convince him. He said he told Mr. Kim that nuclear deterrent power consists of three parts. One is the ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and the second is the ability to design a nuclear weapon. The third is the ability to integrate the nuclear weapon and a delivery system such as a missile. Mr. Hecker told Mr. Kim that he had only seen North Korea's capability to produce plutonium.
Mr. Hecker also attacked Mr. Kim more directly. He said that nuclear deterrence is a term that was used by the United States and the Soviet Union in the past when the two sides were nearly equal in their nuclear armament. Mr. Hecker told Mr. Kim that North Korea's concept of nuclear deterrent was meaningless between the United States and North Korea.
After Mr. Hecker's challenge, North Korea dropped the term "nuclear deterrent power" for some time, replacing it with "self-defense ability." But more recently, the North started using the term "nuclear deterrence" again.
During the meeting, Mr. Kim seemed somewhat nervous, Mr. Hecker recalled later. Mr. Kim reportedly asked Mr. Hecker whether the U.S. government would take military action if Mr. Hecker told Washington that North Korea was already nuclear-armed. Mr. Kim also told Mr. Hecker that North Korea was concerned that the U.S. government would use his conclusion as a reason for attacking the North.
North Korea's invitation to the team was interpreted by the international community as an attempt to bargain. But the North did not show the entire scope of its nuclear activities in order to maintain some strategic ambiguity.
The United States, which had already suffered an intelligence embarrassment over the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, saw North Korea's nuclear capability as another dilemma.
"North Korea claimed that it had reprocessed all 8,000 used nuclear fuel rods between January and June of 2003," a senior Seoul official said. "But the South Korean government believed that the North had been unable to do so. The U.S. side agreed. Although we should have accepted the North's claim, our observations were hinting in the other direction, puzzling the U.S. and South Korean intelligence communities."
Another South Korean intelligence source said the United States and South Korea had detected signs of nuclear reprocessing three times up to that point. "A U.S. satellite found on April 30, May 1 and July 29, 2003, that vapor was coming out of the cooling tower of the laboratory," the official said. "What was interesting was that we had detected vapor on July 29 - after the North claimed that it had completed its nuclear reprocessing."
The official said the U.S. and South Korean intelligence communities believed that the North had reprocessed about 2,000 to 3,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. He added, though, that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency claimed that the North had completed its nuclear reprocessing.
On Jan. 12, 2004, North Korea made public a new proposal, demanding rewards in return for a freeze of its nuclear activities. Pyeongyang intended to focus the second round of six-nation talks with Seoul, Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo on such an offer.
The six countries involved in the talks began their negotiations, but then the nuclear connection between Pakistan and North Korea emerged. North Korea had provided missile technology to Pakistan in return for nuclear weapons technology.
On Feb. 2, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the leader of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, confessed that he had allowed the technology, design and material for uranium enrichment to be transferred to North Korea, and the technology had been passed beginning in the late 1980s. Mr. Khan said that during a visit to North Korea five years earlier, he was taken to a secret underground nuclear plant and shown what he described as three nuclear devices.
But, North Korea's revelation of its plutonium and uranium weapons development capabilities did not stop the second round of six-nation talks from taking place. The United States, which was facing a predicament in Iraq, wanted strongly to keep the multilateral framework going to share the burden of dealing with the North.
On Feb. 25, the second round of talks opened in Beijing. North Korea changed its chief negotiator, but the other five countries sent the same delegates. Replacing Kim Yong-il, the North Korean deputy foreign minister in charge of Asian affairs, was Kim Kye-kwan, the deputy foreign minister in charge of U.S. affairs.
The delegates locked horns over Washington's demand for a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to Pyeongyang's nuclear programs and Pyeongyang's demand for compensation in return for a freeze rather than a dismantling of its facilities. No compromise was reached, and the six nations struggled to coordinate a joint press statement. A deadlock loomed.


by Oh Young-hwan, Jeong Yong-su


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