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North balked at U.S.’s tritium demand: Sources

May 29,2019
The Trump-Kim summit broke down over tritium, say sources.

During the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February, the United States demanded the North shut down a facility extracting tritium, a vital ingredient for thermonuclear weapons, but Pyongyang officials failed to give a satisfactory answer, diplomatic sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday.

According to sources well connected to the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration, the United States made the demand last minute at the summit between Trump and Kim on Feb. 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

According to a description of the scene by the sources, Trump told Kim that he did not believe Kim was ready to reach a deal and there was little point in continuing talks.

When Trump and his delegation tried to leave, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui followed the U.S. officials and stressed that Kim was willing to shut down all facilities in the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex, the sources said.

At that point, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, asked Choe if that included the tritium facility. Apparently Choe was unable to answer, the sources said.

Biegun’s question indicates that the goal of the United States in the second summit was the shutdown of the entire Yongbyon Nuclear Complex, not just the uranium enrichment facility and the plutonium reprocessing plant.

After its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, 2017, the North claimed that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb - a thermonuclear weapon far more powerful than an atomic bomb - that could be loaded onto a long-range missile. Since then, suspicions grew that the North was operating a tritium separation plant at Yongbyon.

After the summit broke down, the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and Vice Minister Choe held a press conference later that night and claimed that the North had offered to “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium in the presence of U.S. experts and by the joint work of technicians from both countries,” in return for a partial lifting of sanctions.

Washington refuted the claim by saying that the North had demanded the lifting of all sanctions in return for the shutdown of only some facilities in Yongbyon.

Over the past years, experts in the United States have shown increasing concerns about the tritium plant.

Gary Samore, who served as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction for the Barack Obama administration, wrote in a recent commentary on 38 North, a North Korea analysis website, that plutonium, tritium and uranium are “three central uncertainties in evaluating the significance of dismantling Yongbyon.”

“Even if the nuclear materials production facilities in Yongbyon are shut down, the United States will feel the same level of threat if the tritium plant continues to exist,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “That’s because the North can produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium at other undisclosed facilities and then build hydrogen bombs at the tritium plant.”

“When an atomic bomb explodes, a vast amount of destructive energy is released,” said Lee Chun-geun, a senior analyst at the Science and Technology Policy Institute. “When tritium is added, enormous nuclear fusion takes place, and that is a hydrogen bomb. Tritium is an ingredient of nuclear fusion.”

Various interpretations were made about Choe’s failure to immediately answer Biegun’s question.

“The tritium facility could have been a top secret only known by the highest leader of the North [Kim] and a few scientists,” said a source, hinting that Choe may not have known of it.

Earlier this month, Trump revealed that Kim was willing to surrender only one or two of five key nuclear sites in North Korea. Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired May 19 that he told Kim during their Hanoi summit, “Look you’re not ready for a deal” because he “wanted to get rid of one or two sites, but he has five sites.”

Trump said he asked Kim, “What about the other three sites? That’s no good - if we’re going to make a deal, let’s make a real deal.”

Trump did not detail the locations of the five nuclear sites, and it is unclear if the tritium facility was among the three sites the North refused to shut down.

BY CHUN SU-JIN, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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