By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 17, 2008
BEIJING, Feb. 16 -- North Korea has slowed nuclear disarmament to a snail's pace because it has received only part of the energy aid it was promised in return and does not believe it has made progress toward being removed from the U.S. state terrorism list, a delegation of U.S. experts reported Saturday.
The experts said they had broad access to North Korean nuclear facilities and held discussions with senior Foreign Ministry officials in Pyongyang, the capital, during their four-day private visit to the isolated nation.
Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford University professor and former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he and his colleagues -- Joel Witt, a former diplomat associated with the National Academy of Sciences, and W. Keith Luse, an assistant to Sen. Richard L. Lugar (R-Ind.) -- were told that North Korea remains committed to a landmark Oct. 3 agreement. Under terms of that pact, it promised to carry out a staged disarmament that includes, as a first step, disabling the plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon that is its main source of nuclear weapons material.
But, said Hecker, who led the group, the officials added that North Korea will not move further until it receives the full measure of what it was promised in compensation by the United States and other countries in the six-party negotiations.
The talks, comprising North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and China, have been conducted off and on under Chinese leadership over the past five years. After many rounds without progress, they produced agreement last year for North Korea's full denuclearization, including an end to its nuclear weapons program, in return for energy aid and steps toward better diplomatic relations with its Asian neighbors and the United States.
But the North Korean officials told Hecker and his team that their country had received only 200,000 tons of heavy fuel oil of the 500,000 tons that were supposed to be delivered. In addition, only a small amount of the equipment and parts necessary to repair North Korea's wheezing electricity grid has been shipped in despite a commitment by the six-party nations to do so in lieu of a second 500,000 tons of oil promised in the agreement, the visitors said they were told.
North Korea also complained that the Bush administration has not moved fast enough toward removing Kim Jong Il's Stalinist government from the U.S. lists of state sponsors of terrorism and countries barred from U.S. commerce under the Trading With the Enemy Act restrictions left over from the 1950-53 Korean War. As part of the Oct. 3 accord, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, pledged that the administration would move on both fronts, but without making any known commitment to get North Korea's status changed within a certain time.
Hill said in recent congressional testimony that the United States would not change North Korea's status until the administration is satisfied it has a complete account of any North Korean attempts to build nuclear weapons with enriched uranium, in addition to dismantlement of the plutonium-based program. Hecker said North Korean officials repeated to him and his companions that they have already given a complete account, creating a second facet to a standoff that has dimmed what last fall looked like the promise of rapid denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Hecker said he was told North Korean technicians have removed 1,442 fuel rods out of 8,000 in the plutonium-based fuel-producing facility at Yongbyon, a large nuclear complex near Pyongyang. Although they and the U.S. and U.N. experts monitoring the process have determined that as many as 80 a day can be removed safely, only 32 a day are being pulled out now because of the dispute over energy aid deliveries, he added.
"It would take many months at that rate" to disable the facility and shut it down," Hecker, a nuclear disarmament specialist, said at a briefing in Beijing.
In addition, he said, North Korean officials said they were not going to present the United States with a complete declaration of their nuclear program until they are satisfied with the other issues, creating what Hecker described as "significant hurdles" to moving the process forward.
Despite the double standoff, Hecker said, he came away from his conversations convinced North Korea would be willing to carry out the rest of its obligations under the accord once the promised energy aid arrived and the other issues were resolved. North Korean officials said the disputes arose over technical rather than political problems, Witt added, suggesting they were not putting U.S. good faith in doubt.
"At least that's the posture they're taking at the moment," Witt said.
Before the decision to slow things down, North Korea had carried out 10 of 12 agreed disablement procedures at the Yongbyon facility, Hecker said.
"I judge these actions to be serious, because it would take a considerable amount of time to resume operations at the Yongbyon facility," he added.