There is a new crisis looming for the Bush administration this summer and it is not Iraq. But it does feature a harshly repressive regime trying to hide its weapons of mass destruction from international inspection. The crisis is brewing on the Korean Peninsula and involves the end game of a deal made eight years ago by the Clinton administration. In 1994, in return for a freeze on its nuclear facilities, the U.S. promised to build Pyongyang “proliferation-resistant” nuclear reactors and supply North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually. The North Koreans promised to open their facilities to international inspection and get out of the nuclear weapons business all together.
The Clinton Administration managed to defuse the immediate crisis and keep North Korea off the front pages for most of its two terms. Its spokesmen gradually began to tout the deal as a major Clinton foreign policy success; Clinton himself claimed that he got the North Koreans out of the nuclear business. In truth, few of our negotiators thought there would still be a North Korea by the time the bill came due.
But North Korea is still standing and, with regard to nuclear weapons, it has not been standing still, according to the Intelligence Community. It appears that instead of freezing its program, it used the time to develop nuclear warheads. This startling news was first revealed in the public version of a National Intelligence Estimate on “Foreign Missile Developments” pub-lished last December. It says, “The Intelligence Community judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons.” That is not what the Community said in the mid-1990s; the estimates then dealt only with plutonium production, not nuclear warheads.
Presumably, this new assessment was not made lightly. It implies that North Korea has mastered the manufacture of nuclear warheads. The use of plutonium implies an implosion-type warhead, because it is unsuitable for simpler gun-assembly designs. Implosion designs require more sophisticated testing and manufacturing skills. Intelligence Community statements also indicate that the North Koreans have engineered a warhead small enough for delivery on a North Korean missile.
More worrisome are new assessments that indicate those light-water reactors may not be so “proliferation resistant” after all. Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has unearthed a Livermore National Lab assessment that concludes that one reactor alone could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 50 nuclear warheads. Former U.S. officials involved in the original negotiations admit that they did not seek such assessments at the time of the original deal, but they categorically reject Livermore’s recent analysis. They cite technical reasons that would keep North Korea from producing plutonium from the spent fuel from these reactors, but North Korea has fooled international observers (read: the U.S. Intelligence Community) before.
This spring the Bush Administration refused to certify Pyongyang’s compliance with the terms of the Agreed Framework, claiming that North Korea was resisting new inspection arrangements with international inspectors. But the Intelligence Community’s new findings and continued suspicions about covert North Korean activities were more likely the reasons for the non-certification.
North Korea, which had suspended reactor talks after being included by President Bush in the “Axis of Evil,” has decided to begin talking again after all. It is probably betting that the U.S. will be preoccupied in the Middle East and that the Bush Administration will have many incentives to compromise to avoid another crisis. Despite its refusal to certify North Korea, the administration granted it another year’s worth of fuel oil. You can expect pressure from Senate Democrats, like Joe Biden, and the mainstream media to stick to the deal no matter what.
North Korea is not going away soon, no matter how bad things get or how many predictions our Intelligence Community makes. Their predictions that the Communist regime would implode were obviously too optimistic. Some argue for coordinating reactor construction with the timetable for inspections. It would be better to stop the headlong rush to the end game and rethink our overall objectives. We should offer to convert the deal to non-nuclear power plants while upgrading the country’s power grid, as Henry Sokolski recommends. If this is really about economic development and power generation, North Korea should accept that offer.