The ICAS Lectures


Comments on the ISIS Report on North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Program

Larry Niksch

ICAS Fall Symposium

Humanity, Peace and Security
The Korean Peninsula Issues

October 19, 2010 Tuesday 1:30 PM - 5:00 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
United States House of Representatives
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry Niksch

Comments on the ISIS Report on North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Program

Larry Niksch

This report is necessary reading for anyone who wants to keep up to date on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. It is valuable from several standpoints. It reviews North Korea's attempts, principally through Pakistan, to acquire a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program to produce nuclear weapons, just as Pakistan has done. It shows that North Korea began this effort roughly at the time it signed the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994, thus violating the Agreed Framework almost from the moment Pyongyang signed it. It also shows that North Korean-Pakistani collaboration in creating an HEU program in North Korea was well advanced by the end of the Clinton Administration; Pakistan likely delivered its "starter kit" of centrifuges to North Korea in 2000, according to the report.

The report provides a good summary of the Bush Administration's erratic views and negotiating strategies toward the HEU program. In 2008, the Bush Administration first agreed to drop any requirement that North Korea admit to having an HEU program in the declaration of nuclear programs that North Korea provided to the other members of the six party talks in June 2008. Then in a sharp turnaround, the Bush Administration demanded that North Korea agree to a sweeping program of inspections and verification by outside inspectors. The turnaround was due to the emergence of recent evidence pointing to a North Korean HEU program, which the report describes.

The ISIS report provides new information and evidence to support its conclusion that North Korea has an active and progressing HEU program. The evidence described is new procurements by North Korea of components for an HEU program during the 2007-2009 program and the activities of the Nam Chongang Trading Company (NCG).

I draw several conclusions from the ISIS report. First, I agree with the report's conclusion that U.S. strategy in any new nuclear negotiations will have to prioritize the HEU program. However, I would add that to achieve real denuclearization, the United States will have to negotiate over all three of North Korea's nuclear programs: (1) the plutonium program at Yongbyon, especially if the new construction activity detected there is an attempt to restore the plutonium production facilities; (2) the HEU program; and (3) North Korea's nuclear collaboration with Iran. The report hints at North Korean-Iranian nuclear collaboration; but my research at the Congressional Research Service presented much information, evidence, and logic pointing to several areas of nuclear collaboration. The most threatening of these is a joint Iranian-North Korean program to develop nuclear warheads that can be mounted on North Korea's Nodong missile, called the Shahab missile in Iran.

The report's description of the deep and sometimes open activities of NCG in China, from downtown Beijing to the China-North Korea border region, leads me to a different view than the report's "soft" verdict that there is no evidence that the Chinese government "is secretly approving" North Korea's use of China to acquire materials from abroad for the HEU program. It seems to me that the opposite conclusion is more rational--that the Chinese government has known about NCG's operations and knowingly turned a blind eye toward them. It seems to me that this week's Washington Post front page article on the blatant violations of U.N. sanctions by Chinese companies dealing with Iran reinforces my conclusion.

My view of China's knowing acquiescence in NCG's operations raises, it seems to me, serious questions about how the Obama Administration should deal with China in any future nuclear negotiations. I would recommend the following strategy toward China. First, insist that China state its opposition to North Korea's demands that the United States agree to a bilateral negotiation of a Korean peace treaty and a lifting of U.N. sanctions pior to the re-opening of six party talks. Second, question Chinese officials closely about what they expect a new round of nuclear negotiations could accomplish, including what China is prepared to do to bring about those accomplishments. Third, consider shifting the six party talks into three party talks, including South Korea, or bilateral U.S.-North Korea talks (with close consultation with South Korea) if China's view of a new round of nuclear talks differs significantly from the U.S. view. Any bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks would be held alternately in Seoul or in Seoul and Tokyo. Fourth, present China with a detailed list of the activities of North Korean "trading companies" like NCG inside China which violate United Nations Sanctions resolutions and continually press the Chinese to shut down these companies. Fifth, if China fails to shut down the North Korean trading companies, demand that China give up the permanent chairmanship of the six party talks in favor of a system or rotating chairmanships among the other six party countries.

This page last updated October 23, 2010 jdb