Jeffrey LewisNorth Korean Reprocessing Campaigns

I’ve been writing the same blog post for four days. Time to just publish it.

Thanks to McClatchey’s Warren Strobel and a trio of articles by the New York Times’ Helene Cooper
(1, 2 and 3), we now know that North Korea has declared that it produced 37 kilograms of plutonium — and denies that it reprocessed plutonium in any significant amount before 2003.

I hope they are lying.

This is precisely the same dispute that led to the first crisis in 1992 — did North Korea clandestinely withdraw some or all of the fuel roads in 1989 and reprocess them secretly?

North Korea has admitted to three reprocessing campaigns. The question is whether the 1990 campaign resulted closer to 90 grams of plutonium (North Korea’s claim) or 9 kilograms (the upper bound of the US estimate).

  • Campaign #1, March-May 1990 The North Koreans claimed in their May 1992 IAEA declaration to have separated 62 grams from about 90 grams produced in 86 broken fuel rods. The IAEA found many discrepancies in the North Korean declaration, suggesting that North Korea had reprocessed more batches of plutonium over a longer period of time (1989-1991) than declared. It was, as an IAEA official told David Albright, as if “North Korea had presented the IAEA with a pair of gloves but one was red and the other was green. The IAEA now had to look for the missing red and green gloves.” The IC judged that North Korea had secretly unloaded the Yongbyon reactor in 1989 and reprocessed enough plutonium for “one, possibly two” nuclear devices — reportedly corresponding to an estimate of 8-9 kilograms of plutonium.
  • Campaign #2, January-June 2003. In 1994, North Korea unloaded 8,000 fuel rods. These were canned and placed under IAEA surveillance until 2003 when, after the collapse of the Agreed Framework, North Korea reprocessed them. Albright estimated the amount of plutonium recovered at 20-28 kilograms.
  • Campaign #3, April-August 2005 Completed by mid-2006 (Dates are approximate.) North Korea unloaded another 8,000 fuel rods in spring 2005 and reprocessed them over the summer. Albright estimated the amount of plutonium at 14-17 kilograms.

These numbers are pretty rough — I make it 40-60 kg of Pu if there were three “kilogram-sized” campaigns, 30-50 if there were two. That, coincidentally, is the basically the range reported by Glenn Kessler, who wrote “The new U.S. estimate is expected to be between 35-40 and 50-60 kilograms.”

So the bottom line — as Warren Strobel reports — is that North Korea still denies a clandestine reprocessing campaign in 1990:

Thousands of pages of nuclear documents submitted by North Korea earlier this month cast doubt on a U.S. intelligence estimate of how much weapons-grade plutonium the secretive communist country has been able to amass, U.S. officials and a leading private analyst said Wednesday.

An initial review of the documents, they said, provides no evidence that communist North Korea covertly extracted plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, from its reactor complex at Yongbyon before 1992.


David Albright, a former United Nations nuclear inspector who consults frequently with the U.S. government, said the reactor records turned over by North Korea are “consistent with what they’ve said.”

The CIA’s contention that Pyongyang extracted plutonium prior to 1992 “is not supported in the record,” said Albright, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The trove of documents “is internally consistent, and to forge it would be tremendously difficult,” he added.

So here we are — it’s fifteen years later, Bob Gallucci has shorter hair and Dan Poneman has shaved off his ‘stache. North Korea has produced at least 37 additional kilograms of plutonium and exploded a nuclear device. Yet we are still arguing over the May 1992 declaration.

If — and I say if — the North Korean declaration is accurate, than the Bush Administration has a perfect matched pair of catastrophic blunders based on overconfidence in worst-case intelligence analyses. The decision to collapse the Agreed Framework in 2002 would go down as a fateful error that allowed North Korea to go from zero to many nuclear weapons.

The IC had reason, and still has reason, to be suspicious. It is worth noting the reasons many still suspect that North Korea reprocessed more plutonium than it declared in 1990.

  • The IAEA uncovered a number of discrepancies about the number of batches and timing of North Korea’s reprocessing activities. “For many,” David Albright wrote, “the sheer number of anomalies was perhaps the strongest evidence of undeclared plutonium separation.”
  • US officials later revealed that the IC observed North Korea shutting down the reactor for 70 days in 1989, at which time some or all of the fuel might have been unloaded.
  • North Korea constructed, camouflaged and refused IAEA access to what the CIA believed was an undeclared waste site at Yongbyon.

These are obviously suspicious indications — but they don’t amount to proof that, before 2002, North Korea had enough plutonium for a bomb. And, as Stephen Engelberg and Michael Gordon reported in 1993, INR dissented from the “one, possibly two” judgment.

The important point, however, isn’t whether North Korea did or did not. We can’t control that and may, in fact, never know. What we can control is how we, particularly our elected leaders, use intelligence in the service of the protecting the national interest.

The lesson in all this has something to do with how policymakers use intelligence in a complex, uncertain world. The President “gets paid the big bucks” — as my Dad would say — to make the tough decisions that take into account the possibility that intelligence estimates are in error one way or the other. After all, analysts are human beings, not wizards with crystal balls (although David Albright has been known to use the software Crystal Ball). As President who blames his intelligence community is, at least in my opinion, like the poor workman who blames his tools.

The Agreed Framework and the containment of Iraq were not optimal policies, but the Clinton Administration chose them because they balanced the risks of our worst-case intelligence judgments with the downsides of intelligence failure. In other words the policies were robust to dramatic intelligence failures.

In the case of North Korea, for example, the Administration made a choice to focus on preventing North Korean access to additional plutonium, rather than emphasizing past production. As Joel Wit, Dan Poneman and Bob Gallucci write in Going Critical, the Agreed Framework was about protecting the future more than uncovering the past:

[W]hen the president, vice-president, and principals considered the matter, they decided that they would attach the highest priority to stopping North Korea from obtaining any additional plutonium. All agreed, in essence, that it was more urgent to protect the present and the future than to unravel the past, by pinning down how much plutonium North Korea had indeed separated in its earlier reprocessing campaign.

Update | 5:46 pm 11 February 2010 I’ve changed the date of the third reprocessing campaign, which was just flat wrong in the post.


  1. J House (History)

    “The decision to collapse the Agreed Framework in 2002 would go down as a fateful error that allowed North Korea to go from zero to many nuclear weapons.”

    Jeffery, the US didn’t ‘allow’ NK to embark on a decades-long plan to go from zero to many nuclear weapons.NK did this through their own volition, despite multiple US pressures to cease the activity.
    The question is, ‘why’?
    Perhaps it is because NK believes it was in their best security interest to do so, or, it would give them additional leverage with external actors like the US (economic, political and strategic).
    You automatically assign blame to this administration for NK’s long-term goal to develop nuclear weapons when in fact, there is plenty of evidence NK showed little reluctance to discontinue these activities…they simply paused them.
    Let’s not forget all of the other prohibitied activities NK was engaged in before, during and after the framework discussions were evolving (should I list?
    For starters, a covert UE program, assistance to Syria to build a plutonium production capability, etc.).

    The only way the US could have ‘disallowed’ it was by leveling Yongbon, and that would have had to occur before 1999.

    Given your logic, the US is ‘allowing’ Iran to develop nuclear weapons or at least, a UE capability.

    So, will the US be to blame too if Iran tests a nuclear weapon?

    Or, will the US also be to blame for ‘disallowing’ it via military means?

  2. Peter (History)

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but it does indeed seem to be important to know how much plutonium was processed in the past. After all, every nation should be concerned about material falling through the cracks – especially from a regime that’s so cash strapped as Kim’s.

  3. Muskrat (History)

    I had a mediation training class once. In any dispute needing mediation, there is a powerful urge to settle the facts, to do the Sherlock Holmes thing to find out what actually happened—Was it plutonium reprocessing? Was it sexual harassment in the workplace? Was it sexual harassment at the plutonium plant?—and then use those facts to structure a “just” settlement. I was warned in no uncertain terms to avoid that temptation if I wanted to be any good as a mediator, but instead to focus on finding a way forward that avoids more trouble. We as a nation love puzzle solving, we love making moral judgments, and we hate ambiguity. But National Security is not a cop show. It does no good to play CSI: Northeast Asia, as much as we all want to. A good leader studies the past to do better next time. A bad one studies the past to accumulate a laundry lit of grievances that need to be settled by force if necessary (Iraq). And a truly catastrophic leader uses the failures of the past to justify bungling even more spectacularly the next issue that comes along (Iran).

    The Agreed Framework was good because it offered a path forward. Sure, the fate of any plutonium had to be addressed eventually, but it wasn’t critical do do so before getting the truly imperative goal— stopping the production process.

  4. J House (History)

    What is left for NK to bargain with if it has already disabled its production facilities at Yongbyon, other than several non-declared kilos of Pu?
    The NKs have their price, and it will be heavy. Let’s hope that the US is willing to pay more for it than Iran, Syria (or worse)…
    Perhaps the NKs will never admit to it and hold on to it for a ‘contingency’ (for example, a future weak US President that they can better deal with).
    Nothing like holding the fate of Seoul over our heads for a couple of new power plants, millions of tons of oil and food, or an agreement for US forces to leave SK in the near future.

    There is simply no good reason (yet) for NK to declare and give it up.
    Time is on their side.

  5. Harry Lime (History)


    I’m rather perplexed as to why you hope the North Koreans are lying about the absence of any significant reprocessing before 2003. Yes, of course it would be rather uncomfortable for a number of governments (well, at least one) and perhaps the odd international organisation but, hey, perhaps they were wrong and the North Koreans were telling the truth all along. I very much hope the North Koreans were telling the truth and that they allow this to be properly verified.

  6. SQ

    What I believe Jeff is referring to was the American decision to cut off heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea in 2002, on the grounds of the suspected HEU program — the “cheaters never prosper” doctrine. Only then did the North Koreans finally withdraw from the NPT and start up the Yongbyon complex again.

    The U.S., in other words, was fully complicit with North Korea in dismantling the Agreed Framework.

  7. Mark Gubrud

    Glenn Kessler… wrote “The new U.S. estimate is expected to be between 35-40 and 50-60 kilograms.”

    Does this mean 35-60 kg, or does it mean that for some arcane analytical reasons the range of 40-50 kg is less likely than either 35-40 or 50-60? Such a bimodal probability distribution would seem a bit strange, perhaps the result of applying post-Bayesian swarm network modeling methods in the presence of ideological divisions within the wonkate?

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Glenn indicated, in a comment on an earlier post that the wording was changed in editing.

    The sentence, AS IT APPEARED IN THE NEWSPAPER, was: “The new U.S. estimate is expected to be from 35 to 40 or 50 to 60 kilograms.” BUT THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD HAVE READ: “The new U.S. estimate is expected to be between 35-40 and 50-60 kilograms.” In other words, there are not two blocks, but a single range that will be between 35 and 60 kilograms. My sources were vague on the exact numbers at the upper and lower part of the range, which is why it was written like that.

    See why you have to read ACW?


    Well, of course, you are right in terms of moving forward.

    And “hope” is out of place here — they did or the didn’t; it matters or it doesn’t.

    But I am just wondering if a false declaration would somehow be better than one that suggests the Bush Administration had made such a terrible error.

    I mean, I can’t imagine the press conference where Rice has to explain that, yes, by accepting the declaration she accepts, by implication, the number of North Korean nuclear weapons on January 20, 2001 was zero and today it is something like three or four or five or six.

    I am reminded of that bizarre statement by Porter Goss during the 2004 election campaign.

  9. Steven Dolley (History)

    “the US didn’t ‘allow’ NK to embark on a decades-long plan to go from zero to many nuclear weapons.NK did this through their own volition, despite multiple US pressures to cease the activity.”

    Well, not exactly. North Korea joined the NPT circa 1986. But the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations ignored their failure to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and put their program under safeguards, because the US didn’t want to rock the boat with the USSR.

  10. J House (History)

    I don’t accept the premise that NK inexorably moved down the path towards the testing of a nuclear weapon based on some force of nature, or, by US ‘failure’ to timely conclude legal agreements with the IAEA.
    We have seen how effective IAEA ‘safeguards’ keep NPT members from doing nefarious things, as Syria, Iran and NK have demonstrated over the years. You place way too much faith on a legal body that has no teeth and walks with blinders on when it comes to NPT violations of member states.
    Now, could you please pass the ‘green salt’?

  11. Tom (History)

    Weren’t there credible allegations that at least one of Pakistan’s May 1998 nuclear tests involved a Plutonium based weapon which used (allegedly) North Korean supplied Plutonium?

    There doesn’t seem to have been much revisiting of the issue lately that I can find.

    Does anyone have anything that can elaborate on or discredit those allegations?

  12. Arch Roberts Jr (History)

    Actually, Steve, you are only about half right: read it from the DPRK itself at:

    North Korea did sign a safeguards agreement, without which there was no basis for the IAEA to apply safeguards there, which it did.

    From a legal perspective, the dilemma still exists that the DPRK claims to have withdrawn legally from the NPT, whereas the IAEA believes they missed the 90-day deadline by one day. If I recall correctly, this has to do with time zones and the date line, so it is admittedly an esoteric topic. But obviously there is no legal requirement for the DPRK to accept NPT safeguards if it does not cosider itself a party to the treaty. This poses interesting questions about whether the Agency applies safguards under the NPT or as a result of the Six-
    Party Talks. Again esoteric, but the issue allows the DPRK to ditherate even longer about what it is supposed to do.

    Still and all, the old Chinese proverb applies to North Korea: “You tied the knot: you untie the knot.”

    Finally, what are we to think of Jack Pritchard’s reported assertion (NPR this morning) that the DPRK told him there would be no disclosure of existing nukes or their whereabouts? A knottier knot I can’t imagine!

  13. Robot Economist

    Well there wouldn’t be sexual harassment at the plutonium plant if those nuclear engineers didn’t dress so sexy…

    Seriously though, Dr. J is trying to articulate two very valid points: (1) Measuring against absolute compliance can be politically unsustainable and (2) the effectiveness of verification and nonproliferation measures is all in how you use them:

    Bush policy on North Korea from 2002 to 2006 was to use Pyongyang’s noncompliance to a pretext for punitive policy action. Unfortunately, the perceived threat posed by noncompliance is really in the eye of the beholder, so few countries rallied to join the U.S. approach — at least until Pyongyang started testing nukes. To their credit though, the Bush administration has learned a little from their mistakes in Iraq and North Korea when it comes to Iran. They still emphasize punitive action — they are just a little more cautious about rolling out without some measure of P5 consensus.

    The same is true about the question of pre-2002 Pu. Sure, the North Koreans probably lied to some degree about how much Pu was pulled out of those fuel rods around 1990, but that wasn’t as important as the constraining further North Korean attempts to cheat the system. The U.S. found that it couldn’t force the Pu issue because the topic wouldn’t gain enough traction with North Korea’s neighbors.

  14. SQ


    Pakistan has long had a reprocessing capability, albeit small-scale. The attempt to pin Pakistani plutonium on another country is just one of those things.

  15. mike (History)

    J House wrote

    Jeffery, the US didn’t ‘allow’ NK to embark on a decades-long plan to go from zero to many nuclear weapons.NK did this through their own volition, despite multiple US pressures to cease the activity. The question is, ‘why’? Perhaps it is because NK believes it was in their best security interest to do so, or, it would give them additional leverage with external actors like the US (economic, political and strategic).

    That is correct, N. Korea did not operate in a vacuum – they took into consideration their relations, or lack thereof, with the United States. When the US broke the terms of the agreed framework (at least in the eyes of NK) they picked up where they left off, not all that surprising considering we are a)technically still ‘at war’ and b)NK’s penchant to view every move by the US as a grave national threat. Perhaps the actions by the US in Iraq and Israel in Syria make b) not as crazy as it used to seem.

    To say that the US had nothing at all to do with the eventual fuel reprocessing and bomb production is to say you are shocked and blame the horses for leaving the barn after you open the gate; after all they intended to leave all along.

  16. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    I am not in a position to either agree or disagree with your version of whether Pakistan built a PU bomb by themselves or was it a device from DPRK.

    But I worry about the quickness of analysts to by default, conclude that nuclear programs are necessarily national, rather than multi national efforts.

  17. SQ


    Almost nothing is impossible. But that leaves us in the realm of speculation. In the absence of what they considered sufficient evidence to the contrary, for example, some people felt free to suppose that al-Qaida could have been doing Saddam’s bidding.

    So seriously, what do you suppose is more likely? That a country with a nuclear-weapons program and a reprocessing capability tested its own device on short notice — recall the context of events — or just happened to have another country’s device on hand to test instead?

    And if it’s the latter, shouldn’t North Korea have done better than a fizzle in ’06?

    I’m not saying that Pakistan didn’t test a North Korean bomb. I’m not saying they didn’t test an Israeli bomb, for that matter. But what’s the most likely explanation of events?

    The burden of proof would seem to be on those who point to any of the less likely scenarios. Without some evidence, it remains speculative. And doubtful.

  18. tom (History)


    The reason I brought the May 1998 tests up in this thread was that I was under the distinct impression that Pakistan did not have a Pu production or reprocessing facility that wasn’t under IAEA supervision until Khusab came online in 1998.

    And given that it would take a couple of years for the Pu from Khusab to become available for use we’re still looking at the presence of an apparently unexplained amount of Pu in that test.

    Please note I’m note saying your explanation is wrong but given the supposed IAEA safeguards in place in Pakistan it may not also be right either.

    Hence my question as to if there has been any further disclosures about the nature or the origin of the Pu in those tests.

  19. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I believe that the allegations of the a plutonium test in 1998 by Pakistan (presumably on behalf of North Korea) remain disputed.

    Come to think of it, that would make a great post.

  20. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    @SQ, tom, Sir Jeffrey:

    I do not have facts to add to the debate, so I remain suspicious, though I do lean toward tom’s view that further disclosures about where the Pu for the Pakistan test came from would answer a lot of questions.

    I am exceptionally uncomfortable about the interpretation that DPRK did a fizzle.

    Are we imposing our values and standards on them?

    Serious nuclear powers do the first device as a laboratory device that is bigger, uses more material than a more refined weaponized device that is unlikely to “fizzle”.

    On the other hand, suppose that it really is the second device DPRK built that was tested… my question then becomes…

    Could it be that they went straight to a weaponized design, skipping the first test? Israel is reputed to have never officially tested… so this is not impossible.

    Alternatively, was it their 2nd, and so it was not as much of a flop as it was made out to be.

    My suspicious nose makes me feel like an…anteater.

    Do your post, Dr Lewis, just don’t go postal on us in Turkey.

  21. Korea wonk

    Interesting there isn’t a posting here on the Bhutto revelation that Pakistan provided extensive uranium weapons assistance to North Korea (thus augmenting US Intelligence Community’s assessment as well as establishing that NK was pursuing a program back in 1993). Also, no posting on Jack Pritchard’s discussions with senior NK officials which contradict Bush administration’s claims of what Pyongyang has agreed to for phase 3 of Six Party Talks.

  22. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Dear Korea Wonk:

    When would suggest that I sleep?

    Why don’t you post something in the comments?

  23. SQ

    Tom, LTR:

    We should all be “anteaters.” A healthy skepticism is… healthy.

    My understanding is that Pakistan’s first reprocessing facility, called New Labs, was completed in 1982 or so. It has never been under safeguards, so far as I know. But it is generally believed that Pakistan did not start operating it until later, when unsafeguarded spent fuel became available.

    Complicating this view of things is the presence of reactor products in uranium traces on Pakistani centrifuges, per the IAEA’s investigations in Iran. Reprocessing is the only way they could have gotten there.

  24. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    Next, they will ask for pay.

  25. joel wit (History)

    It may be too late to join this stream of comments but a number of people have cited Jack Pritchard’s comments about how the North doesnt intend to give up its nukes. Well, I dont mean to dispute what they told Jack and no one knows what they will ultimately do but the North Korean line with most visitors has been that they will not give them up until the US drops its hostile policy towards the DPRK. That of course can mean all sorts of things and we need to find out what it does mean. But I think that it is wrong to characterize their current position as they will not give them up.