Jeffrey LewisNorth Koreans Reverse Disablement, Kinda

There is a lot of hullaballo about North Korea reversing the disablement procedures at Yongbyon. I take the measures seriously as a signal by Pyongyang, but it is important to keep in mind that the substance of the reversal is quite limited.

As the news reports indicate, North Korea had completed eight of the eleven disablement steps. North Korea still had to finish unloading spent fuel rods from the reactor and then remove the reactor’s core. North Korea also had to dispose of fresh fuel rods (there was a debate about bending them or selling them to South Korea). (For more on the disablement steps, see: Hecker on Disablement.)

Three of the disablement steps involved the removal and storage of the following equipment from the Fuel Fabrication Facility: all three uranium ore concentrate dissolver tanks, all seven uranium conversion furnaces (including storage of refractory bricks and mortar sand), metal casting furnaces and the vacuum system, and eight machining lathes.

This equipment was placed in sealed storage, under monitoring, at the Yongbyon site. The United States had wanted to ship out of North Korea the removed components, but Pyongyang rejected this as dismantlement. Apparently, North Korea offered to store the components “anywhere in North Korea,” but the United States chose the Yongbyon site because the equipment was too contaminated to pollute a second site.

North Korea appears to have removed the seals from some or all of this equipment. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack does his best to explain to reporters precisely what is happening:

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, our understanding is that the North Koreans are moving some equipment around that they had previously put into storage. I don’t have a whole lot of details beyond that. Our monitors, our personnel are still on the ground, as are some IAEA personnel, and that’s why we have some real-time insight as to actually what it is that they’re doing.


QUESTION: Are they trying to glue back together again the cooling tower? I mean, what – how significant is this movement of equipment?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, yeah, I’m not going to try to assess it from a technical standpoint, Matt, because I’m not a physicist. I, you know, can’t put together a nuclear reactor for you.


QUESTION: But if I’m getting you right, you’re not, at this point, able to tell us from the podium that they – that the North Koreans are reassembling?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t give you that level of detail. To my knowledge, Matt, they – based on what we know from the reports on the ground, you don’t have an effort to reconstruct, reintegrate this equipment back into the Yongbyon facility. It has been taken out of where it was being stored, I guess, is the best way to put it at this point.

Obviously, removing the equipment from storage is a step backwards from disablement. But the keep in mind that all they have to do is put them back and let the monitors re-seal the equipment.

This seems like classic North Korean bargaining. First they slowed the unloading the fuel rods. When that didn’t result in the outcome they wanted, they’ve upped the ante by cutting the seals.

It seems pretty clear to me that North Korea expected Washington to follow-through on the commitment to removing Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (A story that Steve Clemons broke and then used to sandbag Dick Cheney.)

When that didn’t happen as expected in mid August, Pyonyang released a statement on August 26 that North Korea had halted disablement as a first step and, if it wasn’t delisted, it would soon begin to reverse the process:

Under the October 3 agreement stipulating the practical measures to be taken at the second phase for the implementation of the September 19 joint statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula the DPRK was committed to presenting a nuclear declaration and the U.S. was also committed to writing the DPRK off the list of the “state sponsors of terrorism.”

The DPRK has honored its commitment by presenting the nuclear declaration on June 26. But the U.S. failed to delist the DPRK as a “state sponsor of terrorism” within the fixed date for the mere “reason” that a protocol on the verification of the nuclear declaration has not yet been agreed upon. This was an outright violation of the agreement.


Now that the U.S. breached the agreed points, the DPRK is compelled to take the following countermeasures on the principle of “action for action”:

First, the DPRK decided to immediately suspend the disablement of its nuclear facilities that had been underway according to the October 3 agreement.

This step took effect on August 14 and the parties concerned have already been notified of this.

Second, the DPRK will consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon to their original state as strongly requested by its relevant institutions.

We’re basically haggling over price — the North Koreans want to be de-listed for disablement, we want them to pay twice for that privilege: by disabling and accepting intrusive verification measures.


  1. J (History)

    Actually, as the North Koreans themselves cite, it was the submission of a nuclear declaration that should have been reciprocated with the delisting. Of course, Pyongyang did not submit a full and complete declaration, basically ignoring any enrichment activities, and more importantly, details on third state proliferation, i.e. Syria. So I find it hard to blame the Administration for not fully implementing the delisting — had they taken that step without the North Koreans signing off on a verification plan, the Congress would have been in a bipartisan uproar.

  2. nuc free korea (History)

    It’s worse than that, NK has been acting like (for the last several months) that disablement is for receiving the fuel oil shipments and the declaration was for being delisted. The haggling is over the verification protocol. Whether the submitted declaration is “Complete and Correct” can not be evaluated without verification. What the North objects to (if you read their full statement) is to the kind of special inspections that they rejected in 1993 when the IAEA brought them up then. The rest of their rhetoric and actions are meant to raise the stakes so that they can get a bargain they like over the verification. The U.S. only agreed to “begin” delisting in return for the declaration.

  3. Rwendland (History)

    Keith Luse, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member’s, trip report from visiting NK Feb 2008, records that at that time the NK position on enrichment and exports was already clear:

    “Syria has been declared per the October 3 agreement (meaning there would be no transfer of nuclear technology, etc.) The uranium enrichment program does not exist. We have provided clarification on the tube issue”.

    in terms of export … “North Korea will declare all”.

    So NK clearly stated a uranium enrichment program did not exist – a declaration. Is the verification push because the U.S. does not believe this declaration?

    The report also records that the deal is that the delisting should take “in parallel”, not after, DPRK’s action. Is it reasonable to consider the delisting actions so far to be “in parallel” with DPRK’s measures, or do DPRK have a point on the lack of parallel action so far:

    “the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK, the United States will fulfill its commitments to the DPRK in parallel with the DPRK’s actions based on consensus reached at the meetings of the Working Group on Normalization of DPRK-U.S. Relations”.

    I wonder if NK is holding back on the final export declaration as an “action for action” response to delisting actually happening.

    On the defueling slow-down, this was clearly a response the the behind schedule HFO deliveries (shades of Agreed Framework problems again):

    “One million tons of HFO was committed, with one-half to be delivered in-kind. Five hundred thousand tons of HFO (in equivalent), should have been delivered in equipment and materials. Only two hundred thousand tons of HFO has been delivered so far. We are adjusting the speed of disablement to the speed of the five parties.”

    Not clear the defueling slow-down was a push at delisting. Maybe simply to make time for more of the agreed HFO to arrive before further problems majoring.

  4. Bruce Klingner (History)

    Agree that the activity at Yongybon is more important as a signal than representing actual progress toward reconstituting plutonium processing capability. Even if they reversed the disablement (6 months?), then they’d need to irradiate more fuel if they have it (12 months?), then let it cool (6 months?). So we are a long way off from increasing plutonium or weapons stocks.

    But the repeated deadlocks and KCNA statements against verification are appearing less like simply negotiating tactics and more like their real objective is what they’d said to US officials for several years, i.e. acceptance as a nuclear weapons state regardless of the inducements they are offered for denuclearization.

    Nowhere in the 6PT joint statements is there a deadline for US removal of NK from the terrorist list. Even by the end of Phase 2, Washington is only required to have begun the process. Phase 2, of course, requires a “complete and correct” data declaration from NK (which it still has not provided despite 31December 2007 deadline) as well as disablement of all nuclear facilities (not just those at Yongbyon).

    The verification requirements are international standards that: 1.) US had in previous arms control treaties (see the verification and destruction protocols for START, INF, and CFE); 2.) IAEA safeguards (NK promised nearly 3 years ago to return to NPT and IAEA safeguards at an early date); and 3. UN Resolution 1718 directs that NK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner” and act in accordance with NPT and IAEA safeguards.

  5. Yossi, Jerusalem

    It seems that everybody knows NK is bargaining for food and heating for its children but American pride requires it first brought to its knees. The US wants it’s enemies to surrender unconditionally and was prepared to use even hell fire for this aim. NK is negotiating in the face of an impending famine brought on by American sanctions but still tries to keep its national honour, this is no crime.

    The disintegration of the Soviet Union teaches us that the best way to initiate a regime change in NK is to flood it with free American economical aid, emphasizing it came from the US. Ideology can’t stand up to an abundance of commodities. I hope a new wise administration in Washington will understand this and act quickly.