Jeffrey LewisProvisionally Delisting North Korea

You may have noticed that IAEA DG Mohamed ElBaradei announced that North Korea has asked the IAEA to remove the seals and surveillance equipment on the reprocessing facility:

This morning, the DPRK authorities asked the Agency┬┤s inspectors to remove seals and surveillance equipment to enable them to carry out tests at the reprocessing plant, which they say will not involve nuclear material.

I had a series of interesting conversations at the little hoo-hah down in Jacksonville with, shall we say, informed observers about the likely scenarios involving North Korea and possible policy responses.

The Scenario

Kim Jong Il, or whoever is running the country, is bargaining to be removed from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. North Korea believed it would be delisted if it declared and disabled it plutonium production facilities. The US wants North Korea to agree to an anywhere, anytime inspection scheme similar to the one those in pre-war Iraq — though conservative analysts tend to refer to South Africa as a model for obvious reasons. My sense is that the Bush Administration’s desire to give North Korea the safeguards equivalent of a colonoscopy has more to do with politics on the Hill than the need for verification.

It seems unlikely that Kim would accept that kind of intrusiveness, both because it is humiliating to the Dear Leader himself and because North Korea holds the cards in this one. Don’t believe me, try this on for size:

1. North Korea has cut the seals and shuttered the cameras. Next up, North Korea tosses the inspectors.

2. Then North Korea reassembles the reprocessing facility.

3. Then North Korea announces, say around Inauguration Day, that the the reprocessing facility is ready for operation and that North Korea will separate additional weapons usable plutonium from the spent fuel.

4. Then North Korea will conduct its third or fourth reprocessing campaign (depends how you count).

5. Then, by the end of the summer, North Korea will conduct another nuclear test — perhaps on the October 6 anniversary of North Korea’s less than satisfactory first test.

Our response will, basically, be limited to convincing the UN Security Council that Kim Jong Il can’t be trusted with a nano-chromatic iPod.

Alternatives to iPod Sanctions

The deal is an obvious one — we delist them in exchange for verification provisions around the plutonium program. The Uranium Enrichment Program and whatever they were up to in Syria are footnotes — we can address them in time. (Though we should be careful to set the correct precedents for verification tools in the plutonium phase.)

The basic problem is timing — if we delist North Korea, they are probably going to resume disablement and allow verification of the plutonium production production program. But no one wants to move first, on the off-chance that the other will bank the concession and up the price.

Said informed observers are floating the idea of “provisional delisting” that allows the North Koreans to move first privately, but save face in the process — here is how it goes:

1. North Korea agrees to a verification protocol that is limited to the 38 nuclear-related sites in the North Korean declaration, which includes anytime access and environmental sampling. Pyongyang hands this agreement over to the Chinese, who hold it in escrow.

2. The President of the United States publicly announces that North Korea is not involved in terrorism (which, by happy coincidence, is true) and that he is de-listing North Korea provisionally on the expectation that North Korea will resume disablement activities and agree to a verification. If North Korea fails to agree to a verification scheme within some decent interval, he can simply place Pyongyang back on the list, right between Iran and Sudan. (For some reason, the State Department tends to list the states alphabetically, instead of by date of listing.)

3. The Chinese release the North Korean agreement, held in escrow, announcing that the North Koreans have in fact agreed to a verification proposal acceptable to the US. “How wise,” Wang Yi will opine, “of the Great Power to move first, allowing the smaller, weaker party to save face.” He will say this without any hint of irony, which is an advantage to being Chinese.

North Korea puts the equipment back into storage, the IAEA locks it down and flips on the cameras. Chris Hill is back hitting the Starbucks near the St. Regis and I have stuff to blog about.

We’ll see.


  1. Sam (History)

    I think the problem on the Hill is twofold…he has to get tough verification and also make some progress on the uranium program and/or Syria activities. Perhaps the negotiators think pushing NK on the former is likely to be more fruitful?

  2. Chris Nelson (History)

    Further proof of the old dictum…sarcasm is the last stop before despair…

  3. nuc free korea (History)

    Sounds almost like you live in Korea! You solution to the problem encapsulates the most important aspects of the problem. First, instrusive inspections are not needed at this point (only the neo cons want them). Second, NK will always want to save face (this is an Asian trait) and the NK’s are paranoid (this is historical, the south is paranoid, too). Further, China relishes its role as moderator and big brother to Korea. The delisting doesn’t even have to be provisional, NK can be put back on the list any time the President wants, NK seems to have overlooked this. I agree that the most dangerous thing NK could do would be to reprocess what they got, other steps just lead to the same place—the need to reprocess. Bottom line, NK will follow a path like you outline unless compromise is reached, preferrably before the election.

  4. Jim S (History)

    From what I have gathered, the present state of the NK “economy” is comparable to the cartoon Coyote running as fast as he can after he has already run off the face of the cliff. With winter coming, I doubt the ability of the NK elite to maintain power, let alone procure/provide the necessary resources to process material on a significant scale. I find myself more concerned with where they might sell what they’ve already got, in exchange for gold bullion. While their participation in terrorism is (at best) debatable, the fact that counterfeit currency and hard drugs are pillars of their economy is not. These are not people overly concerned with the morality of their business dealings. (Then again, I’ve heard the same thing said about Halliburton) Faced with an almost certain ignominious end, the elite may well opt to survive by any means necessary.


    Oh, and let us not give the Middle Kingdom too much credit. They relish having their intact buffer state much more than their moderator/big brother role. They will do what they must to keep NK from becoming a total failure.

  5. Rwendland (History)

    It is important to note that restarting the reprocessing plant may not be to reprocess spent fuel, but to dispose of its radioactive waste. Note Sig Hecker’s sage note in his visit report earlier this year:

    It is important to understand and to be prepared for the fact that the DPRK will have to restart the Reprocessing Facility some time in the next year or so to allow for the safe disposal of its high-level radioactive waste and the remaining low-level uranium waste. I also strongly urge reconsideration of the decision to ship the current load of spent fuel out of the DPRK. Technically, it is much more advisable to allow one more reprocessing campaign under IAEA supervision and ship out 12 kg of plutonium rather than 50,000 kg of highly radioactive spent fuel that will have to be processed somewhere. … The current plan of recanning 50,000 kg of highly radioactive spent fuel for interim storage and eventual shipment is a monumental job.

    Anyone know how the spent fuel pond chemistry & fuel canning project is going now? If this is stalled now, then as well as politics NK may have a practical spent fuel handling and safety desire to reprocess the fuel. Ideally Magnox spent fuel is reprocessed within about 18 months of being placed in water. See previous discussions on pool chemistry and what to do with the Pu.

  6. John

    Lets just hope that the Chinese keep up (or increase) their influence over North Korea. Your solution sounds increasingly likely, and common sense too.

  7. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    I’m wondering how much of NK’s recent actions are in response to US actions and how much has to do with who’s running the country.

    If Kim Jong Il is incapacitated and newbies are running things, they will want to be as careful as possible. That would likely include keeping the nuke factories running.

    They would also want to present a strong face to the US.

    Still, it might be worth presenting your proposal to see what kind of response it would get. If the newbies are truly frightened, they would turn it down.

  8. jon (History)

    Am I the only one that is sick and tired of hearing about N. Korea? They had this nuclear roller coaster issue for years. Yesterday, they turned it off. Today, they turned it on. Maybe tomorrow, they will fire off a missile. Then, they will beg for food. They are bluffing. These are hungry Asians. They do all this because they want attention and they need food. They are starving. I bet my 1 months salary that if the international community ignores them, they will cease all of their nuclear projects. Do not give them any aid and let them starve. Let see if what are they realy going to do with their nuclears. Right now Kim Jong Ill is laughing and playing the international community. He’s a bluff. He is just a little hungry asian.

  9. PC (History)

    The president already provided the certification for de-listing in June. My impression is that coming off the list at this point would basically occur as fast as someone at Foggy Bottom hitting the delete button. It’s the process afterwards, re-tooling controls lists and what not to accommodate that change, that will take time. Perhaps, similar to the scenario above, State can simply move them off the list for cosmetic reasons, and then the administration would hold off on the control-list changes until a sufficient verification package for Yongbyon is in place.

    But I agree, “it’s the plutonium stupid!” Let’s deal with Yongbyon and try to get to the rest in time. It seems like VCI and perhaps NSC were gung-ho on verification and that gung-ho-ness was not translated into Hill’s discussions with the North Koreans.

  10. trey_trey (History)

    seals? in korea? isn’t it a tad warm for seals?

  11. John Olsen (History)

    Our own government is the enemy here. Anytime we get too close to a solution they up the stakes to cause another crisis. You’d think they had enough crises going with their mismanagement already of every domestic issue (plus Iraq and Afgahanistan). What’s the chance this will come up in the presidential debates on Sept. 26? Slim?