The negotiation that yielded Tuesday’s landmark agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs now gives way to a more arduous phase: making sure the communist country keeps its promises.
Secretive, belligerent and with a reputation for skirting past deals, North Korea makes a rough prospect for arms control inspectors, experts said. It allegedly set up a secret nuclear weapons program, even as it shut down a different program a decade ago and put it under U.N. inspection.
Its mountainous terrain is pockmarked with tunnels and bunkers ideal for hiding bombs, materials and production lines. U.S. technical crews visited a suspected North Korean underground nuclear site, once in 1999 and again in 2000, only to find a suspiciously empty tunnel complex.
“How much nuclear material it has, how much it has produced and whether they’ve hidden any, we have our estimates. But no one can say for certain,” said Liu Gongliang, a nuclear physicist who has tried to track North Korea’s nuclear program for the Chinese government.
As the United States, China and other regional partners look to enforce their hard won agreement, getting past North Korea’s usual intransigence is critical. Success in ridding North Korea of all its nuclear weapons programs would make the country a model of disarmament, like South Africa in the 1990s and Libya this decade.
Failure risks stoking tensions anew in often hostile Northeast Asia where U.S. troops are stationed to defend allies Japan and South Korea against a huge North Korean military.
North Korea has refined enough plutonium from its main, known facility — a 5-megawatt reactor based on a Soviet design and its associated processing plant in Yongbyon — to make from four to 13 nuclear bombs, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a disarmament think tank in Washington.
Under Tuesday’s accord, North Korea committed to first shutting down Yongbyon, accounting for all its nuclear facilities and eventually dismantling them all. But though the Yongbyon reactor was put under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection as part of 1994 deal with the United States, the entire facility has never been opened for inspection.
That deal unraveled after Washington accused Pyongyang in 2002 of running a parallel weapons project enriching uranium, a program the new agreement has assigned to a working group to resolve later. North Korea may have other undeclared and unknown facilities and materials, experts said.
Ultimately there is the question of whether Kim Jong Il, dictator of an impoverished and politically isolated country, intends to relinquish his nuclear weapons.
Jin Linbo, a North Korean watcher at China’s Institute for International Studies, said North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan was quoted last December as telling South Korean and Japanese reporters, “Do you believe we developed and sustained our nuclear weapons programs for so long just to give them up?”
Other governments have developed nuclear weapons for political popularity, diplomacy or security, Jin said. “But North Korea is not like other countries. They need it for food, they need it for fuel, for clothing to wear” and cannot afford to bargain it away cheaply, he said. “So I’m very pessimistic.”
Cooperation is considered critical for a successful disarmament. Inspectors had trouble uncovering the extent of South Africa’s program even with assistance from the government. North Korea is suspected of having hidden some of its processed plutonium despite allowing in the U.N. inspectors under the 1994 agreement, said Liu, the Chinese physicist.
“South Africa was a model,” Liu said. “Without that kind of cooperation it’s extremely tough. If you say ’we think you have more fuel,’ they won’t acknowledge it, and if you think you’ve got it all, they’ll keep any remaining materials for later.”