Wit: North Korea almost gave up its nuclear program. And then it didn't

The 60-foot-tall cooling tower is demolished at the The 60-foot-tall cooling tower is demolished at the main Yongbyon reactor complex at Yongbyon in North Korea. Photo Credit: Getty Images, 2008

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WASHINGTON - Given the torrent of threats and insults hurtling out of Pyongyang these days, North Korea's announcement Tuesday that it intends to restart facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear installation should come as no surprise.

One of those facilities, a plutonium production reactor partially disabled under an agreement with the George W. Bush administration, should eventually be able to produce at least eight more nuclear weapons, adding significantly to Pyongyang's existing small inventory. What will come as a surprise is that, until recently, the North had been willing to agree to steps that could have prevented that outcome but was ignored by the United States and South Korea.

The facility in question has a long history. One of the first U.S. spy satellite pictures taken in the early 1960s was of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where the Soviet Union had supplied the North with a small nuclear research reactor. By the early 1980s, spy satellites showed the construction of a larger 5 megawatt electric (MWe) experimental reactor, a significant development since it would allow the North to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The reactor started operating in 1985 but was shut down in 1994 by an agreement between the United States and North Korea before any plutonium could be produced. Once that agreement collapsed eight years later, Pyongyang picked up where it left off, restarted the reactor, and produced plutonium that was probably used in the North's nuclear tests.

The 5 MWe reactor was shut down once again by a U.S.-North Korea agreement in 2007, this time under the Bush administration. As a first step toward permanent disablement, Pyongyang invited international journalists and diplomats to witness the spectacular demolition of the reactor's cooling tower, needed to carry waste heat into the atmosphere.

Fuel rods for the reactor, others that might have been retooled for its use, and still others that had already been irradiated were stored and periodically inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After Pyongyang's 2009 long-range missile test, Barack Obama's administration secured new sanctions against North Korea through the UN, prompting the furious North Koreans to stop the inspections and produce additional plutonium. The reactor itself, however, remained dormant and thousands of fuel rods also remained unused.

My personal involvement with the 5 MWe reactor dates back to 1995, when I was in charge of implementing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that required Pyongyang to shut it down and to safely store its spent nuclear fuel rods nearby.

In 1996, I visited the facility for the first time to help set up the joint U.S.-North Korean project to accomplish those objectives. The reactor had been one of the most secret facilities in the country. Yet on my first visit, I was allowed to quickly pass by the guards while my North Korean Foreign Ministry escorts were barred from entering (they were eventually allowed in). The Yongbyon facility was enormous, the result of billions of dollars of investment over decades.

The 5 MWe reactor itself appeared cobbled together with imperfect welds and a control room that looked straight out of a cheap 1950s science fiction movie. I imagined this was what nuclear reactors once looked like in the Soviet Union. But it worked, and that's all that counted. My visits to the facility continued, most recently in 2008 after I had left the U.S. government.

The future of the 5 MWe reactor became an important subject for unofficial contacts between the North Koreans, myself and other Americans.

For example, during a Track II meeting in Pyongyang in November 2010, senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials made it very clear that they were willing to relinquish thousands of fuel rods in their possession that could have been used by the reactor, rods that could help produce as many as eight nuclear bombs. That would have been a first step toward permanently disabling the facility, making sure the reactor would never again be a threat. Of course, the North Koreans wanted compensation - standard practice in the international nuclear fuel industry - and they wanted more than the rods were worth.

But that was clearly their opening position. The offer was repeated during meetings in March 2011 in Berlin and once again in Pyongyang at the end of that year.

Each time, the North Korean proposal was dutifully reported to the Obama administration in briefings for the White House, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. The Lee Myung-bak administration was familiar with the offer, as they would have been intimately involved in any effort to shut Yongbyon down because Lee's predecessor had been willing to pay for the rods to take them off North Korea's hands.

The North Korean initiative was duly noted, but the United States and South Korea failed to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that North Korea wasn't able to restart the reactor and turn the rods into new nuclear bombs. Some U.S. officials felt it wasn't worth the effort since the reactor was old and probably useless. Others believed that Washington should focus entirely on stopping Pyongyang's much more threatening program to enrich uranium, unveiled in late 2010, rather than putting the final nail in the coffin of the plutonium production program. Still others, infected by the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," did not want to do much of anything before the North demonstrated its willingness to reform and end its bad behavior.

By August 2012, when another unofficial meeting was held in Singapore, the North Koreans' position had shifted. It was clear that Washington and Seoul were going to be in for tough times after their respective presidential elections at the end of the year.

According to an estimate by Siegfried Hecker, the former head of the Los Alamos Weapons lab now at Stanford University, the North Koreans may need as little as six months to restart the reactor. Unless they are willing to operate at very low power levels, reducing the output of plutonium, they will need to rebuild the cooling tower or put in place some sort of alternative cooling system. That might take six months. Another important job will be to modify some of the thousands of fuel rods either meant for another reactor or complete unfinished rods so that they can be used by the 5 MWe system. That task also may take six months from start to finish. Both of these tasks can be done concurrently.

The missed opportunity to stop the restart of the 5 MWe reactor and make sure Pyongyang has eight fewer nuclear weapons is now water under the bridge. More importantly, if the North Koreans make good on their threat, it's one more sign, if we need it, that Pyongyang is moving full-steam ahead with becoming a small nuclear power. How many nuclear weapons they will eventually produce is anyone's guess.

But one thing should be clear by now: The Obama administration's policy toward North Korea has failed.

Wit is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and founder of its North Korea website, 38 North.

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