2003 April 18 Friday
North Korea Claims To Be Reprocessing Nuclear Fuel Rods

North Korea claims to have reprocessed plutonium fuel rods to make them into a form suitable for nuclear weapons making.

North Korea said it had begun reprocessing 8,000 old fuel rods from an aged nuclear reactor, adding that the lesson of the U.S. war in Iraq is that North Korea must possess a "powerful physical deterrent" to the United States.

This is in reference to the plutonium fuel rods at the Yongbyon reactor. Keep in mind that North Korea has been busily working on its separate uranium enrichment for years and that North Korea's uranium enrichment program is only several months behind its plutonium program.

As for North Korea's contention that it is processing plutonium in response to the US war on Iraq: North Korea began development of a uranium enrichment capability while Bill Clinton was in office. The problem is that, yes, North Korea's leaders do see the US attack on Iraq as showing that the US is willing and able to take out regimes that the US sees as a threat and the Bush Administration certainly sees North Korea as a threat. However, as demonstrated by the uranium enrichment program, the North Korean regime already had a strong motive to develop nuclear weapons and was trying to do so.

Had the Bush Administration been incredibly friendly toward North Korea from the start of the Administration the North Koreans still would be pursuing nuclear weapons development right now. The US lacks an option for stopping North Korean nuclear weapons development short of a military strike. China is the only country that might be able to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

Update: This announcement comes days before official talks between China, the United States, and North Korea in Beijing about North Korea's nuclear weapons development program. A senior Bush Administration official sees the North Korean announcement as a way to get added leverage in the upcoming talks.

"This is the perverse way they think," the official said, using unusually strong language for diplomacy. "They think they can get leverage."

Kim Jong-il obviously does not understand how the Bush Administration is going to view this latest move. While it is not possible to be certain as to whether North Korea really is reprocessing fuel rods the Bush Administration is likely to assign a great deal of weight to the possibility. One possible response might be to speed a US forces build-up in the western Pacific region.

The Bush Administration may also respond by cancelling the talks.

``There is no doubt that this Foreign Ministry statement throws the holding of the talks in doubt,'' the official said.

A ratcheting up of US military force will apply pressure on the Chinese government to move away from trying to only be a broker or facilitator between the United States and North Korea and more toward an active participant. China prefers the role of referee.

Others say China's involvement in the meetings is merely to facilitate bilateral negotiations between the two parties. One diplomat compared Beijing's role to that of a referee in a heavyweight boxing match.

"China's role is likely to be significant, but it doesn't want to get directly involved in the brawl," he said.

The Bush Administration needs to disabuse the Chinese government of the notion that it can minimize the Chinese role in resolving the North Korean problem.

Update: The United States has a limited ability to detect whether North Korea is really reprocessing nuclear fuel rods.

In the past, however, officials have said there is limited capacity to detect when the reactor is turned on. It could take up to several weeks, they said, to determine whether it had in fact been activated.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 18 10:19 AM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control


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