Friday, September 26, 2008

North Korea Puts Nuclear Cat Among The Pigeons

By Security and Defence specialist Hans de Vreij

On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) removed the seals and security cameras from part of North Korea's controversial Yongbyon nuclear facility following a request from Pyongyang. Yongbyon is the reprocessing plant capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Satellite view of YongbyonNorth Korea has - not for the first time - put an atomic cat among the political pigeons regarding its controversial nuclear program. Last Friday, Pyongyang announced it would no longer honor its agreements with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States. The North said it would restore the Yongbyon nuclear facility to its 'original state'. The move comes after the cooling tower of one of the facility's nuclear reactors was blown up in June as a gesture of goodwill.

Six-nation agreement
For the North Korean regime, the main bone of contention is a section in the 2006 six-nation agreement which boils down to North Korea agreeing to end its production of nuclear weapons in exchange for political and economic concessions. A statement issued by the state-owned news agency KCNA says the United States failed to implement one of the promised concessions: removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

'Rogue state'
However, it's not clear why Pyongyang chose exactly this moment to renege on its obligations under the six-nation agreement; just as it's not clear whether Washington will be willing to reconsider North Korea's status as a 'rogue state'. Equally obscure is whether the move was in any way prompted by North Korea's domestic political situation, and more specifically the notable absence of its 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, who has not been seen in public for months.
There is little conclusive evidence regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities, except for the fact that it held one nuclear test in 2006. According to some estimates, around 50 kilograms of plutonium was produced at Yongbyon over the years, sufficient for slightly less than ten nuclear weapons. The fact is that North Korea has nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles at its disposal. However, whether the North is actually capable of building such small nuclear weapons remains to be seen.

Political signal
The IAEA says it has removed around 200 seals and 20 cameras from the reprocessing plant. The rest of the complex is reportedly still being monitored. Experts say it may take months, if not longer, before it is operational again. However, this leaves unanswered the question of where the fuel rods necessary for the production of weapons grade plutonium would be coming from. At least for now, it would appear to be mainly a powerful political signal from the North Koreans, without too many consequences in the short term.

In a first reaction, the White House said it was disappointed by the North Korean move. A spokesperson urged the country to reconsider its decision and "come back immediately into compliance with its obligations as outlined in the six party agreements".

Source: RadioNetherlands.Nl

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