3
Apr

I heard Pyongyang make a real offer — but the Obama White House didn’t even listen.

By Joel Wit

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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. Read more…

Joel 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.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on April 2, 2013.

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I heard Pyongyang make a real offer — but the Obama White House didn’t even listen. By Joel Wit Given the torrent of threats and insults hurtling…

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