North Korea, IAEA Discuss Resuming Inspections

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday said it has started formal discussions on going back to North Korea, Reuters reported (see GSN, March 21).

The U.N. nuclear agency's return to the country is mandated by a bilateral deal Pyongyang reached with the United States last month. The agreement requires North Korea to shut down uranium enrichment and other atomic efforts at the Yongbyon complex and to refrain from conducting new long-range missile and nuclear tests. The halt in nuclear weapon-related work is to be verified by IAEA inspectors. In return, the Stalinist state would be awarded 240,000 metric tons of food assistance from the United States.

"I can confirm that the IAEA has started consultations with the D.P.R.K. about its invitation," agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor stated by e-mail.

North Korea expelled agency personnel in April 2009 after it refused to allow the comprehensive inspections outlined under a 2005 denuclearization agreement reached in talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

The U.S. State Department on Monday said the momentum toward resuming international monitoring was heartening but that the food aid agreement with Pyongyang could still be canceled if North Korea proceeds with plans for a long-range rocket launch next month (see GSN, March 21).

It was not immediately known what restrictions might be placed on IAEA inspectors upon their potential return to North Korea. In the past, Pyongyang has curbed their access and the nuclear shutdown-for-food aid deal specifically only covers inspections at Yongbyon. This is problematic for nonproliferation experts who suspect North Korea of having secretly established uranium enrichment-related sites in other locations.

Uranium enrichment can be used to both produce nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material for a warhead. North Korea had for years been suspected of illicitly conducting uranium enrichment activities before going public with the program in November 2010. Pyongyang asserts its uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon is nonmilitary in nature (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, March 22).

Nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker, who was given a rare tour of the North's Yongbyon uranium plant in late 2010, said he has increasingly grown to believe since then that he was not shown all aspects of the country's enrichment program, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The size and level of sophistication at the converted facility at Yongbyon was too great for it to house a new program as claimed by scientists in the Stalinist state, Hecker said

"The main change in my analysis [since 2010] is just that it became much clearer that they have done this someplace else. We don’t know how big an operation, but it must have been big enough that they had some confidence they could build a similar, but larger, capability at Yongbyon," Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said in South Korea.

Hecker said while he supports the U.S.-North Korea nuclear shutdown agreement, there could be problems in its implementation as both countries have given differing descriptions of the terms of the deal. The deal also does not cover potential covert North Korean uranium enrichment operations.

North Korea's missile launch announcement last Friday is also problematic,  he said. "That really makes a mockery of the agreement" (Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal, March 21).

March 22, 2012
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The International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday said it has started formal discussions on going back to North Korea, Reuters reported.

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