The optimism with which the October agreement with North Korea was welcomed has faded amid accusations that the North again is not keeping its commitments.
First came word that "disablement" of nuclear facilities was slowing. Then there was the missed Dec. 31 deadline for North Korea to declare the full scope of its nuclear program, including its plutonium stockpile and uranium enrichment activities. And earlier in the fall, North Korea was accused of helping Syria construct a nuclear facility in its desert, reportedly a reactor.
The finger-wagging, told-you-so naysayers in and out of the Bush administration should take a deep breath. There is no indication that North Korea is backing away from its commitments to disable key nuclear facilities and every reason to expect this process to unfold slowly, with North Korea taking small, incremental steps in return for corresponding steps from the U.S. and others in the six-party discussions.
Disablement of the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon slowed in part because the U.S. decided that unloading the irradiated fuel rods as fast as North Korea proposed could needlessly risk exposing the North Korean workers to excessive radiation. North Korea is unloading the rods and making steady progress on the other aspects of disablement at the Yongbyon site.
Could it be happening faster? Probably, and North Korea would point out that promised shipments of heavy fuel oil are also slow in coming.
North Korea's nuclear declaration was to be received by Dec. 31. On Jan. 2, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the U.S. was still "waiting to hear" from the North. Pyongyang responded that the U.S. had its declaration. After some tail-chasing, it emerged that North Korea had quietly shared an initial declaration with the U.S. in November.
According to media reports, this declaration stated that North Korea had a separated plutonium stockpile of 30 kilograms and denied that it had a uranium enrichment program.
Does this quantity of separated plutonium make sense? Yes. In short, 30 kilograms is at the lower end of the range of plutonium that we have assessed North Korea could have separated.
There is ample evidence that North Korea acquired components for a centrifuge-enrichment program, but few now believe the North produced highly enriched uranium or developed its enrichment capabilities in the manner once claimed by the U.S.
Reports that North Korea has cooperated with Syria on a hidden nuclear program are troubling but should not be allowed to undermine the agreement.It is possible that North Korea was selling sensitive or dual-use equipment to Syria's nuclear program. The best argument for holding the deal together is that it brings North Korea into the fold, bit by bit, making it harder for it to slip back into the arena of illicit deals and keeping a bright light on its activities.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, is president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at ISIS and a former State Department foreign affairs officer.