May 27, 2009
Since August 2003, negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs have involved six governments: the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Since the talks began, North Korea has operated nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and apparently has produced weapons-grade plutonium estimated as sufficient for five to eight atomic weapons. North Korea tested a plutonium nuclear device in October 2006. U.S. officials have cited evidence that North Korea also operates a secret highly enriched uranium program, which also could produce atomic weapons. There also is substantial information that North Korea has engaged in collaborative programs with Iran and Syria aimed at producing nuclear weapons.
On May 25, 2009, North Korea announced that it had conducted a second nuclear test. On April 14, 2009, North Korea terminated its participation in six party talks and said it would not be bound by agreements between it and the Bush Administration, ratified by the six parties, which would have disabled the Yongbyon facilities. North Korea also announced that it would reverse the ongoing disablement process under these agreements and restart the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Three developments since August 2008 appear to have influenced the situation leading to North Korea's announcement: the failure to complete implementation of the Bush Administration-North Korean agreement, including the Yongbyon disablement, because of a dispute over whether inspectors could take samples of nuclear materials at Yongbyon; the stroke suffered by North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, in August 2008, which reportedly brought forth a collective leadership including a more pronounced role for the North Korean military; and the issuance by North Korea after January 1, 2009, of a tough set of negotiating positions, including an assertion that the United States must extend normal diplomatic relations prior to any final denuclearization agreement rather than in such an agreement; and that U.S. reciprocity for North Korean denuclearization must be an end of the "U.S. nuclear threat," meaning major reductions of and restrictions on U.S. military forces in and around the Korean peninsula.
North Korea's announcement presents the Obama Administration with two apparent challenges. One is how to restore a negotiating track with North Korea. The Administration appears to face a choice between seeking to bring North Korea back into the six party framework or offering North Korea strictly bilateral U.S.-North Korean negotiations. Responding to North Korea's tough negotiating positions would be a second challenge. Would the Administration's goal in the next stage of negotiations be the complete dismantlement of Yongbyon, or would it focus on the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons and plutonium? North Korea's assertion of diplomatic normalization prior to denuclearization contradicts the longstanding U.S. position that the two would be reciprocal. North Korea's likely demand for light water nuclear reactors (LWRs) as part of a future nuclear agreement would confront the Obama Administration with a decision whether to enter into a second LWR project that could consume ten years or more (the first project began in 1994 under the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework and collapsed in 2002). Pyongyang's demand that a denuclearization agreement include an end to the "U.S. nuclear threat" directly challenges the position of several U.S. administrations that the United States would not negotiate with North Korea over the status of U.S. military forces in South Korea. Finally, any attempt by the Obama Administration to bring North Korea's highly enriched uranium and proliferation activities with Iran and Syria into negotiations would reverse the decision of the Bush Administration that North Korea did not have to admit to these activities in the Bush Administration-North Korean agreements.
Contents North Korea's Nuclear Test and Withdrawal from the Six Party Talks Bush Administration-North Korean Agreements and Failure of Implementation Implementation Process Verification Issue Kim Jong-il's Stroke and Political Changes Inside North Korea Issues Facing the Obama Administration North Korea's Nuclear Programs Plutonium Program Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Program International Assistance Nuclear Collaboration with Iran and Syria North Korea's Delivery Systems State of Nuclear Weapons Development Select Chronology For Additional Reading Contacts Author Contact Information
This report will be updated periodically.
North Korea's Nuclear Test and Withdrawal from the Six Party Talks
On May 25, 2009, North Korea announced that it had conducted a second test of a nuclear bomb. U.S. and foreign officials said afterwards that initial detected soundings indicated that a nuclear test had taken place. U.S. and foreign nuclear experts estimated the explosive power of the bomb at between 1.5 kilotons and 8 kilotons; most estimates were in range of 4 to 5 kilotons. An initial Russian statement gave a much higher estimate of 20 kilotons. By comparison, the first North Korean test of October 2006 had an explosive yield of less than one kiloton. (1) North Korean statements indicated that this second test had achieved technical advances over the first test. A North Korean diplomat in Moscow predicted that there would be further tests.
The nuclear test followed North Korea's announcement on April 14, 2009, that it was withdrawing from the six party talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. It cited as the reason for its decision a statement approved by the United Nations Security Council criticizing North Korea's test launch of a long-range Taepodong II missile on April 5, 2009. The Security Council statement, issued by the President of the Security Council, said that the missile test violated Security Resolution 1718 of October 2006, which banned tests of long-range North Korean missiles. The statement called on members of the United Nations to enforce sanctions against North Korea adopted in Resolution 1718. (2) North Korea claimed that the missile test was a legitimate launching of a satellite into space. North Korea warned prior to the April 5 test that it would withdraw from the six party talks if the Security Council took any action against it over the missile test.
North Korea staged boycotts of the six party talks on two previous occasions, in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, each for nearly one year. North Korea's announcement of April 13, 2009, however, contained a more absolute rejection of the six party talks than was the case in the prior boycotts. The announcement said that North Korea "will never again take part in such talks." It also said that North Korea "will take steps to restore disabled nuclear facilities" and "revive nuclear facilities and reprocess used nuclear fuel rods." North Korea thus threatened to restore operation of its plutonium nuclear installations at Yongbyon that have been shut down since mid-2007 under agreements between North Korea and the Bush Administration for the disablement of the Yongbyon facilities. (3) By early 2009, the disablement process was about 80% completed. Following the announcement, North Korea expelled from Yongbyon technicians and monitors from the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency who had been there since 2007. After the April 14 announcement, North Korea threatened to conduct a second test of a nuclear device (the first test was in October 2006).
The earliest revival of the Yongbyon facilities that North Korea could implement would be a restarting of the plutonium reprocessing plant, which takes nuclear fuel rods from North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and converts them into nuclear weapons-grade plutonium. Experts believe that North Korea could restart the reprocessing plant within two months and then reprocess 8,000 fuel rods available from the reactor within four to six months--enough plutonium for one atomic bomb. (4) (See CRS Report RL34256, North Korea's Nuclear Weapons, for more information on North Korea's ability to restart the plutonium reprocessing plant.) U.S. officials and non-government nuclear experts have said that North Korea previously had reprocessed enough plutonium for five to eight atomic bombs. Reassembling the nuclear reactor and a nuclear fuel fabrication plant and restarting them would be a more difficult, time-consuming process, taking possibly up to a year, according to U.S. officials and nuclear experts. Once these facilities were operating, North Korea would be able to produce about six kilograms of plutonium per year, enough for one atomic bomb. (5)
Besides the April 5, 2009, missile test, three developments since August 2008 appear to have influenced the situation leading up to North Korea's announcement. One is the failure of the Bush Administration, North Korea, and the other six party governments to complete implementation of the agreements reached between the Bush Administration and North Korea in 2007 and early 2008, particularly the failure to complete the agreed upon disablement of the Yongbyon facilities. A second was the stroke suffered by North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, in August 2008, and the apparent subsequent emergence of a collective group of leaders including an influential element of the North Korean military. A third development was the issuance by North Korea after January 1, 2009, of a set of tough negotiating demands for future round of nuclear negotiations with the United States.
Bush Administration-North Korean Agreements and Failure of Implementation
The Bush Administration negotiated three agreements with North Korea between February 2007 and October 2008; two were issued in February and October 2007 as agreements of the parties to the six party talks over North Korea's nuclear programs (United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia). The third was negotiated in Singapore in April 2008. The Bush Administration and North Korea began a process of implementation on June 26, 2008. A six party meeting of July 10-12, 2008, set out a timetable to complete implementation by October 31, 2008. The main aim of the Bush Administration in these agreements was to secure the disablement of North Korea's plutonium installations at Yongbyon. The agreements, however, were not implemented fully when the Bush Administration left office. This was due partly to the failure of the Bush Administration and North Korea to resolve a dispute over a verification system, especially the right of inspectors to take samples. (6)
On June 26, 2008, the North Korean government and the Bush Administration took measures to implement the nuclear agreements that they had negotiated in 2007 into 2008. The agreements created two obligations each for North Korea and the Bush Administration to fulfill. North Korea was to allow a process of disablement of its plutonium nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, a site 60 miles from the capital of Pyongyang. The shutting down of Yongbyon was a key provision of the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration and North Korea. Yongbyon ceased to operate between 1994 and the end of 2002. In late 2002, the Bush Administration suspended U.S. obligations under the Agreed Framework because of U.S. intelligence estimates that North Korea was operating a secret nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium. North Korea responded by re-starting the Yongbyon facilities. Between early 2003 and the summer of 2007, the Yongbyon reactor and the plutonium reprocessing plant produced enough weapons grade plutonium for the production of several atomic bombs. North Korea tested an atomic device in October 2006.
The disablement process began in October 2007. The Bush Administration said in June 2008 that eight of eleven components of the disablement process had been completed. (7) A major uncompleted task was the removal of spent plutonium fuel rods from the five megawatt reactor. According to informed U.S. sources, as of February 2009, about 6,100 of 8,000 spent fuel rods reportedly had been removed. (8)
North Korea's second obligation was to provide the United States and other members of the six party talks with a "complete and correct" declaration of nuclear programs. The declaration negotiated and reportedly finalized in Singapore and delivered to China on June 26, 2008, contains a declaration of the amount of plutonium that North Korea claims to possess. Reports asserted that North Korea declared 30.8 kilograms of plutonium. (9) U.S. intelligence estimates reportedly conclude that North Korea has accumulated 50 to 60 kilograms of plutonium. (10) However, other components of North Korea's nuclear programs reportedly are omitted from the declaration, apparently based on concessions the Bush Administration made to North Korea in the Singapore agreement. These include the number of atomic bombs North Korea possesses, information about the facilities where North Korea …