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 United States and others in the six-party discussions.
Disablement of the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon slowed in part because the United States 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 United States was still "waiting to hear" from the North. Pyongyang responded that the United States had its declaration. After some tail-chasing, it emerged that North Korea had quietly shared an initial declaration with the United States 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. This estimate is based on what we know about how long its reactor operated to build up plutonium in the fuel rods and how much plutonium was chemically extracted from this fuel at the nearby reprocessing plant.
What about any enriched uranium? There is no question that North Korea has committed to providing the other nations in the six-party discussions with information about its uranium enrichment efforts and should be held to that commitment. But we should not lose sight of an uncomfortable fact -- that U.S. policymakers misread (at best) or hyped information that North Korea had a large-scale uranium enrichment program. 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 United States.
The success or failure of this latest agreement with North Korea must not hinge on the uranium issue. This is an interesting and relevant part of its nuclear program, but it is still a footnote in the context of its plutonium production.
Reports that North Korea has cooperated with Syria on a hidden nuclear program are troubling but must also be kept in context and, until additional information is available, 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. As for the "box in the desert" that Israel bombed in September, it is gone now and whatever has replaced it is almost certainly not a reactor.
Accusations in the Israeli media that North Korea transferred plutonium to Syria, where it was to be placed into bombs, are baseless. The transfer of such material for weapons would be a casus belli with dire consequences for both countries, and this surely is understood by both Kim Jong Il and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
North Korea is looking to the United States to keep its promises on delisting it as a terrorist state. Unfortunately, given the climate in Washington and the perception that North Korea is slow-rolling the declaration process, this is unlikely over the near term. Pyongyang should be realistic in its expectations.
For Washington, and the unfairly maligned advocates of the six-party process, the task is to maintain laser-like focus on taking the next step toward fulfillment of the October agreement, with the goal of moving to the disarmament phase, and not allowing these hard-won steps to be drowned out by the noise of detractors.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security and Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst at ISIS and a former State Department foreign affairs officer.