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North Korea Agrees to Disable Nuclear Complex by Year’s End

October 3, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: One year after North Korea announced its first successful test of a nuclear device, the country has reached an agreement with the U.S., South Korea, and three other nations to dismantle key parts of its nuclear program.

CHUN YUNG-WOO, South Korean Chief Nuclear Envoy (through translator): If the reporting and disabling of North Korea’s nuclear programs goes smoothly within this year, we can expect the next step of scrapping the nuclear programs starting next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under the accord, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name, agreed by the end of the year to: disable the five-megawatt reactor and two other plants at Yongbyon, the country’s principal nuclear facility; and provide “a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs”; in addition, the North “reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or know-how.”

The accord was reached during the so-called six-party talks, which have continued in fits and starts for years. The talks included China, the U.S., South Korea, Russia, Japan and North Korea.

And we’re joined now by the top U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue. Christopher Hill is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Well, Ambassador Hill, what exactly does disabling these facilities mean? Will they actually be destroyed?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, Assistant Secretary of State: Well, the concept of disabling is, you know — we’ve gotten them shut down, but, frankly, they could kick out the inspectors, take the seals off, and turn them back on. So the idea of disabling is to make it difficult to turn it back on.

In short, you’ll take stuff out of it. You’ll take parts, et cetera. And when you try to — by the time you’ve put it back together, many months have elapsed. Now, of course, we don’t want that ever to happen. What we’re looking for is to go from disabling to complete dismantling, where you take it apart, take it out of the country, and get rid of the thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So are there clear ways in this agreement to ensure that that does not happen and that they are not turned on again?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, that’s correct. I mean, we have a disabling plan. We’d like to do a little more, and maybe we can do a little more. But I think what’s important is the six parties have asked the U.S. to send a team in there, and at the invitation of the North Koreans.

So we’ll be going in, in the next couple of weeks, and maybe as early as next week, to begin the task of disabling this. But I want to emphasize that the goal here is not just disabling the reactor, which is the way by which they have been producing more plutonium. It’s also to get rid of the plutonium they’ve already produced. So we’ve got a ways to go here, but I think it is an important step.

U.S. involvement in the dismantling

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
We'll have a team of a few Americans who will go there and stay in this site, called Yongbyon, to work on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you do envision U.S. personnel on the ground to monitor and help the disabling process go forward?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Absolutely. And actually to take part in the disabling process. We'll have a team of a few Americans who will go there and stay in this site, called Yongbyon, to work on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, similarly, the agreement to provide a, quote, "complete declaration of all nuclear programs" that North Korea has agreed to, how will the U.S. and the rest of the world verify that that list is complete, that the North Koreans are being truthful?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, in fact, they will produce a list, probably sometime at the end of October, and we'll go through the list very carefully with them. And we'll say, "Well, what about this facility or what about that facility?" Because we've had various means by which to check on what North Korea has been up to. And the idea is that, by the end of December when there's a real declaration, it's one that we can all agree with is complete.

Now, a key factor in all of this is to make sure that, as we shut down Yongbyon, where they have been producing plutonium in the past -- and, frankly, they were producing plutonium up until just a couple of months ago -- we don't want a situation where they have some other facility where they're producing bomb-making material by another means.

North Korea's relations with Syria

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
Our concern about the North Korean nuclear program is not just that they would pop off a nuclear weapon at some neighbor, but rather we've been concerned about the proliferation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there have, of course, been questions about the extent to which North Koreans may have been supplying nuclear material to Syria. Did you discuss that with the North Koreans? Have they agreed to give any information on that?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, certainly, we have discussed and discussed on many occasions the importance we attach to non-proliferation. After all, you know, our concern about the North Korean nuclear program is not just that they would pop off a nuclear weapon at some neighbor, but rather we've been concerned about the proliferation.

So this has been a major concern. And yes, indeed, we raised it. And I think it's important that we have this assurance from the North Koreans. But as I told the North Koreans, if they've been doing things like this in other countries, we want to hear it directly from them, because sooner or later we will find out, because we check this stuff very carefully.

JEFFREY BROWN: For its part, North Korea has demanded to be taken off the list of -- the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Has the U.S. now agreed to do that?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, we certainly have a way forward with the North Koreans on this. You know, we would like to see countries off that list once we are satisfied that they're indeed not a state sponsor of terror. So we have a way forward on that issue.

It's a sensitive issue, because, in the case of the Japanese, who are also parties to the six-party talks, they've had many of their citizens -- I mean, over a dozen, maybe up to 20 of their citizens, abducted during a period, 1978. So they would like to see some progress on that issue in connection with taking North Korea off the terrorism list.

So we've had to work this issue very carefully. We've worked it with the Japanese, but we're working with the North Koreans, and our hope is that we can, indeed, get them off this list.

U.S. diplomacy with North Korea

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
Ultimately this is all part of a process of normalizing our relationship with North Korea...And we have made it very clear that we're not going to normalize with North Korea until they get out of the nuclear business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the agreement does say that North Korea and the U.S. remain committed to, quote, "moving towards a full diplomatic relationship." Now, what does that mean? And what specifically does a way forward in resolving this question of the terrorism list mean?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, we have asked them to do certain things. And in response, we're prepared to move ahead and do certain things, including the process of taking them off of this terrorism list.

Now, ultimately this is all part of a process of normalizing our relationship with North Korea. Now, we're doing this on a step-by-step basis. And we have made it very clear that we're not going to normalize with North Korea until they get out of the nuclear business.

So to the extent they are willing finally to get out of the nuclear business -- and as I said, disabling the reactor is a good step, but we've got other steps to come, namely the abandonment of the nuclear material they've already produced. And once they are really nuclear-free, out of this business, we would look to normalize our relationship with them.

Indeed, we'd look to do more. We'd look to work on a peace arrangement on the Korean peninsula and to end what has essentially been a state of war and replace it by a peace process. So there's a lot on the table there for the North Koreans, if they're really interested in going the full distance and getting rid of these nuclear programs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is the fuel, oil, and other economic aid that's been promised to them as part of this, is that contingent step-by-step along the way with their fulfilling these promises?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, indeed. In fact, one of the problems we've had on the fuel oil is that North Korea will be fulfilling their part of the bargain even before the fuel oil is delivered, is fully delivered. And that's because they have a limited capacity, port capacity and storage capacity, so we've had to work with them on that and to find non-fuel oil ways, for example, refurbishing an electricity plant, that sort of thing, to try to keep up the pace on our side.

We think this fuel oil though is a good bargain for us and I think a good bargain for North Korea. So, indeed, that's going forward.

Following through on the agreement

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
My hope is that, as we shut down and disable this Yongbyon facility where they make the plutonium, and as we get a full listing of all of their nuclear programs, we can then, in the new year, in '08, go to final stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know there's been a lot of skepticism every step of the way every time you announce some kind of agreement as to whether the North Korean, given their past track record, will follow through. So where do you think we are now? You've been at this a long time. Do you think that they are at a point of fulfilling these kinds of commitments?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, certainly, I understand the skepticism, and especially people who look at the statements or agreements reached and wonder what is really happening. But what we have been able to do is we've been able to shut down this reactor, shut down the reprocessing facility, shut down the fuel fabrication facility.

Now we're going to move to disable those facilities so that they're not producing more plutonium, but there has been some plutonium that has been produced. That's on the order of magnitude of 50 kilos. Depending on how big your bomb is, that can be five or ten weapons. So we need to get at that 50 kilos.

So I would say we're kind of in the middle. We're in a middle stage. And my hope is that, as we shut down and disable this Yongbyon facility where they make the plutonium, and as we get a full listing of all of their nuclear programs, we can then, in the new year, in '08, go to final stage and get them to give up these 50 kilos of bomb-making equipment, get real clarity on whether they have any other programs to produce fissile material. And I hope, during the calendar year '08, we can get to the end of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, thanks very much.