Hans Blix Redux: US Wants Full Declaration of North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Plants for the Second Kim-Trump Summit

A recent interview by John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, for The Washington Times contained a line on North Korea that has been compared to the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

…What we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and it is when we get that denuclearization that the President can begin to take the sanctions off…

Usage of the expression “strategic decision” has been compared to the Iraq invasion as it was a demand Bush II officials often made of Saddam Hussein. That is, Baghdad had to demonstrate tangible evidence that it had made a strategic decision to dismantle its (by then we now know largely nonexistient) weapons of mass destruction programme.

However, a much better direct link connecting the remarks of Bolton today to the Bolton of yesteryear can be found when considering what that North Korean strategic decision Bolton envisages to be. According to a report in The Korea Times

… The United States wants North Korea to provide a list of its secret uranium enrichment facilities as a key prerequisite in exchange for possibly easing of economic sanctions, a Cheong Wa Dae official said Sunday.

“Washington wants a list of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment facilities and secret nuclear weapons sites during the upcoming second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” the official said…

On December 07 2002 Iraq provided a 12,000 page declaration of its, mostly, historical WMD and related programmes to the United Nations. Under UNSC Resolution 1441 of November 2002 Iraq was to provide “a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems.” Failure to provide such a declaration or providing a false and misleading declaration, UNSC 1441 goes on to say, would constitute a “material breach” of Iraq’s obligations.

In a January 2003 press briefing, two months prior to the invasion toward which the US was already committed so in essence an act of aggression, Bolton stated that Iraq

…was obligated under Resolution 1441 to make a declaration of the weapons of mass destruction, the production facilities, the dual-use items that it has and it failed to do so. The December 7 Iraqi Declaration is false and misleading. It contains material omissions and misrepresentations…

Bolton was not the only Bush administration official to say this, and the charge of a material breach was one of the pillars supporting the, false and misleading, case for war made at the time. That charge was made on the prevailing assumption that Iraq continued to possess a WMD programme and so a declaration largely historical in nature was “false and misleading.” But we know to whom that charge is more accurately attributed. One could go so far as to say that the purpose of the declaration was always to claim an Iraqi material breach of UN resolutions. Therefore, the purpose of the declaration perhaps wasn’t so much to get an accurate and verifiable declaration but rather to develop a rationale for an invasion based on other, non WMD related, ends.

Since the Singapore summit one of the dominant narratives in the Western media, certainly in the US media overwhelmingly in the liberal media, has been that North Korea is engaging in subterfuge and has undeclared missile operating bases and, crucial for our context, undeclared uranium enrichment plants. The picture of a false and misleading North Korea post Singapore is by now well entrenched. This 38North analysis by Daniel Depetris of the dominant storyline is excellent, and should be read by all interested in the denuclearisation talks. Of the last three major stories in that vein, two have come from the Beyond Parallel project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The lead figure behind those reports was Victor Cha, a Bush administration official alongside John Bolton and a noted neocon (to use that all embracing and misleading expression).

Remember that CNBC report on clandestine North Korean uranium enrichment plants, and the subsequent, apparent, discovery of one of those enrichment plants at Chollima? Here’s the key extract from that CNBC report

… The network cited U.S. officials as saying that the intelligence assessment concludes that North Korea has more than one secret nuclear site in addition to its known nuclear fuel production facility at Yongbyon…

I say “apparent” because the status of Kangson as an enrichment facility is disputed. The report claims US intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea seeks to keep some of its uranium enrichment facilities undisclosed even after it makes a declaration purporting to be full and complete.

In 2010 North Korea showed off a uranium enrichment facility at its main nuclear research and production facility at Yongbyon to a foreign delegation which included Siegfried Hecker a former Los Alamos director. Hecker reported seeing a modern, well maintained and functioning enrichment plant. Hecker revealed that the facility housed 2000 P2 centrifuges (P2 as in Pakistan 2 of AQ Khan provenance itself based on the URENCO G2) in six cascades. CNBC reported US intelligence officials as saying that North Korea has at least 3 sites possibly more (more than one of those secret) assuming Kangson constitutes one of the 3.

An interesting question becomes; does the US just know of the existence of publicly undisclosed enrichment facilities or does the US know of the existence and the location, including operating parameters, of publicly undisclosed enrichment facilities? According to the source behind The Korea Times article cited previously the US has called for North Korea to provide a verifiable declaration of its enrichment activities because it wants to “get details on the country’s uranium enrichment facilities.”

The revealing of the enrichment facility in 2010 at Yongbyon, and the evident speed with which it was constructed, provided firm evidence for the long held suspicion that North Korea has an undisclosed pilot enrichment facility. The Kangson plant has been attributed a start up date of 2003, i.e. when the US invaded Iraq so that pilot facility surely predates 2003. In September last year Iran announced that it was near completing a facility at Natanz to produce advanced centrifuges with greater separative capacity than the IR2 centrifuge their version of the P2, a process it has by now completed. Iran claims that it can produce IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges and aspires to develop an IR-8 centrifuge.

The, almost universal, assumption hitherto has been that the P2 is the only centrifuge that North Korea has. Reasonable given what is known of the facility at Yongbyon and the size of the facility at Chollima. But if Iran is developing more advanced centrifuges, why not North Korea which has much more experience with uranium enrichment? More advanced centrifuges have greater separative capacity so the footprint, and power requirements, of an enrichment plant housing centrifuges more advanced than the P2 are lower. A gas centrifuge enrichment plant dedicated to producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons has a much lower footprint than an industrial scale plant designed for a nuclear energy programme. That means there’s a good strategic rationale for Pyongyang to work on advanced centrifuges. North Korea could have achieved a type of breakout capacity with its enrichment programme and so it has been able to develop enrichment facilities that have passed undetected by national technical means of verification.

So, perhaps, the US knows or suspects based on credible information through human sources that North Korea has at least one clandestine enrichment plant beyond Kangson but cannot locate given that it’s, or they’re, less conspicuous than a plant consisting of P2 centrifuges. Therein lies a dilemma for North Korea. John Bolton is calling for a disclosure of its uranium enrichment facilities at or arising from the upcoming second Kim-Trump summit as evidence of a strategic decision to embark upon disarmament. Pyongyang knows how many enrichment plants it has but it doesn’t know what Washington knows about its enrichment facilities. Given the uncertainty the incentive would be to make a full and complete declaration, yet Washington is offering, at best, partial lifting of sanctions. Should Pyongyang think a partial and easily reversible easing of sanctions warrants agreeing to a full and complete declaration, but in reality only deserving the making of a partial declaration taking the bet Washington doesn’t know what it knows, then Bolton could well end up in the position to say, like he did before the Iraq invasion, that North Korea is in material breach of its obligations. Thus far, of course, North Korea has not been obligated to declare anything.

North Korea has been reluctant to provide a declaration of its nuclear capabilities post Singapore, just as the US has been reluctant to provide a declaration of the end of the Korean War. It appears Trump did pledge to provide such a declaration at Singapore. Pyongyang has stated that providing a declaration of its nuclear capabilities would be to give US planners a target list and that during a diplomatic process that could readily collapse. Perhaps so, although it may well be the case that is not North Korea’s concern, or is not the only major concern.

What North Korea remembers is what we have forgotten. Kim Jong-un might well think that Bolton, and other hardliners in the Trump White House, could use a declaration to pronounce North Korea in material breach of its obligations to scuttle the denuclearisation talks which they’ve never particularly liked. It could well be the case that this is a play Bolton and others are trying to set up for the second summit. As noted previously the narrative in the US is already dominated by alleged North Korean breaches of its obligations where the matters of disclosure and declarations are front and centre.

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