The shutdown of the reactor at Yongbyon, North Korea, may signal several things; but don’t bet your coffee-change on one of them being a softening of their position!
September 13, 2003 Shutdown of Nuclear Complex Deepens North Korean Mystery By DOUGLAS JEHL
WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 — American intelligence agencies are puzzling over evidence that North Korea has halted operations at its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, according to senior United States officials. The Yongbyon site is the only one in North Korea known to produce plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. The American officials said there was a debate among intelligence officials about whether the shutdown, which some described as fairly recent, reflects a technical problem, a goodwill gesture by the North, or a shift to another site. The uncertainty underscores the lack of information about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Much of the intelligence is based on monitoring krypton gas emissions, a byproduct of nuclear reprocessing. North Korean restarted the reactor at Yongbyon in February. The reprocessing work, to turn spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, is believed to have begun in the late spring or summer, United States officials said. The apparent shutdown at Yongbyon was first reported on Thursday in The Los Angeles Times. American spy satellites and their sensors can detect in general whether activity is under way at a plant like the one in Yongbyon, and the indications that work has halted at the site were apparently based on satellite intelligence. But judgments about the pace and extent of nuclear reprocessing require additional information. Without access to North Korean airspace or to the facilities, the United States is believed to rely primarily on the krypton gas sensors, which are placed on aircraft. It is not clear whether North Korea could have reprocessed enough spent fuel this year to make a nuclear weapon. The United States government has estimated that North Korea already has one or two weapons, and has said that reprocessing efforts at Yongbyon could produce enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon a month. But American officials have described the effort at Yongbyon as small in scale. Officials from North Korea and the United States, along with representatives from China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, met in Beijing last month to discuss North Korea’s weapons program. They are to meet again this fall. One theory about the halt in activity is that North Korea wanted to signal its willingness to stop work on its weapons program in return for sufficient inducements. But the other main theories are seen as having less hopeful implications. The idea that the North Koreans might have run into technical difficulties was described by one American official as the most likely explanation, in part because the plant had been shut down between 1994 and the beginning of this year, adding to the likelihood that sensitive equipment would malfunction. And the idea that North Korea might have moved its efforts to a plant that has not been detected by the United States has been given recent credence. American officials said this summer that krypton gas emissions had been detected at levels higher than could be easily explained by work at Yongbyon alone.