In a rare move, the U.S. and North Korea simultaneously released statements on the results of their February 23rd exploratory meeting in Beijing. While the overall gist and key points appear to be in sync, there are some differences in nuances and details.
Here are the key points of the State Department’s statement:
-“To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.”
-“The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these. We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance.”
Here are the key points of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s statement issued through the regime’s state media KCNA:
-“The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”
-“The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in the immediate future.”
-“Once the six-party talks are resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors.”
The agreement of key points in principle is a positive and encouraging step forward, but the key is whether North Korea will follow through on its latest agreements.
It is a positive step development since food aid was a key sticking point that had stalled progress over the last several months. It is also positive since international monitors have not been able to confirm Pyongyang’s claims that it is operating a uranium enrichment facility revealed to American scientists in November 2010. If all goes well, the resumption of Six Party Talks may be possible in the next few months if roadblocks do not emerge along the way.
However, it appears more discussions need to take place particularly in the details and logistics. For example, the method for halting North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility, the timing of IAEA inspectors back into Yongbyon in relation to the timing of receiving nutritional assistance, and the physical limits (boundaries) for IAEA inspectors in Yongbyon.
South Korea’s Yonhap News reported on the 29th that Pyongyang suggested it would be willing to temporarily “halt” its UEP facility using the “no-load method” to prepare for the day it would restart its uranium enrichment activities. This temporary halt method reportedly would proceed until its UEP facility is proven to be used for peaceful purposes.
“No-load operation” means that centrifuges would continue to spin (operate) without uranium fuel, which is used for actual enrichment. The purpose of the “no-load method” would be to continue to optimize cascade operations and management because centrifuge rotors spinning at lower speeds than their normal operating speed could lead to “crashing” or self-destruction due to possible violent vibrations. Technical experts say, the fraction of centrifuges that would crash is difficult to predict since it depends on the manufacturing quality of the North’s machines. Regardless, Pyongyang’s reported suggestion implies that it may be concerned about possible crashing.
The U.S. and South Korea have been demanding a complete halt in uranium enrichment activities. If the “no-load operation” method is true, it would still be an encouraging step if it meant granting the IAEA access – even limited access – to its UEP facility. It remains to be seen whether Washington and Seoul would accept this method.
However, hidden uranium enrichment facilities – not this disclosed plant at Yongbyon – is the greatest concern.