North Korea’s Nuke Logs: Propaganda or Substance?

North Korea’s handover of 18,000 pages of nuclear logs detailing its plutonium extraction activities at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is certainly a key development, potentially capable of leading up to a resumption of the long-running six-party talks in Beijing next month or in July, Seoul officials say.

But does it point to a substantive progress in the multi-national efforts to disarm the Pyongyang regime? Not a single independent analyst has so far issued enthusiastic comment.

For one thing, the log is limited to explaining the country’s plutonium-based bomb-making project, not the entirety of its nuclear weapons program, as called for under the February 2007 agreement under which North Korea is committed to completely disarming itself in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic recognition.

The logs omit all references to the parallel program run by the Kim Jong Il regime for a uranium-enrichment bomb-making process, to which the Pyongyang regime itself admitted in December 2002, during a confrontation with the visiting US assistant secretary of state James Kelley.

Nor do they shed any light on the North’s confirmed proliferation activities, which have received dramatic exposure recently by the Israeli bombing of the al Kibar nuclear plant in Syria, said to have been built with North Korea’s full cooperation with nuclear technology and reactor parts.

Citing of these critically important elements has been reportedly buried in a separate memorandum signed between the US and North Korea, in which the US lists these points and the North merely “acknowledges” them. This “bartering” act has prompted criticisms that Washington has given away one of the most critical aspects of Pyongyang’s nuclear challenge.

There is no way of knowing if the log itself provides a truthful account of the plutonium-based program, analysts say. It is riddled with too many “ifs” and “whens” to be convincing. If, however, the US (and maybe also China as the leader of the six-party talks) is satisfied with its analysis of this document, the North will proceed to the next phase of its promised denuclearization stages: completion of the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear plant as specified in the October 3 accord last year. However, this is a big “if” given the history of past reneging and foot-dragging.

There’s a possibility that North Korea will blow up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon facility – and televise it around the world -- in a demonstration of its commitment to honor its “disabling” of nuclear capability, reports in Seoul say. This gesture however will be long on symbolism and propaganda but short on substance, as the cooling tower as well as the 5-megawatt graphite-run “experimental” reactor, from which the bomb-making plutonium has been culled, is said to be so outdated now to be of any good use.

On the positive side, the logs, according to US officials, explain the history of three major campaigns to extract plutonium, in 1990, 2003 and 2005 respectively. These efforts produced the fissile material for the bomb tested in October 2006. This underground test prompted the Bush administration to overlook other (uranium enrichment) process and focus on plutonium, analysts here say. For example, to secure the logs, the US has promised to deliver half a million tonnes of food shipment to alleviate the North’s worsening starvation.

In short, Kim Jong Il has been once more successful in extorting aid for implementing the promise he was already under obligation to take. (The North was already rewarded for undertaking denuclearization with up to a million-tonne equivalent of aid and energy under the 2007 accord)

If the Bush administration is certain the North has delivered a truthful account of its program, it will then take a series of steps lifting a variety of sanctions already imposed on Pyongyang. They include taking it off the 1979 list of state sponsors of terrorism (which also lists Cuba, Iran and Syria), thus opening the way for its tapping into loans from the World Bank, delisting it also from the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, which bans all forms of commercial dealings with countries considered hostile to the United States, and finally exempting Pyongyang from the 1994 Glenn Amendment, which keeps the North from seeking loans from major international institutions.

A compromise formula reached desperately in the final months of President Bush’s term in office, it falls far short of Washington’s original demand for making an “accurate and complete” declaration of all of its nuclear program. What it amounts to is a partial and conditional accounting, which by no means points to a substantive progress forward.

North Korea has scored a propaganda master stroke: the picture of Sung Kim, the US State Department’s somber-looking director of the Korea Office, walking across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone on May 10, carrying boxes of papers, showed what Kim Jong Il wanted the world to see: it demonstrated his pledge to give up the bomb without actually doing so. It wasn’t bad publicity for the Bush administration either: it is seen making some progress on the nuclear issue without actually getting to its bottom.

Over the past 10 years, suspicions have grown that Pyongyang’s main nuclear efforts are moving from a plutonium project to a uranium-based undertaking. Originally, it started with help from Pakistan’s nuclear black-marketer Abdul Qadeer Khan selling centrifuge equipments to North Korea. A recently published biography of the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto has added more details: she personally delivered the uranium enrichment technology in CDs to Pyongyang in 1993, in exchange for North Korean missiles, according to the book “Goodbye Shahzadi” by Shyam Bhatia.

The document handed over to the US will at least throw some light on how much plutonium the North may have secured. In talks with the US, the North has said it has 30 to 31kg of plutonium, not 50kg as estimated by US intelligence experts. This of course does not account for the number of warheads or bombs already manufactured.

As US officials pore over their data in the next few weeks, they are expected to come up with a new assessment on the correct amount of fissile material in North Korean possession. The question of how many explosive devices they may already have will be one of the questions determining the course of the six-party talks in Beijing.