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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The General Department of Atomic Energy and the IAEA

by | April 6th, 2012 | 07:00 am
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Over at Arms Control Wonk, Jeff Lewis provides a copy of the letter the DPRK General Department of Atomic Energy (GDAE) has sent to the IAEA inviting a delegation to discuss “technical issues” in monitoring the February 29 agreement.  Replete with English-language stationary. He has also posted the IAEA response.

A couple of things caught our eye about the letter. The first is the date: March 16. Yep, that was the day the North Koreans announced the missile launch. Coincidence? Fughetaboutit.

The second was who signed it: Ri Je Son, who is Director General of the General Department. In August 2010, State and Treasury designated him under Executive Order 13382, which provides the authority for going after the assets of proliferators. The Treasury fact sheet on the action is worth citing:

“Ri Je-son and Ri Hong-sop act for or on behalf of the General Bureau [Department] of Atomic Energy (GBAE), which is responsible for North Korea’s nuclear program and manages operations at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. GBAE was designated by the United Nations in July 2009 for its involvement in North Korea’s nuclear program and subsequently sanctioned by the Department of State under E.O. 13382 in September 2009.

Ri Je-son is the Director of GBAE and is responsible for facilitating several nuclear endeavors including GBAE’s management of Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center and Namchongang Trading Corporation. Ri Hong-sop is a councilor for GBAE. He is also the former Director of Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. In that capacity he oversaw the three core facilities that the DPRK used to produce of weapons-grade plutonium: the Fuel Fabrication Facility, the 5MWe Experimental Reactor, and the Radiological Laboratory (Reprocessing Plant).”

Ri Je-son and Ri Hong-sop were also designated by the UNSCR 1718 Committee to be subject to the asset freeze and travel ban provisions of UNSCR 1718, passed after the first nuclear test. In this case, Mohammed cannot so easily travel to the mountain. Will the mountain go to Mohammed?

The Washington Times broke the story a couple of days ago about the letter from the IAEA’s Yukia Amano responding to the North Koreans that was being circulated among the IAEA board. The text–posted now by Lewis–is very, very carefully parsed. The letter welcomes the discussion of technical issues, but “in accordance with the agreement of the DPRK-US high-level talks held in Beijing in February this year.” The second paragraph notes that this agreement is an “important step in the right direction” and that the agency has “an essential role to play in verifying North Korea’s nuclear program me.” The language is there to say “no thanks” if the deal is seen to break down.

It is good to keep the IAEA working this brief and we do need some verification mechanism for the freeze. But the ultimate objective of the talks is is to get North Korea back into the IAEA under a renegotiated safeguards agreement that will have some teeth. Don’t hold your breath. But if the IAEA were to go to North Korea while the US was still fuming about the missile launch renege, it would play wonderfully into Pyongyang’s script. Not a good idea, and not likely to happen. Such “monitoring” agreements re-enforce what we have called North Korean exceptionalism; Pyongyang’s belief that they can dictate the terms of their relationship with the NPT and IAEA.