The nuclear power plant that North Korea has agreed to shut down in return for oil and other concessions is in such poor operating condition that Pyongyang may not be unhappy to give it up, according to informants who have been in North Korea or who have access to intelligence reports.
The informants said the plant’s thick walls are crumbling, its machinery is rusting, and maintenance of the electric power plant, roads, and warehouses that sustain the nuclear facility has been neglected. North Korea’s impoverished economy, they surmised, just cannot support the operation.
Moreover, the North Korean plant’s technology is 50 years old and obsolete. It was acquired, possibly by Russian spies, by the Soviet Union from the British in the 1950s, then passed to North Korea in the 1980s.
No U.S. or U.N. official has visited the plant at Yongbyon since International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were barred from the site 60 miles north of Pyongyang in 2002, although the facility presumably is monitored by spy satellites.
The last Americans known to have visited the site were members of a civilian team that was shown evidence in January 2004 that used nuclear fuel had been removed from a cooling pond — presumably for reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium.
Most experts think North Korea has extracted enough fuel from the site to produce up to a dozen nuclear devices, and that the material was used to conduct a partially successful nuclear weapons test in October last year.
“The reactor, storage pond and reprocessing facility were all functional” at that time, Jack Pritchard, a special envoy for negotiations with North Korea until September 2003 and a member of that team, said this week.
“They reminded [Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and another member of the team] of 1950s Soviet stuff, but still operational.”
Mr. Pritchard said a separate 50-megawatt reactor under construction nearby “looked dilapidated, and I have my non-technical doubts about the North Koreans’ ability to restart construction.”
North Korea agreed in a landmark Feb. 13 agreement with the United States and four other countries to shut down and eventually dismantle the Yongbyon reactor in exchange for deliveries of heavy fuel oil or the equivalent, and other inducements.
The deal, which reproduced some elements of an earlier agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration, angered some past and present members of the Bush administration including former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, who had served earlier as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Some of those U.S. officials, who declined to be identified while criticizing the administration, have cited assessments of the Yongbyon plant’s condition to argue that North Korea has given up very little in exchange for substantial benefits, which also include talks on diplomatic normalization with the United States.
A State Department official familiar with the negotiations with North Korea rejected that argument, saying in Washington that the Yongbyon plant remained dangerous regardless of its condition.
“The North Koreans are not rolling in money. It is true that the plant was built some time ago with not very modern technology. It is not pretty, but they do seem to be able to use it to do some very dangerous things,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The official said the U.S. intelligence community thinks North Korea has reprocessed fuel from the facility into weapons-grade plutonium, which was used in the October weapons test.
“So the idea that this facility doesn’t seem to pose a real threat has been implicitly disputed” by those intelligence assessments, the official said.
Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Seoul.