This New York Times story quotes fromer SecDef William J. Perry as saying "There was a brief window to catch this plutonium before it was made into bomb fuel. It's gone. It's out of the barn now."
Recalling a few key truths about the situation can add a much needed objective view.
Perry cites a "brief window" to "catch this plutonium before it was made into bomb fuel." He's referring to spent fuel rods which were kept in a cooling pond in the Yongbyon facilities (pictured above). The rods posed a threat because they could be re-processed into weapons-grade plutonium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.
Under the vaunted Agreed Framework, North Korea was to "cooperate" in "safely" storing and disposing of the fuel. Many people think the "agreement" regarding the fuel rods, was that the U.S. was to send nuclear experts to help measure, label, and place the rods in dry storage. The IAEA was to keep them under seal. That's true, but that's not the full extent of the agreement.
The AF was essentially a broad and vague memorandum of understanding, which was later fleshed out by a series of KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization)agreements. One such agreement contained a clause stating explicitly that the fuel rods would be taken out of the DPRK. (Supply Agreement KEDO-DRPK 1995, Annex 3, Point 9.) Some five years later, not a single fuel rod of the 8,000 total had been shipped out of the country.
Five years doesn't sound like a "brief window" and those fuel rods didn't just get "out of the barn now." Also, since cooperation with the IAEA was lacking, there never was a definitive estimate of plutonium that may have been generated for a nuclear weapon before the Agreed Framework was signed.
So billions were spent in "diplomatic rewards" only for the real prize -the fuel rods that can be re-processed into weapons-grade plutonium - to be left behind, stored conveniently in containers suitable for shipping. Perhaps to North Korea weapons customers like Iran or Syria. The CIA doesn't even know if all the rods (and any re-processed plutonium) remained in North Korea or if some was sold.
"Your guess is as good as mine," a CIA spokeswoman told me last week. And yet we are supposed to believe the "Agreed Framework" was a diplomatic masterpiece and triumph?
I would also take issue with this murky statement from the same article: "The plutonium that North Korea exploded was produced, according to intelligence estimates, either during the administration of the first President Bush or after 2003, when the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel the inspectors had kept under seal." Somehow absolutely no plutonium was generated between 1992-1995? How would we know when a complete and accurate assessment was never carried out by IAEA?
If you'd like to know more about why the fuel rods were left behind, I'll have more on this in the December issue of The New Individualist magazine. Email me if you'd like a free copy.