By reputation, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is said to have a fondness for foreign movies. It may be a decent bet that Groundhog Day ï¿½ the goofy 1993 film in which Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again ï¿½ is among them. The difference is, Murray does it in Punxsutawney, Pa., while Kim does it on the nuclear stage.
Recall that back in February, Kim's government agreed, during the so-called six-party talks, to shutter its Yongbyon nuclear plant within 60 days of signing what was then billed as a breakthrough agreement. In return, the North would get a variety of economic and diplomatic benefits. After several years of fruitless talks, this seemed like a major diplomatic victory for the Bush Administration and its partners ï¿½ Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. But Kim delayed moving on Yongbyon until the North got back more than $20 million that had been frozen in a Macau bank account ï¿½ funds the U.S. believes were tied to the North's various illicit businesses, like narcotics and arms sales. Only after making sure every penny was returned did the North abide by its agreement to shutter Yongbyon, months later.
This week, Kim seems to be playing the same game all over again, attempting to extract far more than was promised in exchange for reining in his nuclear program. On Monday, Chief U.S. envoy Christopher Hill announced after meetings with his counterpart Kim Kae Gwan in Geneva that North Korea had agreed to dismantle its entire nuclear apparatus by the end of the year. Hill said that it was the "first time" North Korea had put such a timetable on its commitment to stand down its entire nuclear program. (And indeed, precisely when the North would get rid of its entire nuclear program ï¿½ not just the Yongbyon reactor ï¿½ was not specified in the February agreement.)
But soon after Hill claimed victory, the North upped the ante, as it had in the case of the frozen bank assets. Kim Kae Gwan asserted that in his weekend talks with Hill, the U.S. had agreed to take Pyongyang off its annual list of state sponsors of terrorism. Itï¿½s a goal the North has long sought, and not just for face-saving reasons: membership on the list, alongside nations such as Iran and Syria, denies North Korea access to economic benefits like low-interest World Bank loans. The February agreement had held out the possibility of such a deal if Pyongyang followed through with denuclearization. But was it true? Hill, arriving in Sydney on Tuesday for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, flatly denied the U.S. had made such a bargain. "No, they haven't been taken off the terrorism list," he said. And with that, it was Groundhog Day again: the dispute gives the North another reason to dither and dissemble should it so choose. It can argue that it agreed to provide a full accounting of its nukes in return for being taken off the terrorist list," says one former South Korean diplomat.
The North is already getting some of the economic aid it was promised under the original agreement, so Kim may feel he has some room to pressure the U.S. over the terrorist sponsorship list. And the U.S.'s ability to push back may be limited. Much of the fuel and food aid Pyongyang is now getting comes from South Korea and China. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has no incentive to anger Kim now that the two have agreed to a summit in Pyongyang in October. And the Chinese, in this their glorious Olympic year, have already pocketed the idea that the North Korea issue is settled and done with. The last thing Beijing wants is a ruckus over who agreed to what and when.
For its part, the Bush Administration has clearly made the calculation that getting a verifiable agreement on the North's nuclear program is worth pretty much any diplomatic price. In this it may actually be right, assuming the North finally gets beyond Groundhog Day, tells the world exactly what it has, and then gets rid of it. That would be a serious diplomatic achievement. But we're not there yet. And that's why, sometime in the next few months, Washington might quietly strike North Korea off the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states ï¿½ and then cross its fingers and hope that that day, like many others before, doesn't return to haunt them.
1. U.S. and ElBaradei at Odds Over Iran's Nuclear Program
Elaine Sciolino and William J. Broad
International Herald Tribune
(for personal use only)
A report showing a slow but steady expansion of Iran's nuclear technology has exposed a new divide between UN arms inspectors and the United States and its allies over how to contain Tehran's atomic program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in its report Thursday that Tehran was being unusually cooperative in agreeing to answer questions about an array of suspicious nuclear activities that have led many nations to believe it is concealing an effort to make nuclear arms.
The report added that although Tehran's uranium enrichment effort is growing, the output is far less than what experts had expected.
"This is the first time Iran is ready to discuss all the outstanding issues which triggered the crisis in confidence," Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director general, said in an interview. "It's a significant step."
But the Bush administration and its allies, which have won sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council in an effort to stop uranium enrichment, saw the new report as more evidence of defiance, not cooperation.
"There is no partial credit here," Tom Casey, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said Thursday. "Iran has refused to comply with its international obligations and as a result of that, the international community is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure."
In Paris, Pascale Andreani, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that as long as Iran does not give a clear decision about suspending its enrichment activities, France will work with others to tighten the sanctions.
In the interview, ElBaradei stopped short of calling for a delay in the U.S.-led strategy to impose new sanctions, but said: "I'm clear at this stage you need to give Iran a chance to prove its stated goodwill. Sanctions alone, I know for sure, are not going to lead to a durable solution."
The agreement, announced Monday, laid out a timetable of cooperation. The goal was to wrap up by December nuclear issues that have been under investigation for four years. By then, ElBaradei said, the agency will know whether Iran was "serious" or "was trying to take us for a ride."
The report released Thursday, a quarterly update of Iran's nuclear activity, said it is operating nearly 2,000 centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, at its vast underground facility at Natanz, an increase of several hundred machines from three months ago. More than 650 additional centrifuges are being tested or are under construction, the agency said.
ElBaradei said he believes the Iranian leadership has decided to operate Natanz at less than full capacity. "They could have expanded much faster," he said. "Some say it's for technical reasons. My gut feeling is that it's primarily for political reasons."
ElBaradei emphasized that he "did not in any way give a blessing" to Iran's decision to proceed with uranium enrichment, a program that Security Council resolutions demand be frozen. But he has taken what he has called a realistic view that the world will have to accept that Iran will never halt the program and that the goal now must be to prevent it from expanding it to industrial-level production.
"It's difficult technology but it's not rocket science," he said. "Through a process of trial and error, you will have the knowledge."
Some in the Bush administration have charged that ElBaradei, whose agency is part of the United Nations, is operating outside of his mandate by striking the new agreement with Tehran. But he defended his move, saying: "My responsibility is to look at the big picture. If I see a situation deteriorating" and "and it could lead to a war, I have to raise the alarm or give my advice."
The evolving divide places ElBaradei in conflict with President George W. Bush, and not for the first time. The White House bristled in 2003 when ElBaradei reported there was no evidence to support claims that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. Later, the administration tried to oust ElBaradei from his job. But now the administration needs the Egyptian diplomat, because his agency's findings have formed the core of its case against Iran.
The conflict between the atomic agency and the United States and its allies centers on whether Iran should be afforded a modicum of trust after years of deception and lying about its nuclear efforts.
In its report, the IAEA said that Iran had recently provided fresh information to inspectors that resolved a series of questions about a part of its nuclear program that deals with plutonium, which can also be used as bomb fuel. After Iran resisted agency entreaties for two years, the agency officials said Tehran suddenly provided access to a key expert, documentation and other data that allowed agency officials to declare the plutonium questions answered to their satisfaction.
ElBaradei defended his new plan to get more answers from Iran, saying "there are clear deadlines so it's not - as some people are saying - an open- ended invitation to dallying with the agency or a ruse to prolong negotiations and avoid sanctions." Tehran, in turn, praised the agency, saying it had vindicated Iran.
"This report ended all the baseless U.S. accusations against Iran," Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted as saying by the state IRNA news agency. He said the agency had again confirmed the "validity of Iran's stances."
The move by ElBaradei reflects a shift in focus by the agency to treat Iran with less suspicion, an approach that has been criticized by U.S., French and British officials.
Iran, meanwhile, appears to have embarked on a new strategy to give the impression of full cooperation on resolving past issues and to shift the focus away from its current enrichment activities, thereby undermining a major argument for imposing new sanctions.
1. Britain in Top-Secret Work on New Atomic Warhead
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Scientists are secretly working on the design of a revamped British nuclear warhead.
The new device, designated the High Surety Warhead is understood to be under development at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire.
The top-secret project is being run in conjunction with US efforts to build a range of modernised "failsafe" nuclear firepower for its own submarine-launched Trident missiles.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) claims the research is a clear and cynical breach of international disarmament and non-proliferation treaties.
News of the research has leaked out less than a year after a succession of UK ministers denied plans to upgrade or refurbish the Royal Navy's existing stockpile of warheads, believed to number about 160 weapons.
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said in a Commons reply quoted by Hansard on December 18, 2006, that no such changes were likely "in the next five years". He then added that "decisions on whether and how we may need to refurbish or replace the warhead stockpile are likely to be necessary in the next parliament".
Insiders say the new warhead is the UK version of the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme which started more than two years ago at the US military's California and New Mexico nuclear laboratories.
The aim is to produce warheads which contain fewer degradable components, giving them a longer shelf-life, and to make them so dependable that none would have to be detonated in an underground explosion that would contravene the worldwide test ban in place since 1998.
The UK is meanwhile in the process of investing almost ï¿½2.2bn in the Aldermaston site to equip it with a state-of-the-art Cray supercomputer codenamed Larch and a laser codenamed Orion to help model nuclear explosions in place of live testing. The supercomputer, bought with ï¿½20m of taxpayers' money, is so fast that the six billion inhabitants of the planet would have to make 7000 calculations each per second to keep pace with it.
A programme to hire scientists, physicists and engineers is also under way at the 750-acre site. Recent recruitment adverts included the post of "warhead electrical engineers".
John Ainslie, Scottish CND's co-ordinator, said yesterday: "Dr Strangelove is alive and well and working at Aldermaston. A lot of money and research is going into the design of the warheads, no matter what is said in parliament. Everything is geared towards making the weapons more reliable and more accurate. That contravenes every aim of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It's impossible to be working towards the goal of nuclear disarmament while you're in the business of producing better ones for your own forces."
An MoD spokesman said: "No decisions on any replacement for Trident have yet been taken and there is no programme to build a successor warhead."
1. Canada Silent as Nuclear Energy Partnership with US, Australia, Others Takes Shape
The Canadian Press
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When Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs for Australia on Tuesday for a summit of pan-Pacific leaders, he'll be carrying with him a secret agenda that is quite literally radioactive.
Harper will face questions from both Australian Prime Minister John Howard and U.S. President George W. Bush over Canada's participation in a sweeping American-led initiative still in its infancy.
The initiative, called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, proposes that nuclear energy-using countries and uranium-exporting countries band together in a new nuclear club to promote and safeguard the industry.
Central to the plan is a proposal that all used nuclear fuel be repatriated to the original uranium exporting country for disposal.
That should be big news in Canada, the world's largest uranium producer.
But to date, the Canadian government's response is a closely guarded secret. In fact, there's been virtually no public debate at all.
This weekend in Sydney when Harper sits down with the 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, the nuclear question will hover like a plume.
That's because climate change and energy policy are a key item on the agenda, and most of the GNEP's major proponents, including the United States, China, Japan and Russia, are at the table.
Bush and Howard will sign a bilateral nuclear technology pact before the main summit. In Australia, where Harper shares an ideological soul-mate in Howard, the debate over the GNEP has raged for more than a year. Ausralia and Canada are the world's biggest uranium exporters and the GNEP threatens to become an election issue this fall as opposition parties charge the country is in danger of becoming a "radioactive dump."
Yet Harper's minority Conservative government clearly does not want to engage the Canadian public in any discussion about the initiative.
At a pre-APEC briefing last week, one of the prime minister's most senior officials, flanked by his director of communications Sandra Buckler, carefully skirted a question on the GNEP.
"It doesn't feature on the APEC agenda, per se," said the official. "Whether the initiative has disappeared off the global agenda or the U.S. agenda, I really can't say."
The next day, in response to a separate and unrelated media inquiry, a spokesperson from Foreign Affairs confirmed Canada has been invited to a Sept. 16 meeting in Vienna to discuss the initiative.
"Canada has been invited to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and to participate in the next meeting scheduled to take place on September 16 in Vienna," said the official.
"Canada is reviewing the proposed GNEP Statement of Principles and a decision on Canadian participation will be made shortly."
That carefully neutral response - which left Canadian attendance in doubt barely a fortnight before the Vienna meeting - stands in contrast to earlier draft "talking points" obtained by The Canadian Press under an Access to Information request.
Those heavily censored documents show much greater enthusiasm.
"Canada is very interested in examining potential areas for partnership in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) given that we are the world's largest uranium producer," said one undated talking point from 2006.
The same memo continues: "Canadian officials . . . have begun discussions with their counterparts in the U.S. to consider possible parameters of Canadian involvement."
As recently as April 7 this year, Peter Harder, the then-assistant deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, was corresponding with Robert Van Adel, the president of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., about the partnership plan.
As Van Adel wrote, the initiative "if implemented, would have significant technical and commercial implications for Canada, which need to be assessed."
Internal government correspondence also indicates the nuclear initiative was on the agenda at the 2006 meeting between Harper, President Bush and then-Mexican president Vicente Fox in Mexico, and again at the 2006 G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Neither Harper nor his officials made any public mention of the GNEP before or after these high-profile summits.
Contrast that to Australia.
Last week, Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, publicly stated "it makes a lot of sense for Australia to be involved," and suggested the country would participate in the Sept. 16 meeting.
Liberal MP David McGuinty, the Opposition environment critic, excoriated the Conservative government for its secrecy.
"This is the kind of subterfuge and hidden agenda that the government has on such an important issue," said McGuinty. "It's not intending to bring it to the floor of the House of Commons. We've never had notice of it. There's been no White Paper. There's been no discussion.
"It's time for them to come clean on this."
Bernard Bigras, environment critic for the Bloc Quebecois, noted Ontario and New Brunswick already have issues with dealing with nuclear waste from domestic reactors.
"We have a big problem here in Canada and in the world: how can we manage the waste produced by nuclear (energy)?"
A German engineer was given a suspended 18-year jail sentence by a South African court on Tuesday after pleading guilty to involvement in a global black market in atomic weapons technology.
Gerhard Wisser, resident in South Africa, was accused of having ties to a network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced father of Pakistan's atomic bomb who has admitted giving nuclear secrets to nations under international embargo.
The case was part of an international effort to crack what prosecutors said was a trade network that helped Libya, North Korea and Iran skirt sanctions in their quest for nuclear technology.
In a deal with prosecutors, 68-year-old Wisser pleaded guilty to forgery and to manufacturing and exporting autoclaves and other components that could be used in nuclear weapons programmes in Pakistan and Libya.
Three other charges were set aside.
As part of the sentence, Wisser will serve three years under house arrest, the court said. He also agreed to forfeit 2.8 million euros ($3.8 million) and 6 million rand ($825,000) as proceeds from his crimes and to cooperate with authorities.
"I fully agree with the conditions ... yes I understand the charges," Wisser told the High Court judge, Joop Labuschagne.
Wisser's lawyer, Ben Bredenkamp, said he was happy with the outcome of the case.
"I'm very pleased because he's not going to jail. He's got all these suspended sentences and the correctional supervision, which is house arrest, so I'm obviously very pleased about that," he said.
South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) agreed Wisser's sentence be suspended for five years.
"The NPA regards the conviction as a significant step in combating nuclear proliferation networks," the NPA said in a statement shortly after the plea deal was entered in a court in Pretoria.
South Africa, which voluntarily dismantled its own nuclear weapons programme before the end of the apartheid era in 1994, was among 20 countries named by the United Nations' atomic agency as recipients of Khan's atomic secrets.
Swiss citizen Daniel Geiges, an engineer who was charged along with Wisser, is due to appear in court on Sept. 21 to face similar charges. A third man arrested in the case, Johan Meyer, turned state witness.
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