N. Korean Papers Detail Nuclear Program

A U.S. official says a preliminary review of thousands of documents shows North Korea has fully accounted for its plutonium development program. But the papers may not convince skeptics that the disarmament process is moving ahead.

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A top State Department official has returned from North Korea with seven boxes of documents. He says they seem to be a complete accounting of Pyongyang's plutonium production. U.S. negotiators are likely to use the documents to try to persuade skeptics in Washington that North Korea is moving ahead with the disarmament process.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has a report.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Government translators and nuclear experts are poring over the documents that Sung Kim lugged the back from Pyongyang. He's the head of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, and he brought one box into the briefing room today to give reporters a sense of the work ahead.

NORRIS: These are operating and production records for the five megawatt reactor and the reprocessing plant in Yangbian. They number 18,822 pages, 314 volumes.

KELEMEN: He said it appears they are a complete set, but he said documents alone aren't enough.

NORRIS: We will need to conduct a very full verification including access to their facilities, sampling interviews with personnel involved in the programs. But I - these documents are an important first step.

KELEMEN: North Korea says it has about 30 kilograms of plutonium, enough for roughly four or five nuclear bombs. Sieg Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos, previously estimated that North Korea has 40 to 50 kilograms of plutonium.

NORRIS: We're very uncertain about the early period, 1986 to 1992 or 3, and so we could be off in - by 10 kilograms or so. However, you know, we would need the records and need access, and that's the step they have now taken. So, it's an important step.

KELEMEN: The documents don't address U.S. concerns about a suspected uranium enrichment program, another path to the bomb, or concerns that North Korea has been sharing nuclear technology with countries like Syria. These issues have prompted critics of the nuclear deal with North Korea to urge the Bush administration to take a harder line.

U.S. officials say they are still expecting North Korea to address those issues. But Sieg Hecker, now at Stanford University, says the U.S. should keep focused on North Korea's plutonium.

NORRIS: Based on minor actions and visits with the North Korean, I believe that they are prepared to get rid of plutonium production in Yangbian. And so, we must go for that now. And not slow down the rest of the process until the critics, you know, get what they would like to get. And that is the complete declaration of everything now.

KELEMEN: John Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees. He says those who want to take a harder line on North Korea today forget that that is precisely what the Bush administration tried at first. He credits the administration for changing its approach.

NORRIS: What we have is an imperfect process, but one that at least has the potential to give us what we want, which is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. And as long as we have that opportunity, and unless there are other alternatives, I think we have no choice but to pursue the path we're on.

KELEMEN: There is still a lot of mistrust. North Korea has slowed down the disablement of its nuclear facilities at Yangbian, complaining that the U.S. and others have been slow to provide North Korea with fuel. And the U.S. hasn't taken North Korea off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. The State Department's Sung Kim said they brought up that issue again during his latest trip to Pyongyang.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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