WASHINGTON – A preliminary review of thousands of nuclear documents turned over to the United States by North Korea indicates they appear to be a complete accounting of their plutonium production, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
While translation and analysis of the 18,822 Korean-language documents is still under way, officials said an early look indicates they include full details of North Korea's plutonium program dating back to 1986. The officials cautioned, however, that a full assessment is not done and experts are still poring through the files.
"It appears to be a complete set," said Sung Kim, the U.S. diplomat who traveled to North Korea to pick up the documents in seven large boxes and returned to Washington on Monday. He said a full review by an interagency team from the departments of State, Energy and intelligence organizations would take several weeks.
The documents include daily operational logs, production notes and receipts, he told reporters.
"These documents are an important first step," Kim said, but on their own are not enough to satisfy North Korea's obligation to fully account for its plutonium work, and to address allegations that it operated a separate uranium program and spread nuclear technology or material to countries such as Syria.
Kim said it is too soon to say when that complete record will be provided, but he sounded optimistic that the North is working on it. The United States said North Korea failed to provide a full accounting by a Dec. 31 2007 deadline, and six-nation disarmament talks have been stalled since.
Washington plans to scrutinize the technical logs from the North's main nuclear reactor to determine whether the regime is telling the truth about its atomic programs. Production of the records is a key element in the international effort to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Under an agreement last year with South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, the current phase of denuclearization obliges North Korea to declare and disable all its nuclear programs. It is to be followed by the third and final phase in which Pyongyang must give up all its fissile material.
The deal gives the North energy, economic and political incentives to give up weapons and the ability to make them.
Kim said the North has completed eight of 11 required steps to dismantle its reactor, but it appears to be deliberately slowing the pace of the remaining work. The North wants to make sure it gets fuel oil promised by other nations before it finishes the work, Kim said. At the current pace it will take several more months to disable the reactor, he said.
"We'd like to see it sped up," he said.
Earlier, a senior State Department official said the cache appeared to include "all the production records from the period. The initial assessment is that it looks pretty good, that they have pretty much given us what they said they were going to give us."
North Korea says the documents consist of operating records for the 5-megawatt reactor and fuel reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, where it had produced its stock of weapons-grade plutonium. These, combined with a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, constitute the facilities in Yongbyon.
The United States has said it will remove Pyongyang from a list of terror-sponsoring nations and exempt it from the Trading with the Enemy Act as the process of denuclearization moves forward.
Meanwhile, the White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration is discussing ways in which the United States might help get food aid to North Korea.
It's an issue that President Bush "talks about repeatedly, which is his concern for the humanitarian condition for the people of North Korea, many of whom are starving," Perino said. She said such assistance might be made possible through the auspices of non-governmental organizations or via a United Nations program.
Pyongyang "has been open in saying it faces a major shortage in food supplies," Perino said.
Perino also noted that U.S. officials have "had some useful discussions concerning the parameters of a program for the resumption of U.S. food assistance for the North Korean people."
The U.S. generally takes pains to keep the nuclear and food aid issues separate, saying food is a humanitarian issue that should not be linked to U.S. goals in other areas, but officials acknowledge that the North may not make the same distinction.
North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its 23 million people after its economy was devastated by natural disasters and mismanagement in the mid-1990s. As many as 2 million people are believed to have died from famine.
The food situation in the North worsened this year after a devastating flood swept the country last summer and South Korea's new conservative government stopped sending aid.
A previous offer of U.S. aid broke down over U.S. demands that it be able to monitor the distribution to ensure it reached the needy. The administration accuses the regime of widespread corruption. The North now seems more receptive to greater U.S. oversight, the official said.
The developments together suggest a better footing for the United States and North Korea after months of rancor and deadlock. Ridding the North of nuclear weapons that threaten Asia and, in theory, the U.S. West Coast, would give the Bush administration a foreign policy victory in its final year.