There is a lot of hullaballo about North Korea reversing the disablement procedures at Yongbyon. I take the measures seriously as a signal by Pyongyang, but it is important to keep in mind that the substance of the reversal is quite limited.

As the news reports indicate, North Korea had completed eight of the eleven disablement steps. North Korea still had to finish unloading spent fuel rods from the reactor and then remove the reactor’s core. North Korea also had to dispose of fresh fuel rods (there was a debate about bending them or selling them to South Korea). (For more on the disablement steps, see: Hecker on Disablement.)

Three of the disablement steps involved the removal and storage of the following equipment from the Fuel Fabrication Facility: all three uranium ore concentrate dissolver tanks, all seven uranium conversion furnaces (including storage of refractory bricks and mortar sand), metal casting furnaces and the vacuum system, and eight machining lathes.

This equipment was placed in sealed storage, under monitoring, at the Yongbyon site. The United States had wanted to ship out of North Korea the removed components, but Pyongyang rejected this as dismantlement. Apparently, North Korea offered to store the components “anywhere in North Korea,” but the United States chose the Yongbyon site because the equipment was too contaminated to pollute a second site.

North Korea appears to have removed the seals from some or all of this equipment. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack does his best to explain to reporters precisely what is happening:

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, our understanding is that the North Koreans are moving some equipment around that they had previously put into storage. I don’t have a whole lot of details beyond that. Our monitors, our personnel are still on the ground, as are some IAEA personnel, and that’s why we have some real-time insight as to actually what it is that they’re doing.

[snip]

QUESTION: Are they trying to glue back together again the cooling tower? I mean, what – how significant is this movement of equipment?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, yeah, I’m not going to try to assess it from a technical standpoint, Matt, because I’m not a physicist. I, you know, can’t put together a nuclear reactor for you.

[snip]

QUESTION: But if I’m getting you right, you’re not, at this point, able to tell us from the podium that they – that the North Koreans are reassembling?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t give you that level of detail. To my knowledge, Matt, they – based on what we know from the reports on the ground, you don’t have an effort to reconstruct, reintegrate this equipment back into the Yongbyon facility. It has been taken out of where it was being stored, I guess, is the best way to put it at this point.

Obviously, removing the equipment from storage is a step backwards from disablement. But the keep in mind that all they have to do is put them back and let the monitors re-seal the equipment.

This seems like classic North Korean bargaining. First they slowed the unloading the fuel rods. When that didn’t result in the outcome they wanted, they’ve upped the ante by cutting the seals.

It seems pretty clear to me that North Korea expected Washington to follow-through on the commitment to removing Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (A story that Steve Clemons broke and then used to sandbag Dick Cheney.)

When that didn’t happen as expected in mid August, Pyonyang released a statement on August 26 that North Korea had halted disablement as a first step and, if it wasn’t delisted, it would soon begin to reverse the process:

Under the October 3 agreement stipulating the practical measures to be taken at the second phase for the implementation of the September 19 joint statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula the DPRK was committed to presenting a nuclear declaration and the U.S. was also committed to writing the DPRK off the list of the “state sponsors of terrorism.”

The DPRK has honored its commitment by presenting the nuclear declaration on June 26. But the U.S. failed to delist the DPRK as a “state sponsor of terrorism” within the fixed date for the mere “reason” that a protocol on the verification of the nuclear declaration has not yet been agreed upon. This was an outright violation of the agreement.

[snip]

Now that the U.S. breached the agreed points, the DPRK is compelled to take the following countermeasures on the principle of “action for action”:

First, the DPRK decided to immediately suspend the disablement of its nuclear facilities that had been underway according to the October 3 agreement.

This step took effect on August 14 and the parties concerned have already been notified of this.

Second, the DPRK will consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon to their original state as strongly requested by its relevant institutions.

We’re basically haggling over price — the North Koreans want to be de-listed for disablement, we want them to pay twice for that privilege: by disabling and accepting intrusive verification measures.